Revival Foods: Land of the Lost

Imke lass
by Chris Dixon - Georgia - August/September 2013

How one farmer has traveled the South to find and save the disappearing breeds of our past—one goat, sheep, cow, pig, and goose at a time

This existence is something Taylor never imagined as a geography undergrad at the University of Georgia in the early nineties. He came of age in Sandy Springs, an Atlanta suburb, when many Atlanta backyards still abutted huge swaths of forest and a BB-gun-toting kid could live like a junior Mark Trail. As it happened, Taylor’s home actually abutted Lost Forest, 130 acres near the Chattahoochee River owned by Mark Trail cartoonist Edward Dodd. At North Springs High, Taylor became a skateboarding punk rocker. “If somebody had told me on the night I went to see Nirvana at the 40 Watt that I’d one day own a farm, I’d have said, ‘That’s completely insane,’” he says, laughing. “I also might as well admit it now: I was a vegetarian for seventeen years. I’d make chicken-fried tofu.”

After graduating, several years in the geographical mapping field led Taylor and his Carolina-bred wife into a lucrative five-year resettlement in Redlands, California, outside of L.A. But over time, he grew homesick, seeking out Southern food and finding solace in Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. “I’d listen to the extended version of ‘Whipping Post’ on vinyl next to my pool, thinking, ‘This is great, but something’s missing.’”

He and his wife returned to the South in 2004, moving to Savannah when he learned he could make solid money implementing open-source software for businesses. Once settled, he bought a German shorthaired pointer, named her Julep, and, though he’d never ridden a horse, became obsessed with field trials. Placing second at the amateur national pointing dog championships begat the purchase of this big slice of Sylvania hunting land, and an ongoing dialogue with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which focuses on saving heritage breeds. “I said, ‘I’m thirty-eight. What can I do, and keep my day job? Well, I’m gonna launch a heritage farm start-up.’ It’s also, unfortunately, well understood that such entrepreneurism causes marital issues.”

After his divorce, Taylor commenced a fanatical hunt for heirloom animals and founded a company called Revival Foods to promote their breeding and consumption. He scoured the Internet for books, and called on farmers along Southeastern back roads, often stopping at a house simply because he spotted a goat with curved horns that might suggest an heirloom strain. Eventually, he tapped into a loose, somewhat secretive confederacy whose pre–Civil War ancestors weren’t planters, but rather Scotch-Irish “yeoman cracker farmers,” as Taylor calls them, or West African–descended cattle drovers. Aided by Marsh Tackies and Catahoula Leopard dogs (which Taylor also now owns), these antebellum cowboys ran huge herds of cattle, goats, sheep, and hogs through the pine barren wilderness that once stretched from Manteo, North Carolina, to Orlando to New Orleans to Houston.

“These farmers who’ve sold me livestock, they’re such good people,” Taylor says. “I’ll get a call: ‘If you want these hogs, come get ’em or they’re going to the butcher.’ To others, these animals are part of their family, a link to a forgotten history. Most only operate face to face, no e-mail, and they’re cash only. One man I bought cattle from wouldn’t accept fifty-dollar bills because they had Grant’s face on them.”

One day in 2012, Taylor found himself captivated by a Savannah-based TEDx talk given by Compton, a nutritionist, a cofounder of Slow Food Savannah, and a walk-on member of Clemson’s 1999 basketball team who had built working relationships with other heritage farmers and chefs. Taylor asked her if she might be interested in helping him introduce Pineywoods beef to potential customers. “The next thing I know,” she says, “we’re traveling on a Choctaw hog–calling trip to Petal, Mississippi. Three days later, we met Justin B. Pitts. We stood out there for three hours, slapping bugs and talking to him about everything from his animals to Southern history to how the Kardashians were destroying America.”

“Justin’s six-four and weighs probably two ninety,” says Taylor about the forty-six-year-old Mississippi farmer, who has helped keep the flame of heirloom livestock alive. “He lives simultaneously in the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. We do too, but he’s a whole ’nother level; just this force of raw, primal Southern-ness.”

