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Counting sheep: When his job as a broker got him down, Keith Martin picked himself up and headed for the farm

Sunday, August 27, 2000

.By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

Nothing could be as perfect as the Elysian Fields, the mythological plain on the banks of a river, a place filled with wonder and contentment where good Greeks went for eternity. But come around the corner in Crayne's Run Road in Greene County and discover a little slice of heaven at Keith and Mary Martin's sheep farm.

  Sheep follow Keith Martin for a taste of the custom ration he feeds them on his Greene County farm near Waynesburg. Lambs from Martin's Elysian Fields Farms are sold to some of Pittsburgh's finest restaurants. Martin and his lamb were featured in "The French Laundry Cookbook," which the International Association of Culinary Professionals named "Cookbook of the Year." (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

First the weathered gray barn, then the Martins' 1873 farmhouse come into view. Keith Martin took a roundabout route to arrive at these deep green hills, where a flock of his sheep, with their bleats a coda to the afternoon breeze, now stand in the shade of the barn or under a maple tree they share with a bay horse. A rope swing hangs from one of the circa-1900 live oak trees in front of the house Keith and Mary share with their two children.

It seems fitting that the name for the Greeks' idea of eternal bliss has become the Martins' brand name: Elysian Fields Farms Lamb.

The name arrived in Greene County not on the wings of a dove but in a hotel room where Mary, a flight attendant for US Airways, was on a layover. She was leafing through the "Dictionary of Cultural Literary" when she came on the name. She doesn't even remember where she had flown on that midweek trip, but she does remember thinking, "Elysian Fields -- this sounds perfect."

The name was as prophetic as it was practical, but making it real -- and profitable -- has been the farm family's business.

But we're getting ahead of the story.

This is about the investment broker who left his job as a Parker/Hunter assistant vice president to became a farmer, how entrepreneurship and nitty-gritty hard work turned a rocky start into a thriving business, how his lamb came to be shipped across the country to The French Laundry in Napa Valley, arguably the best restaurant in America.

"I have a twin brother," says Keith. "He thought I was nuts."

He admits it wasn't an easy transition. Two or three months after he left Parker/Hunter, he landed in the hospital for 11 days with a virus of unknown origin. "After such a drastic change, it was a very rough start, the stresses of starting a farm, knowing how much work was on top of me," he says.

Related stories:

Developing methods to assure that lamb is always in season

Top chefs demand the best lamb ... and they get it in Western Pennsylvania

Suzanne Martinson: Love for lamb is deliciously wild and woolly


Today, sheep farmer Keith Martin says his health has never been better and he controls each phase of his business, from the first twinkle in a ewe's eye to packaging and delivering the Elysian Fields brand lamb, which is found in the kitchens of some of Pittsburgh's best cooks and on the tables of many of the city's finest restaurants.

Most of us wouldn't have given him a Greek ghost of a chance.

Downtown to down on the farm

Keith and Mary Martin sit in the back half of their two-part living room. She brings out a big tray of cookies, the overrun from the family's annual picnic, which began with just a few burgers for family and a few friends and has grown to a gala lamb roast that might draw 200 people.

Mary says they've skipped it only one year, "because we thought we were too busy."

There's always too much work for too few people. A tractor tire to be fixed. Hay to be hauled. Lambs to be drenched (wormed). Barns to be mucked out.

Almost shyly, Keith admits that he really did tell a hired man to lie in the dirty stalls and see how he liked it, as was chronicled in the two pages about the Greene County lamber in the award-winning "The French Laundry Cookbook."

When the man got up, he reeked of urine and manure. He didn't last long. "It really did happen," Keith says. "When a sheep lies down, his nose is just a couple of inches from the ground, and they're so prone to respiratory infections. I was just so mad."

Mary still works as a flight attendant, which gives Keith an opportunity and an excuse to stop work at 5 p.m., something he rarely does otherwise. It's time devoted to son Sam, 7, and Hannah, 4, feeding them, getting their baths, reading their bedtime books. "Hannah is our little farmer," he says.

Indeed, she is. As she leads us around the fields and through the barn, she speaks knowledgeably about the lambs and their mothers in the matter-of-fact wisdom of the young. The baaaing of twins is as common a lullaby to her as the hum of traffic might be to a city child.

Few urban children see their father take his work from start to finish. You can see this grass-roots industry in their home. When they enlarged an upstairs bedroom, they lost a closet. So Keith built a gigantic armoire from cherry wood he had milled.

It is a measure of this self-sufficient man that his conversation is sprinkled with the names of people who helped him, fed him ideas, educated him. "I just kind of hung around and farmed with them," he says.

