Rivendale Farms marries high-tech methods with sustainability

Gretchen McKay

Published May 30, 2018


Christine Grady has a pretty good idea why Rivendale Farms’ milk and other dairy products are tasty enough to be part of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ diet. 

A happy cow is a productive cow, she says. And the less stressed the cow feels when she’s grazing or chewing the cud and resting, the better her milk tastes.

Cows get very uncomfortable when they want to be milked but have to wait around for human hands, Ms. Grady explains. So at this 170-acre farm in Bulger, Washington County, a shiny red robot stands at the ready.

The machine is called Lely Astronaut, and it allows Rivendale’s purebred Jersey cows to mosey into the cow box to be milked whenever they feel like it. Usually it’s about four times a day, says Ms. Grady, the farm’s general manager since August 2017. That’s twice the number of milkings as on a traditional dairy farm.

As a result, each cow produces about 6½ gallons of milk a day, or about a 15 percent greater yield — 23,000 gallons a month overall.  And because the milk is from Jerseys, a breed renowned for the high butterfat content in its milk, it’s richer tasting. “It’s higher in calcium and protein, too,” Ms. Grady says.  

Made with imported chocolate, Rivendale’s chocolate milk is so nutritious, it’s being served this year as a post-game recovery drink in the Pirates clubhouse. Tom Palchak, former creamery manager for Penn State Berkey Creamery, devised the recipe. The Steelers drink it, too, to the tune of 25 gallons a week. During football season they also consume about  60 dozen eggs a week from Rivendale’s flock of free-range Rhode Island Red and White Rock hybrid chickens, along with with four gallons of maple syrup from the farm’s sugar shack in Sewickley.

If you’re wondering how such big sports teams hooked up with a relatively new and small farm, here’s the connection. Rivendale was founded by Thomas Tull, a former movie producer and lifelong Steelers fan who in 2009 bought  a minority ownership stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers. As CEO of Legendary Pictures, in 2011 he made "The Dark Knight Rises” in Pittsburgh, which he has called his second home.

Farming has always been a childhood dream of Mr. Tull’s, says Ms. Grady, and he and his wife, Alba, are particularly passionate about healthy eating and food production. So when the couple purchased the Bulger property in 2016 their goal was to create a working farm that would marry natural, sustainable farming with innovative techniques and the latest technology. Former Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke lent a hand in the start-up phases. 

The Tulls also wanted to maximize profits by diversification. So in addition to the dairy, the farm grows organic vegetables and herbs for a growing number of Pittsburgh restaurants (The Cafe at Carnegie and Legume in Oakland were among its first customers) and it also has a community-supported agriculture program. The farm also has 23 show cows that travel the country and are bred for income.

The automated milking system is not the only snazzy high-tech feature at Rivendale. All three of the farm’s barns feature automated windows for optimal air flow. A 11,000-square-foot greenhouse does, too, along with an automated irrigation system. Even the chicken coops are newfangled: solar-powered, they move every couple of days so the cluckers always have fresh grass. 

Neil Stauffer and his wife, Susanna Meyer, are in charge of the farm’s 7½ growing acres. Along with traditional crops such as tomatoes, lettuces, squash and cucumbers, they grow veggies you don’t often find in grocery produce aisles such as miniature broccoli and purple snow peas. Many of the varieties come from the famed Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in New York’s Hudson River Valley, and the couple also tests new seeds. During their inaugural growing season last year, for instance, they were among the first to grow the ‘Red Ember’ hybrid cayenne pepper, and they grew 1,000 pounds of hard red winter wheat for Mediterra Bakehouse in Robinson.

The farm is just 20 miles from Downtown, so they loved the fact that they could live in the city and still have rural jobs, Mr. Stauffer says. He was previously general manager for Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. His wife was Grow Pittsburgh’s director of agricultural production. 

While the farm isn’t certified organic, it follows organic and sustainable agriculture practices. This year, the farmers expect to grow enough produce for 50 CSA shares, in addition to serving 30 or so restaurants. A 22-week share costs $275, and you can customize your box based on what you like (and don’t like). Add-ons include eggs ($5.50 per dozen), flowers ($12) and a loaf of Mediterra sourdough bread ($6) from wheat grown on the farm. 

Trucked directly to Turner Dairy Farms in Penn Hills for processing after collection, the milk is not yet for sale anywhere in Pittsburgh. But later this summer, it will make its way into a new type of soft ice cream that will be blended into The Milk Shake Factory’s handspun milkshakes. You also can find Rivendale soft ice cream in 14 machines in PNC Park’s  general concessions.

If you’re lucky enough to have suite-level seats at the ballpark, you can enjoy Rivendale’s hard-pack ice cream while checking out the park’s new Rivendale Patio Garden. The rooftop  garden on the Rivendale Suite Level opened on May 15, and features nearly two dozen fruits and vegetables — everything from tomatoes and eggplant to parsley, pole beans and rainbow Swiss chard. Some were grown at Rivendale or at Brenckles Greenhouse in Reserve, while others are new varieties developed through the farm’s partnership with Stone Barns. 

Created in partnership with Grow Pittsburgh, the garden is meant to demonstrate the Pirates’ commitment to sustainability while also promoting healthy eating. A 375-gallon rain barrel collects rainwater for watering, and more than 2,000 plastic water bottles recycled by Bucco fans help to drain the 25 cubic yards of compost mix used to fill the plant containers. 

Over the course of the summer and fall, Levy Restaurants executive chef Adam Holt will harvest the herbs and vegetables for use in the  ballpark menu. The garden also will host special events and educational tours are in the works.

As for Rivendale itself? It’s a working farm, so tours are not available. But if you subscribe to its CSA and choose to pick your shares up on site, you can catch a glimpse of it in action .

Photo - Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

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