Farmer Heroes | June 20, 2016

Roberto Melendez

by Sophie Friedman

The Melendez Pineda family had no intention of starting a farm back in 2012 when they bought their 123 acres in Midland, Virginia. They are not, as Roberto Melendez puts it, “natural born farmers.” There was no definitive moment when they decided to start farming. Instead, it all began when Roberto purchased a few Nigerian dwarf goats as pets about five years ago. The goats are small and adorable; you’d never guess that they are a seductive gateway into the world of farming. The family loves them, especially Roberto’s younger sister Andrea. She plays with them like her urban counterpart might play with the family dog.

Roberto didn’t know that this purchase would be the beginnings of a family farm. His father, Juan Pineda, was the one who had the idea to buy a few pigs, which soon became some pigs and a handful of cows. Chickens were next, and then sheep; turkey and quail followed close behind. Over the past two years they’ve increased their modest holding to over fifty cows and about twice that many pigs. “We didn’t intend to start a farm,” Roberto says, “It kind of fell upon us by mistake.” Yet the farm was started without objection. Now the family is fully immersed, and glad to be so. Roberto knows that his unwavering commitment to farming is important: “You really have to be committed. There’s no halfway with it. You’re either all in, or you’re just not.”

Roberto Melendez, Happy Family Ranch

Roberto (right) and one of his employees, at the Manassas Farmers Market.

Happy Family Ranch might be young, but they already have a small following at their local farmers markets. They just started selling their beef and pork this past winter. They hope to get a steady routine going rather than expanding too quickly. People are excited about the meat that they raise in a “traditional style,” avoiding antibiotics and hormones for the animals, and making sure that their supplemental feed (for when the animals are not on pasture) is non-GMO. These production methods are a little more expensive, but Roberto thinks it pays off in the long-term. Not only does the meat taste great, but the animals are also visibly happier, he says. Customers at the Manassas farmers market must agree, because they come back week after week, bringing new customers with them.

Roberto’s secret to success? Strong relationships. He cultivates and sustains trust in all his relationships, starting first with the treatment of his animals. He respects them, according them all the rights that he himself would want. Confinement of the animals, for example, is absolutely refused, he says, “’Cause we wouldn’t like it ourselves.” The animals undoubtedly appreciate this sentiment. The effect of his goodwill is palpable. He describes the harmonious quality of happy animals: “I’ve worked other places in my life, but I’ve never felt such peacefulness as when I’m working on farms. People can be so harsh or rude or whatever, but the animals…” He trails off. “It’s just a good feel. It’s good vibes.”

Cute pig at Happy Family Ranch

Cute pig at Happy Family Ranch

Roberto wants his customers to be able to enjoy his connection with the animals as well. He welcomes visitors to the farm, hoping that they’ll look around and be inspired by the humane treatment his animals receive. There’s no part of the Happy Family Ranch that Roberto would be embarrassed for visitors to see, and he’s happy to show them around. He wants to maintain a personal relationship with his customers. He gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing them buy a product that they are excited about. “For me it’s a very intimate experience,” he says. “They’ve purchased something from you and they’ll bring it home to share it with their loved ones.” Roberto’s values and the weight that he gives his work are what make family and independent farms like Happy Family Ranch so special.

I’ve worked other places in my life, but I’ve never felt such peacefulness as when I’m working on farms.

On a family farm, tensions can sometimes run high between family members, but for the Melendez Pineda family, that relationship is a boon. Roberto spent eighteen years at his parents’ contracting firm, so the family has experience working together. They know that trusting one another is vital. “They rely a lot on the decisions I make,” he says. “They believed in me. It’s tough because I don’t know if you would get that type of trust if you weren’t family.” That trust has helped Roberto manage the farm well, and fosters an attitude of cooperation. “My entire family is really into it,” he joyfully explains. Roberto’s father Juan built much of the farm’s infrastructure; his mother Maria helps out at the farmers markets; and his young nephews relish the moments when they can come to the farm play with the animals.

It was Maria who named the ranch. She wanted to recognize that through working together and believing in each other, her family could have a real, positive impact on their community. The Melendez Pineda family fled a civil war in El Salvador and moved to Virginia in the late 1980’s to pursue a better life. Roberto remembers those early years and recognizes that they were formative for him: “We didn’t have much to start off with, and I don’t recall many childhood meals with steak or meats. My mother worked hard so we could get by. As I grew older I saw meat as a luxury. I still do.” The family is determined to give back to their community by providing high quality meat. “If we are going to raise an animal, it is going to be the best product possible with the best methods possible.”

Roberto is a farmer in this year's concert region!

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