 “We went back to visit Justin with Cayden to get some bulls,” Compton says. “He wanted Cayden to help him get some ducks into the chicken house, and Cayden was only just out of the suburbs. Justin said to him, ‘You did a pretty good job—for a city girl.’ Then he said, ‘Boy, I think you need a rooster to wake you up in the morning, and you need some Game hens, too.’ That’s how we got our first ones.”

Gradually, Pitts sold Taylor much of his stock. “Bradley just showed up one day,” Pitts says when I later contact him. “He wasn’t a farmer, just a guy with some land. Said he wanted to buy some starter animals from me. He was lost in the high weeds, but I felt there was a genuineness to him. I’ve been fooled before—one guy I dealt with in Georgia was more useless than tits on a boar hog—but I gambled on Bradley, and I think it was a hand well played. He wound up with damn near everything I had.”

Even with the know-how they’ve gleaned from Pitts and others, Taylor and Compton know the logistical forces they’re up against. It’s hard to make a living in livestock, especially if you’re determined to avoid raising unnaturally fattened, feedlot-engineered animals. Taylor cites a grim statistic a local banker revealed to him. In the mid-1980s, Screven County (where LJ Woods is located) had eight hundred family farms. Today there are around forty. “The margins are so small,” Taylor says. “That’s why concentrated animal feeding farms were born, where they’re being funneled bioengineered corn and standing in their own poop.”

Despite these economic headwinds, Taylor seeks to establish a conservation-based model that reduces a farmer’s costs enough to compete with factory farms. While Compton preaches the dietary benefits of Pineywoods beef and Ossabaw pork, which are loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, Taylor works with clients and obsesses over farming problems with the mind of a programmer: How many animals can an acre of land support? How long does it take an acre of grazed habitat to recover? “If we can figure out this model, so that other farmers can do this and raise these heritage breeds,” Compton says, “that’s just so huge.”

They’re not the only ones with a stake in the farm’s success. “Bradley sees the very big picture,” says Sean Brock. “The Ossabaw hog, it makes the best country ham and charcuterie imaginable. Pineywoods cattle, we’re doing trials at the restaurant. The most delicious and tender are the younger animals, and that’s good news for people who want to breed them, because the older an animal gets, the more you have to feed it. The other thing is, these animals are compatible with the terroir of the region—the climate, the history, the landscape. You can’t taste the Lowcountry on a corn-fed Texas cow.”

Our golf-cart entourage arrives at a semiforested enclosure that holds a flock of bare-faced Gulf Coast sheep, sharing space with small heifers with beautifully striped horns and a strapping yellow bull. Only four or five hundred of these Pineywoods cattle exist. Several newborn calves roam this recently thinned pine forest with their mothers, one of whom not long ago returned to the farm after spending months in the woods contentedly foraging, wild and free.

These animals and this habitat, called silvopasture, demonstrate the elegant natural balance Taylor hopes to maintain. “This partial clearing mimics the old longleaf habitat—keep enough pines to give shade, but allow sunlight through to support the growth of forage so the cows can graze,” he explains. “Then you have a border edge for wildlife and other forage. The animals eat muscadine vines, oak leaves, acorns, pecans, even pine needles. In the swampy areas, they eat this stuff called canebrake, and they’ll manage your timberland—sweet gums and hardwood saplings you’d normally have to kill with fire or herbicides. Their manure also creates soil amendments—fertilizer.

“In the end,” Taylor continues, carefully petting a yellow heifer between the horns, “I don’t want to see these animals go to some commodities market, where the story of the breed and all that we’re trying to do here is lost. I want them ending up on the plate with someone who’s going to do them justice—with someone who can say, Let me tell you about this cow. This cow goes back over a hundred years to a man by the name of Print Carter, who, after he got out of the Confederate Army, swam a small herd of native cows across the Pearl River and into Mississippi, where the next six generations of his family raised their descendants. And somehow a computer nerd from Atlanta got ahold of them, and is trying to sell them to James Beard–nominated chefs in Charleston.

“I really don’t know if this is going to work,” he says with a smile. “But I have to try.”