On a clear, bitterly cold day, Chris Merdon drives his SUV along bumpy dirt roads through acres of farmland just off Frederick Road in Ellicott City.
Red Angus and Black Angus cattle in a pasture, huddled together for warmth, break away from one another and sidle close to the fence separating them from the road. Merdon points out a steer set for the slaughterhouse later in the week.
Roughly half a mile from the cattle pasture on the opposite side of the road, a run-in shed shelters 20 or so Hereford Heritage pigs. More active than the cattle, they scurry from their huddled closeness, running to the fence, sniffing around, oinking in low grunts and, for the most part, frolicking around the black walnut trees planted by the dozens to provide shade from the summer sun.
Farther along both sides of the road, brick barns and outbuildings house the livestock, including chickens in the spring.
In the sun-drenched distance, a recently restored mansion is a regal reflection of Georgian architecture. No ordinary farm operation, the house and its 892 acres of farmland are known as Doughoregan Manor, once the property of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Approximately 263 acres on the property are set aside to raise the cattle, pigs and chickens, in a year-old enterprise called Carroll Farm-To-Table, owned and operated, in part, by Camilla Carroll, a direct descendant of this Founding Father and a resident of the manor house with her husband, Stephen Blaes.
Carroll Farm-To-Table raises livestock for slaughter in much the same fashion as Charles Carroll did in Colonial America, before hormones, antibiotics and any number of additives affected the meat’s quality and taste. The idea blossomed when Chris Merdon, now a co-owner, took a farm tour last year. He was interested in raising farm animals on the property, and Carroll, who says she’d always wanted to raise livestock as her ancestors did, suggested the two do so together.
“I asked if he’d like to partner with me to raise bison, and Michelle [Melotti, Merdon’s wife] and Stephen [Blaes] then became partners, too,” says Carroll. “We obviously didn’t stick with the bison idea, but we really like how things turned out.”
A wild life for livestock
Today, Carroll Farm-To-Table caters to locals who care about the way their food once lived.
“We want people to eat our meats knowing that while the animal was alive, it was living the life it deserved, not being mass-produced or pumped full of chemicals,” Carroll says.
Merdon agrees. With his background raising farm animals, he’s responsible for care of the livestock, purchasing the animals and breeding them.
The farmer says the animals “live a life like they would if they were in the wild,” as opposed to being confined to small pens or crowded warehouses, common practices for large-scale farming operations. At Carroll Farm-To-Table, the pigs roam the woods on the property, the cattle are raised in pastures and all the chickens are free-range.
Camilla Carroll, who calls herself the “vanguard of the actual farm stand,” says every piece of beef, pork and poultry is sold on the land where the animals were raised. Carroll is also responsible for working with the butchers, making sure all orders are filled and correct. The pigs and cattle are slaughtered and packaged at USDA-inspected facilities — the pork at Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy, Pa., and the beef at Old Line Custom Meat Co. in Baltimore. The owners are licensed to slaughter and package the chickens on the farm.
Stephen Blaes is primarily responsible for construction-related activities. He built the farm stand, makes repairs to the farm buildings and recently purchased and installed a walk-in freezer.
“Before the walk-in freezer, we were limited to about six hogs or a full steer and two hogs,” Merdon explains. “Now we can probably store about 60 hogs — a total of 10,000 pounds of meat.”
Michelle Melotti handles the financial aspects of the operation as CFO.
A hard day’s work
The day-to-day operation of the farm is not without its rough spots.
“Weather is always the biggest challenge,” Merdon says. “The animals can generally stand the cold weather, but … their health will decline if they don’t have shelter to block the cold wind.”
That means constant maintenance to keep shelters waterproof and weatherproof.
Then there are the logistical challenges. Planning is key. It takes about a year and a half to ready the cattle for butchering. Add to that the foresight to execute future needs.
“Even when we bring cattle to the butcher, the meat is hung for three weeks, and so we have to know a month ahead of time what we are going to need a month from now,” Merdon says.
The calves are bought at 500 pounds from Majestic Meadows in West Friendship. They are then raised to between 1,400 and 1,600 pounds. The pigs, on the other hand, are easier to raise.
“When you’re breeding a cow, you only get one calf, but with the pig you’re getting anywhere from eight to 12 piglets, and they only take a total of six months to be butcher-ready,” Merdon says.
In terms of pricing out their meats, the cost, they say, is comparable to other businesses that raise their livestock in the same way.
Today, as in Colonial times, it’s all about taste. The owners of Carroll Farm-To-Table say their chicken meat is less fatty and greasy because the animals can move about freely and have a healthier diet. The same holds true of the pork and beef; all the livestock are raised on fresh, natural feed that includes mushrooms, bugs, grass, nuts and berries, to name a few.
On that clear, cold day, Michael O’Halloran, 67, and his brother Brendan, 50, approach the farm stand, where every imaginable cut of meat — spare ribs, bacon, filet, sausage, you name it — is packaged and at the ready in two freezers.
“We came for grass-fed beef and the Heritage pork,” says Brendan O’Halloran. “The store-bought has no taste.”
“You’ll never taste sausage like this; just like you remember when you were little,” Michael O’Halloran adds.
The people keep coming to the farm stand. Customers are queuing up now, moving in place to keep warm. The stand is open 12 months a year and sells “on demand” during off hours. Carroll Farm-To-Table will also fill customer requests.
“If we don’t have a cut you want, we’ll make sure we get it for next time,” Carroll says.
Though Carroll has been asked whether she’d open another farm stand elsewhere in the county, she says she has no immediate plans to do so.
“While I wouldn’t discount that possibility outright, I love being able to say we grow our meat and sell it right here on the farm,” she says. “That’s about as local as you can get, and it means a lot to us and our customers.”
“Most of our customers live within five miles of our farm,” Merdon adds.
Carroll, who rents out the remaining 600-plus acres for the farming of corn and soy, finds great satisfaction in the 21st-century use of her inheritance.
“I hope all my ancestors are watching and are proud of me because they would have wanted to use every single inch of the land,” she says.