One spring night in 1989, dressed in his business clothes, he walked into the quiet of Edgar Miller's sheep barn near Washington, Pa. "I knew this was what I wanted to do," he says. "Something clicked in me."

Was it the murmurs of the lambs, the solitude of the barn, the smell of the flock? "It didn't smell bad to me. It smelled good."

Recalls Mary: "He came home and told me, 'I'm going to be a farmer.' "

Maybe he has the genes for it. His grandfather ran the kind of progressive dairy operation that Penn State brought its students to see. But his father wanted nothing to do with farming, and the land was sold the year Keith was born. Unlike many farmers, he inherited no land. In 12 or so years, he cobbled together a farm of 200 acres from seven parcels around the farmhouse and one acre he lived on while he worked at Parker/Hunter. He cashed in his pension for fences.

As the couple recall the story, it is Mary who provides much of the color. In our days in the country, the wordplay on Keith's dramatic life change flies. "Capital stock to livestock." "Stockbroker turned stockman." "From bull market to lamb market."

Mary Martin, with Hannah, 4, helps to explain Keith Martin's transition from investment broker to lamb farmer. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

Back to the land

Keith Martin, 43, was raised in a Greene County hamlet called Rices Landing, the second-youngest of five children. "I'm three minutes younger," says his fraternal twin, Kevin Martin of Carmichaels.

The boys' mother died when they were 12. Their father, a carpenter and stonemason, fulfilled both parenting roles. "I can remember him laying our football uniforms out and scrubbing them with Ajax," Kevin says.

Their dad was also an excellent cook. "No, we didn't have lamb -- it was probably out of our reach," Kevin says. "There was not a lot of money floating around. We got our new pair of tennis shoes each fall and wore them all year."

They seldom traveled farther than the five-and-dime in Uniontown or the Greene County Fair in Waynesburg. Rices Landing was so small that they could ride their bikes to the other end of town and still hear their dad whistle for them to come home.

The twins were good athletes at Jefferson Morgan High School. Their father went to their football games but told them, "I can't come to the wrestling match. I get too nervous."

They both played football at Waynesburg College. Keith interrupted his education his sophomore year, took a job digging ditches for the water company to earn college money, then went back to earn a degree magna cum laude in finance.

In 1982, he joined Parker/Hunter in Downtown Pittsburgh as an investment broker in the go-go '80s, and that's where the plot thickens. "I didn't like what was going on in the '80s. All sort of unscrupulous things were going on. I've always thought, if you lie with a dog, you're a dog."

First working Downtown, later in Washington, Pa., he says things were happening so fast -- workforce turnover at many firms was every 21/2 years -- that the researcher who did the "due diligence" research on an investment he was selling was often at another firm when the thing went bust. "There was no accountability," he says. He tried to educate clients, but that was a snooze for investors who didn't want to hear about risk, preferring talk of quick bucks.

Disillusionment stalked him those 6 1/2 years. "I thought carrying a briefcase to work meant you had integrity. I always say it took me three years to find out and three years to get out."

As his 4-year-old climbs into his lap, he's quick to add that he is "not anti-brokerage business -- they've cleaned up their act. There are good doctors and bad doctors; there are good investment brokers and there are bad."

He left in 1989.

"When he told me he was gonna quit Parker/Hunter and might become a farmer, I told him he was goofy," says his brother.

Kevin knew just how tough farming could be. During college, he had worked for a Waynesburg farmer, getting up two or three times at night to check the pregnant ewes and deliver lambs.

"Keith had never worked on a farm. It was eye-opening, hard work. A few weeks later, he bought $10,000 worth of fencing and said he was going to start farming."

It was Keith's father who spotted the old farmhouse (on one acre, no barn) on a Sunday drive. "I think he always felt kind of responsible," says Keith with a grin. The elder Martin died in 1993.

Keith was living on the farm in 1986 when Mary, a native of Burgettstown with a psychology degree from Duquesne University, came to him for investment advice. "He was sleeping on a mattress in the hallway in a rat-infested house when I met him," she recalls.

They married in 1988. "He lost all my money -- I got it back by marrying him," she jokes. Today, she says being a farmer's wife is "my real job -- flying is my vacation job."

"When we got married, we lived off her income," Keith says.

Today, "all we do is work," says Mary, but her voice resounds with admiration. "I'm amazed to what extent he'll go" to get the job done profitably.

Keith is the kind of man who leaves voice mail at 6 a.m. He put himself through college and starched his shirts with Argo cornstarch. Today, he builds his own air freight boxes from Styrofoam that he has custom cut, thus lowering his cost from $22 apiece to $3.

He calls his way of doing business "vertical integration" -- controlling his product from breeding to selling --and he's making it work.

