[Photos by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields, words by Megan Headley.]
It’s hard to believe that Double H Farms’ Richard Bean isn’t Southern, raised on the very same 32 acres where his pigs, chickens, and veggies thrive. He’s gregarious, quick to laugh, and deeply rooted to the Nelson County land that’s not only earned him a living since relocating from Massachusetts 15 years ago, but that’s also been the stage for a very happy second act in his nearly 68 years of life. Much of that happiness, he owes to Jean Rinaldi, his partner of 14 years and friend of 37.
But happiness is everywhere at the Wingina-based farm. As we drive in, pigs forage for snacks in the forest, chickens warble their silly songs, and tomatoes soak in the sweet sunshine. Richard and Jean built their home in view of these forests, pastures, and pens with a passive solar layout that takes advantage of the sun’s rays during April through October–the same months that the farm shares its yield. Inside the door, we’re met with hugs, glasses of iced tea, and licks from their dog, Joy, whose name attests to her own state of being.
Richard, who’s been battling cancer for the past three years, is fifteen days into his second three-week cycle of chemotherapy and pleased to be feeling more himself. He has less of his snow white hair, but plenty of stories to share with no shortage of zeal behind their telling. We learn that Jean’s interests are as varied as they are endearing–collecting Polish pottery, making jigsaw puzzles that once completed double as artwork, and swinging on her porch swing daily. She’s recently joined the gym and the library too, but it was Richard’s interest in farming, and now his health, to which she’s totally devoted herself.
It was 1975 when the two Northerners (whose families still live ten miles from one another) got to know one another, Jean a customer at Richard’s family-owned butcher shop. They watched each other raise three children with former spouses before setting out on a new path–together.
Richard studied agriculture at Iowa State, then joined the Peace Corps, all the while dreaming of having a home to raise healthy food. So what lead him to Virginia? “God had his hand on my head,” said Richard who came in the fall of 1997, remembering how beautiful it was from a prior visit. Jean would come regularly, eventually staying for good, and within six months, they had thousands of sheep, pigs, and chickens.
Over time, the sheep–ruminates who need lots of grassy land to graze–fell out and pigs and chickens became their livelihood. Double H had a stall at the Scottsville and Nellysford markets and Whole Foods was selling 100 dozen of their eggs a week until too much red tape severed that relationship. In 2002, they sold to their first restaurant–Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie–and others were fast to follow. Ten years later, the North Garden pizza place still loads their irresistible pies with Double H sausage while restaurants like The Local, Hamilton’s, The Ivy Inn, Albemarle Baking Company, Orzo, and Blue Mountain Brewery are among the others who eagerly await deliveries from the custard-yellow Sunshine Van every Thursday.
When Richard fell ill in 2009, they began leasing the farm to Ara and Gayane Avagyan–Armenian immigrants who started working for Double H in 2005–in a rent-to-own agreement that’s contingent on the final phases of immigration. Despite Richard and Jean’s gradual separation from the farming side of things, they still keep a busy schedule: Mondays are trips to the abbatoir, Wednesdays are packaging days, Thursdays are delivery days, Fridays are ham and bacon-slicing days, and Saturdays are mornings at the Nellysford Market.
They still operate very much as farmers and the meal that Jean makes us is a favorite for when company comes, because it can be pulled together quickly and easily, with food straight from the farm.
A loaf of butter yellow challah bread sits on the counter. It’s the bread that Gayane used to make and sell at the market when time was more forgiving. Jean keeps several loaves frozen, thawing one out whenever needed. Placing her hand on top of the shiny crust, Jean slices the bread in half, reserving the ends for tomorrow morning’s French toast. She liberally spreads Duke’s (the mayo that Richard praises for having the fewest ingredients) on both sides of the bread, then piles slices of Double H ham, colby jack cheese, and fluffy leaves of red and green lettuce picked that morning on top before cutting it into pieces, serving it on a walnut board shaped like a pig.
Garden-grown heirloom tomatoes, glistening with juices, get a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of Himalayan sea salt, and a scatter of freshly-plucked parsley.
Deviled eggs filled with Jean’s recipe of Duke’s mayo, dry brown mustard, salt and pepper, plus some of the chopped egg white mixed into the yolks, are finished with a flurry of farm-grown dill.
We sit at a table set with rooster placemats and a jar of hand-picked chive flowers. Lemon iced tea clinks from the pitcher into our glasses.
It was a happy meal of happy food. Wholesome, hearty, happy food that tasted better because we were eating it with the people who grew it. Sharing a table just steps from where most of it was grown and raised. Local eating at its purest.
“It’s not about how big your car is or how big your house is, it’s how big your heart is, that’s what matters.”
It’s a shift that Richard and Jean are thrilled to see take hold. “Food used to be entertainment until 1950, and at the time we thought it was an improvement, progress. Now we’re trying to go back to where we were. Food is such a big part of our lives–three meals a day, 365 days a year. You’re always eating. It’s really, really important,” said Richard. “This is some really powerful movement. Jean and I got in on it before it was cool, but we knew. It’s an incredible evolution that we’ve pulled off together. Sometimes we shake our head over how we did it, but we did.”
Most of that head shaking happened when their alarm rang out at 3:30am every Saturday from April through October for ten years. On autopilot, they’d make lunch, pack up the truck, and hit the road by 5am in order to be in Charlottesville by 6am, where they’d spend the remainder of the morning chatting with market-goers about what makes their egg yolks so orange and their lettuce so sweet.
Ara and Gayane may have taken up Richard and Jean’s weekly post at Charlottesville’s market, but what they established at Double H–a trusting and transparent relationship between farmer and consumer–lives on. “This buy local thing so far surpasses organic that it’s not even close. It goes beyond food. You start being a community again,” said Richard.
Richard beckons others to follow their lead: “With sweat equity and a positive attitude, you can do it. This is how we do it. I want people to copy us because there ain’t enough of us.” And he’ll be the first to teach all he knows to that budding farmer or butcher. “Everyone jokes that you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to do this. They’re right. We have to know more than they do,” he said.
Over chewy brownies studded with raspberry chocolate chips, Jean and Richard talk about their plans for the future. They’re eager to spend more time with their children (“we’ve got grandchildren popping up everywhere!”) and to travel. They already have a cross-country train trip planned for the winter. “I got old at 65 when I got cancer. I was indestructible until this came along,” said Richard who motions to Jean with a twinkle in his eye before adding, “She’ll never get old.”
The day’s pressing on, our afternoon photo shoots the only thing keeping us from staying all day. We saw Richard and Jean at The Rock Barn earlier in the week and we will see them again over the weekend at Taste of Nelson, yet we can’t help but delay our goodbye. We tool around the farm on separate Gators, Jean reminiscing over the unlikely turn her life took from stay-at-home mom to full-time farmer. When we leave, she’ll change into “work” clothes and spend the afternoon placing eggs in cartons and packaging hot dogs. Richard, who had donned one of his signature orange shirts (four hang in his closet) and a hat for the trip outside, reflects on the relationships (like our own) that grew simply from market customers taking the time to connect with them. That was precisely how Richard and Jean’s relationship began 37 years ago. “It’s not about how big your car is or how big your house is, it’s how big your heart is, that’s what matters.”
Driving home, we remember that Double H stands for Happy Hearts. Indeed, Richard and Jean each have one of those–and Happy Hogs, Happy Hens, and a Happy Home–all of which are made happier by being together.
See all images in the slideshow above.