One of the first things I realize upon meeting Revival Foods founder Bradley Taylor is that he is as much a historian as he is a farmer. "People tell me, you don't have a farm, you have a museum," he jokes.
In a way, that's true. Taylor raises heritage breeds of cows, goats, sheep, and pigs on 680 acres in Sylvania, Ga., about two and a half hours from Charleston. They're the mammalian equivalent of an heirloom tomato — old, rare varieties that are no longer widely cultivated. Taking a tour of the farm is like going back in time and traveling into the wilderness with an extremely knowledgeable guide.
There are the three small, hardy Lowcountry goats, for example, that are the first generation to be taken off a local island where they ran wild for the past 40 years. "There are only 15 to 20 of these around," says Taylor. "We have them as part of a conservation effort."
Then there are the cotton patch geese, which were used to weed cotton fields before the advent of herbicides. "Cotton growers would turn them loose and they would eat all the weeds, but not the cotton, and they'd also provide meat," he tells me. "There are very, very few left — one or two hundred, if that."
Even the guard dogs here are an old, rare species. To protect the goats, Taylor has three Karakachan puppies, an ancient Bulgarian breed that was nearly exterminated when that country's Communist Party nationalized the farming industry in the 1940s.
And these animals are only the beginning of what you'll find on Taylor's LJ Woods Farm. The geese, dairy goats, and game hens are all there by happenstance or for the family's own use, and there are only a few of them. The real reason for LJ Woods Farm is the herds of Pineywoods cattle, Lowcountry sheep, Spanish goats, and Choctaw and Ossabaw Island pigs that Taylor breeds and raises for meat.
Despite the huge selection of species and breeds that you'll find here, most all the animals on the farm have two things in common. One, they're regionally adapted to Southern geography and climate. And two, they're endangered. Taylor wants to ensure the survival of these specially evolved breeds, and the most surefire way to do that, counterintuitive as it sounds, is to get people eating them.
An IT guy by training, Taylor left the tech world for a new, rural life not simply because he wanted to farm, but because of his passionate interest in heritage breeds. There are plenty of fascinating tidbits he can tell you about why these animals are important, from their natural resistance to disease to the insight they give into traditional Southern herdsman culture, but overall it boils down to a few major points. Heritage breeds have their own unique stories because of their strong historic ties to the land. Their regional adaptations make them more self-sufficient than commercial breeds, which in turn makes them far more environmentally friendly than your typical commercial livestock. And finally, they provide a wide variety of taste, unlike commercially farmed animals.
It's those three factors that spurred Taylor to start LJ Woods Farm and to found Revival Foods, which is the farm's distribution arm. "We kind of have three prongs here," he says. "One is conservation, which is to say that biodiversity is inherently valuable. We've shown that in other ecologies. It's the same with livestock."
While anyone who passed sixth grade science knows that wider gene pools equal healthier organisms — just think of mutts versus purebred dogs — industrial livestock farming operates almost on the opposite principle. Factory farmed cows or sheep or goats are bred for uniformity, so that they grow at the same rate and taste the same when they're butchered. In the process, they lose their natural defenses and adaptations. "All the survivability has been bred out of them," Taylor says. "That's why you have chickens and pigs being raised indoors, and cows being injected with steroids and antibiotics."
Taylor's animals, on the other hand, are quite literally in their element when they're wandering through his woods and pasture. The cattle, in particular, evolved to live in the pine forests and savannahs, rather than on lush grass. "Ninety percent of [our breeds] are regionally adapted to Southern climates. So they're adapted to the bugs and the worms, the heat, the humidity, all those kinds of things," Taylor says. "That means they need less input from us. There's less overhead and labor from us taking care of them, which keeps the price of food down, and you get healthier, happier animals ... There is an undeniable peace you feel when you're among them."
One of the most noticeable indicators that these breeds are indeed healthier and hardier is their tendency to be excellent mothers. When I was visiting, the farm had just gone through the annual baby boom and calves, kids, and lambs were everywhere. At a commercial farm, this would mean that the farmhands had spent days assisting with births, working to make sure mother and baby made it through the process alive. Commercial breeds have been tampered with to the point that they just aren't suited to natural birth, and their maternal instincts are often muted or nonexistent.
But that's not the case with Taylor's animals. For the most part, these mamas have everything under control, birthing and raising their babies with minimal human interference. And this brings up a striking point: Do we really want to be eating animals that are so far removed from their natural state, they can't even procreate successfully on their own?
Though Taylor obviously cares a great deal about all the breeds he raises, it's safe to say that the largest part of his heart belongs to his Pineywoods cattle. He obtained his from one of the most outspoken advocates for the breed, Justin Pitts, and when Pitts decided to take a break from farming, he passed the rest of his herd — and a healthy dose of responsibility for the breed's continuance — on to Taylor. Taylor's recently started working with a rare breeds geneticist to develop a breeding program for the cattle.
Part of the Pineywoods' appeal is their well-documented history. The cattle can be traced back, sometimes without interruption, to individual 19th-century Southern families. "There are 20-something different lines of Pineywoods cattle, all named after the families that raised them. Five or six of them are completely extinct," he says. "Some of my cattle, the Carter line, can be traced back uninterrupted to 1870, when a guy named Print Carter bought a herd of red-colored cattle after he got out of the Confederate army, swam them across the Pearl River into Mississippi, and developed and kept that line of cows going up until right now. His great-great-grandson Charlie Carter has the last of them." Except, of course, for the ones that are calmly grazing among the pine trees on Taylor's land.
So what happens to these animals once they've been slaughtered and butchered? Right now, they go almost exclusively to chefs like Craig Deihl and Sean Brock, both of whom are able to devote the time and expense necessary to working with Taylor to figure out how the animals are best utilized. "We did a steak tasting of different ages of animals with [Brock] in the McCrady's kitchen, and said, let's determine what age is appropriate for these animals," says Taylor. "For a commercial animal it's around 30 months. But these other breeds, they don't play by the rules." What they found was that the age that made for the best steak was fairly young, which means it was also fairly small. "So the question becomes, is that really the best use of this animal? It might be at this point in their history that their job is to produce this humanely raised veal. [We do] a pastured veal, so it's with its mother for most of its life, until 10 months," he continues. "It's got a mix in flavor between lamb and a rich mature beef. That's a unique thing. That's a new flavor."
That's what Taylor jokingly refers to as "meat terroir," or the fact that different breeds produce meat with different flavors. "Part of being an enthusiastic eater is having that palate. You can go to the store and you can buy six different kinds of apples, but you can't buy six different types of beef. So that brings us back to the other part, the history, the idea of tying it back to the regionalness. This is the meat that the people who built Charleston and Savannah ate, this is what it tasted like." Just like biodiversity, that experience of history, of uniqueness in flavor, has its own inherent value.
By working with chefs through Revival Foods, Taylor hopes to ensure that animals like the Pineywoods cow and the Ossabaw hog develop the commercial viability that will encourage other farmers to take up the cause of heritage breeds. "What about the Florida Cracker cow, and the Devon, and all these other rare breeds of cattle? Can we create a market for them, and develop this idea of breed-specific artisanal meat?"
Judging from Taylor's drive and determination, I'd say the outlook is pretty good.
Learn more about Taylor and his heritage breeds at revivalfoods.com and keep an eye out for him to pop up in Charleston on occasion to sell cuts of meat out of his coolers.