Farmers remain the biggest risk-takers of all, but Keith likes the idea of selling something so concrete. "You can look at it, hold it, eat it." It's his baby and his joy.

But before Keith figured out that the only way to survive was to eliminate the so-called "middle man," he might have wondered if his brother was right.

The Steelhead Grill, Uptown, is just one of the stops Martin makes to deliver his lamb to Pittsburgh's top chefs. He says all the physical work means "I've never felt better." (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

Vertical integration at work

When the Martins bought their first flock, they bred, fed and then sold their animals the traditional way -- at auction. He might have the best lamb in the world, but others decided how much it was worth.

In 1989, the number of people between them and the consumer were many: A hauler, sale auctioneer, livestock dealer, packing house and meat distributor. Each received a cut.

A lamb might bring 52 cents a pound, but it cost 62 cents to produce it. "And they had the arrogance to complain because there wasn't enough product," Keith recalls. The 62 cents didn't include the farmer's own efforts hauling hay, cleaning stalls, shearing, feeding and delivering lambs. "The farmer never counts his time."

The hours can be eye-popping. One summer day, Keith admits to rising at 4:30 a.m. to cut meat, haul it to Pittsburgh and be back home to cut hay until 10:30 p.m. "I watched a little golf before I went to bed," he says with a grin.

He's never minded investing the hours, but before he sold direct, it didn't add much to the bank account. "We were broke. We didn't have enough money to buy our baby a birthday present."

At one point they figured sheep could provide a two-fer -- with money from wool. It never panned out. Wool prices have tanked, this summer bringing around 37 cents a pound, not enough to cover shearing costs.

So in 1992, Keith started direct marketing, and, around 1995, he adopted vertical integration. Today, he does it all, with only the slaughtering done off the farm. "I'm on a mission -- a voice for us guys who are out lambing," he says. "I'm always going to be out on the farm getting dirty. It's not numbers, it's quality."

They've always delivered the lambs at Elysian Fields, but now there's a "shepherd's room" in the lambing barn they built in 1997. Though the Martins' preferred breed, Dorsets and Dorset crosses, don't have much difficulty giving birth, somebody is usually there when each lamb is born.

Or in most cases, twins. They would love to have all twins, 200 lambs from 100 ewes, but they average from 175 to 180 -- considered excellent. He has a flock of 450 producing yoes, as ewes are called in Greene County.

If a ewe rejects an offspring, the Martins have a "bummer" to bottle-feed. Today, the bummers end up at a petting zoo, but in the early days they kept the baaing babies in the basement. "I would come home from a trip, and the house would smell like a barn," Mary recalls.

As a herdsman, Keith says he had to "come to grips" with sending lambs off to market, knowing they're here for "our responsible use." Yet there are two living monuments to his soft heart. One is a wether (castrated male) once destined for the table. He was born during the war with Iraq, and Mary named him SCUD. Though her husband describes the pet as a "totally useless sheep," the wether still runs with the rams.

Another is a stray dog nailed while running with the sheep. Dogs that run sheep are known to turn murderous, so Keith put the suspect in his truck to take to the vet to be euthanized. Over the first hill, the dog nestled up to Keith, and he turned the truck around. The dog, called B.D., for Bad Dog, is still around.

The family border collie named Jess is not a huge asset, either. "He's naturally a header," a dog who heads off sheep, Keith explains. Better to have a "heeler," a dog who drives the sheep forward.

Mouths to feed

Keith has no computer to parse his profits, but he has a head like one. He knows how many ewes are grazing on his neighbor Wretha Martin's farm.

Another flock grazes across Chesnut Ridge on the farm of John McGinnis, who sells Keith's lamb in his Castle Shannon grocery. Keith gets a kick out of the sign that greets visitors to the McGinnis place: "Summer Home of Elysian Fields Farms Lamb."

On this August day, he has a flock of more than 900 sheep at the three places.

Like all ruminants, which have four chambers in their stomach, sheep chew their cuds. A grin crosses the shepherd's face. "You see them pin their ears back, froth coming out the side of their mouth, chewing."

When they're happy, he's happy. "You can read a sheep. You know when they're doing well."

When the lambs are weaned, they are put on grain to finish. His custom lamb ration produces the fat for the flavor that many restaurants chefs favor. In the winter, the farm spends more than $5,000 a month for grain.

He also decides precisely how much and what grains will be gradually added to the ewes' supper with an analysis -- TDN or total digestive nutrients -- of the hay.

"Our lamb is like what was grown 50 years ago," Keith says. The lambs receive no growth stimulants or antibiotics that might taint the meat. A lamb might go to market at six or seven months, weighing 130 to 135 pounds, which produces a 65-pound carcass.

