Revamping the Family Farm at Deep Roots Valley

5/18/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

MOHRSVILLE, Pa. — As fifth-generation farmers, Kelly, 27, and Will Smith, 35, of Centre Township, Berks County, Pa., spend their busy days taking care of their young children and the animals they raise as naturally as possible to sell as poultry, pork and beef, along with their laying hens’ eggs, right from the land and at farmers’ markets.

When their first daughter, Hannah, was born eight years ago, Kelly searched grocery store shelves for organic baby food but found none. She soon began making her own at home. With Kelly’s strong drive to eat healthy food, she eventually came to realize that she and Will could bring a positive effect into their local community by revamping her family’s farm and going into food production there.

The two share a background in the restaurant industry and Will has a degree in economics, both of which helped the two decide to bring the family land back into play.

Kelly’s great-great-grandfather, Howard Phillips, bought the farm’s land in 1911. In its early days, the farm production had a diversified approach. Then, several decades ago, it operated primarily as a dairy farm. After the cows were sold in 1991, the farm transitioned away from a focus on milk production.

Today, Kelly’s grandfather, Paul Phillips, lives just a stretch down the gravel driveway, with the farm set back away from the road. Paul still helps out on the current farm, too, at the age of 91.

Diving into their third year operating under the name Deep Roots Valley Farm, Kelly and Will made the decision last spring to move in with Kelly’s parents, Larry and Cathy Phillips, to better afford bills and to be near the farm. They sold their house, which was a few miles away, in 2012, and are now grateful to be close to their livestock during storms and in the event of wild animals becoming a threat around the pastures.

Kelly and Will raise about 500 laying hens, 150 broilers, 200 turkeys, 20 pigs and 40 beef cattle. Their beef cattle are the Lineback dairy breed since the couple said these are known to put more weight on as they grow. These livestock numbers will likely increase during the warm season, but this is how the farm’s spring months are starting this year.

Their chicken CSAs (community supported agriculture) and egg CSAs are two of their most popular offerings, with private pickup locations for the chicken and eggs in Berks, Montgomery and Lehigh Counties in southeastern Pennsylvania for the convenience of their customers.

Deep Roots Valley Farm was recently asked to become a part of the successful Phoenixville Farmers’ Market in Chester County, Pa., when the market’s former egg and poultry supplier moved out of state.

Will explained that because of the nearly hour-long drive it takes to get to Phoenixville from the farm, he and Kelly charge $4.50 per dozen for eggs at the market to compensate for mileage and transportation.

For those who pick up their egg orders at the private residences associated with the farm’s egg CSA or buy retail at the farm, the cost per dozen is $3.50. Anyone picking up their CSA eggs right at the family farm pays $3.15 per dozen.

The couple admitted that in their first few years, they were almost at a hobby farmer status as they learned the ropes with the help of her father, Larry, who is still farming there, raising custom heifers, a few crops and hay. Besides starting up the farm, the couple spent their time reading plenty, researching, attending farming workshops and classes at the county agriculture center and talking to other farmers whenever insights or advice were needed. They hope to finally turn a healthy profit for themselves this year.

About 60 to 70 of the farm’s 150 acres are utilized in pasture, with most of it involving rotational grazing methods for the livestock.

Will thinks that one aspect which has made the farm increasingly flourish in these first few years is its welcoming feel. Field trips and family visits are something he and Kelly easily advocate, especially because they feel strongly about educating people around the region about the true source of food linked to the land.

“The average American is so disconnected from where their food comes from,” Kelly said. “They don’t realize chickens have bones or were alive at one time.”

“We’ve had some funny questions come through, but it shows that people have really lost their connection from the food,” Will said. “People ask, How can you butcher that cow? It’s so nice.’ ... If you’re eating hamburger, you’re eating a cow, and at least this one has gotten a great life.”

“And that’s something we like to stress,” Kelly said, pointing out that their philosophy is to raise animals with a high quality of life before being sent to the butcher.

Will regularly keeps the farm’s Facebook page updated with news about the animals, more so than trying to market directly with pricing and general selling. He said this approach has helped to keep the Deep Roots Valley Farm name spreading as more people learn about it and supplement a new form of word-of-mouth approach through the website.

“And I post as many pictures as I can to Facebook in-season,” Will said, which keeps the outsider comments rolling onto the page.

“We really try to bridge a gap,” Will said about operating their land as a natural farm and keeping the soil healthily chemical-free in their chosen approach.

Will said that the kindness of other farmers and their willingness to share knowledge about their own experiences is largely how he and Kelly have learned so much and continually improved their efficiency in business operations.

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