Not every sheep gets the Elysian Fields stamp of approval.

Over a decade, Keith has learned to "see through wool." In the 60-by-124-foot feeder barn, he looks over the culls. "These are all good, stout, healthy animals, but they don't throw the rib chop we need." They will go to what he calls the "after-market," and as the old coffee ad says, these lambs "will be sold to somebody else." Before he began selling his branded product, the prime and the not-so-good were shipped together.

These aren't the fuzzy lambs of children's books. When an animal's ready for market, it looks more like the belligerent teen-ager of the sheep world.

Keith grades and custom-cuts the meat himself in a new 20-by-60-foot USDA-inspected plant. It's meticulously clean, and a walk through uncovers a who's who of Pittsburgh chefs. The package of lamb marked "Mike" is for Michael Uricchio of Laforet, and here's lamb for Toni Pais of Baum Vivant. "Keith" is longtime customer Keith Coughenour of the Duquesne Club. And then you have "Greg" -- Greg Alauzen of the Steelhead Grill. There are many other names on the loins, racks and seasoned ground lamb, including five specialty grocery stores.

Personal contacts have sold the Elysian Fields brand. "We've never spent a cent on advertising," Keith says.

Attention to details

A farmer makes money paying attention to detail.

For a self-reliant man who overhauls his own engines, Keith Martin is quick to credit friends and family who have helped him.

Especially, John Zrile of Zrile Meats in West Middlesex, Mercer County. Keith describes Zrile as his inspiration, an expert who "can really see through wool. He has X-ray vision. It's a gift."

The 36-year-old Zrile, who has been in the slaughtering business his whole life, says he was "surprised Keith knew as much as he did. I also learned a few things from him."

No rough-housing for the lambs at Zrile's plant. The lambs stay for a day before they're killed. Zrile explains: "If we go on a long trip, we're tired. It's the same thing for the animals. They should not be aware of what's going on. When they come into that final room, they have not a clue what's going to happen to them. If they do, the adrenaline is pumping, and it toughens the meat."

Duquesne Club executive chef Coughenour says the Elysian Fields methods are "as humane as killing can be, providing that stress-free environment for the animals. When the animal's frightened, the stronger flavor stays within the meat."

Zrile explains his method of slaughter. "A Middle Eastern man called a halal makes one clean cut, and the lambs are blessed."

Keith and Zrile also work with other farmers to produce lamb that meets Elysian Fields standards. Their producers use the custom-feed ration.

"Keith is very picky -- he just wants the best of the best," Zrile says.

Behind the wheel

Keith Martin could use a sheep dog right now. A header like Jess might help clear some of this Downtown Pittsburgh gridlock, as his master maneuvers though the traffic jam caused by tie-ups in the Fort Pitt tunnel. Like a lamb on the run, Keith makes a hard right in his 1989 Chevy refrigerated truck, which has more than 267,000 miles on it.

The orders he delivers to some of the best restaurants in Western Pennsylvania stay cool in the back, but the cab has the potential to cook the herdsman. His cell phone rings. It's the bookkeeper from the Duquesne Club. "I missed her this morning," he says. "She wanted to make sure I got paid."

Late payments are the bane of any purveyor's existence. Opening a new restaurant or living out the life span of an established one is high risk for both the owner and the guys like Keith who supply them. If a place goes belly-up, he can probably kiss two months' worth of deliveries goodbye.

At this moment, his truck is idling in front of a garage door behind the Uptown Marriott. Magically, the door rises. "Elysian Fields Farms," he says to the gatekeeper to the Steelhead Grill, where chef Alauzen turns out a mean lamb loin chop. The guard squints. Keith points to his baseball hat with the farm logo "See, like on the hat." He's motioned in.

Someday, maybe he'll have enough money to get an air-conditioned truck or to hire someone to complete this final step of his vertical integration. But would he be as happy, as in touch with his customers, if that happens?

His twin brother, Kevin, describes Keith as "very meticulous, almost a perfectionist. What he does, he'll do right. Yet he's pretty low-key."

Keith says Elysian Fields will probably never be as big a name in meat as the monolithic Monfort, Cisco or even Butler Refrigerated.

But you need only see him at work on his 200 acres to know he loves what he does. Maybe he'd be a millionaire today, but he and Mary did not make their decision based on profits..

"You have to determine whether you're going to seek the money or seek the quality of life," he says. "A new car, a fancy couch, it's just stuff.

"With the money chase, there is no finish line. Enough is never enough. Absolutely, I don't regret my decision. Mary and I are as happy as can be with our kids. We get to live where we live."

They didn't name it Elysian Fields for nothing.

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