A young couple have left the city to build a regenerative cattle farm in rural Virginia. Then the Covid-19 crisis hit.


Over the course of six seasons, the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table has grown into a phenomenon due to its intimate, behind-the-scenes portrayals of personalities from the food world. One of its star directors is also the youngest: 34-year-old director Abigail Fuller, who has overseen acclaimed episodes like the one about Savannah chef Mashama Bailey. Fuller was based in Los Angeles when she started working on the series, living the life of a rising documentary filmmaker.

But five years later, things took an unexpected turn: she now spends her days on a cattle ranch in rural Virginia. Along with her husband, Matthew Rales, Fuller runs a 1,500-acre regenerative farm that has supplied grass-fed beef to upscale restaurants like Blue Hill in Stone Barns, outside New York City. And in the age of Covid-19, the couple launched a burgeoning delivery business for dwellers eager to bypass the struggling industrial meat supply chain – another wrinkle in an unusual journey.

Fuller’s path from LA to Fauquier County began, she says, in Slovenia. The director traveled to the country in 2015 to shoot her first episode of Chef’s Table, about a returning restaurateur named Ana Roš. “When I went to Slovenia, the seed was planted for this way of life,” Fuller recalls. “We made cheese, harvested lunch from the garden. He felt connected to your food. Something clicked.

Earlier this year, I made the 90-minute drive to Fuller and Rales’s APD farm near Warrenton to find out what it’s like to be a renowned filmmaker turned rancher. The couple greeted me in a splashed Toyota van that smelled of mud and coffee, their mix of Pyrenean Shepherd, Charlotte, in the back. We ran into a winding road flanked by a pond filled with geese, grassy pastures and wooded thickets. While the neighboring plots are orderly divisions of soybeans and corn, the ODA has proven to be a vast artificial wilderness, ready to graze herds of cows and donkeys, mimicking the ecological habits of ancient herbivores. “We put in more than we take – more bugs, more water, more wildlife,” Rales said, pointing to the decidedly poorly maintained field in front of us. “It is agriculture that adds to the environment instead of taking away from it.

The couple, who married in Kenya last year, complement each other well. Rales, the lanky, soft-spoken son of local billionaire Mitchell Rales, famous for the Glenstone Museum, is likely to pull himself together on bizarre topics like prairie ecology. More complete, small and outgoing, often intervenes to help translate. (“Abby is helping me improve my storytelling beyond technical nervousness,” he laughs.) When we met several weeks before closing started, she was hosting a dinner at their house – a gathering that included a local chef, herbalist, farm manager and other young ex-townspeople. “We are building our own community,” Rales said. “It’s something you have to do here.”

When the two connected in 2016, they were living opposite lives. Fuller traveled the world to shoot and promote his cinematic work, while Rales had just purchased what would become APD, at the time a former horse farm. After mutual friends decided to hook up, they chatted on the phone for four months before finally meeting in Washington, where they had dates in Ethiopic and Bad Saint. Fuller then visited Rales’ farm. “I remember being so amazed,” she recalls. “It was a perfect day.”

“Another perfect day” became a mantra for the couple and, later, the name of their farm: APD.

While Fuller, originally from upstate New York, gravitated to cities like Brooklyn and LA, Rales had been drawn to agrarian life early on. His photo from the Bullis ’02 yearbook shows him arguing over sheep at his family’s Potomac horse farm. He graduated from Middlebury College with degrees in environmental science and literature and spent three years working at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va., With Joel Salatin, a world star in regenerative agriculture and the central figure in Michael Pollan’s bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Rales embraced Salatin’s environmental philosophies and founded his own operation, Potomac’s Grassential Farm, in 2010. The ten-acre plot supplied grass-fed beef, lamb and rabbit to DC’s top restaurants such as than Komi and Marcel’s. But it was tiny and, by nature, low impact. With his new farm, Rales began to expand by knocking down whiteboard fences and letting pastures grow in the wild.

The ODA works mainly with grass: no cereals, very low reserves of hay and few expensive fossil fuels. “The grass feeds the animals and the animals feed the grass,” said Fuller, who used his enthusiasm for Rales’ breeding methods to become a vocal spokesperson for their holistic style of beef. At the same time, their customer base grew, with much of their product going (before closing) to Hardwick Beef, a grass-fed distributor for New York City restaurants and butchers. DC, despite being a grill town, has never been very hungry for 100% grass-fed meat, which some diners mistakenly consider tough or cheerful.

It took the pandemic to generate significant local demand for APD beef. Home cooks were reluctant to splurge on a freezer stocked with steaks, ground meat, and cuts (and the farm and whole animal waste-free model means packages come with a bit of everything). Now, with the supply of beef to supermarkets affected by Covid, customers are more open to storing large quantities from a small producer. ODA merchandise isn’t cheap by grocery store standards, but it offers good value for high-quality bulk: packages start at $ 99, or you can buy an eighth of a cow for $ 500. . The farm plans to launch an online marketplace with regular deliveries to the Washington area.

Currently, they take four steers per month to small slaughterhouses, but this is still not enough to keep up with orders, especially as processing facilities are being beefed up due to high demand. Young families in places like Takoma Park – “alternative-minded” populations, according to Rales – are particularly drawn to their products, but Fuller and Rales deliver everywhere from Falls Church to southeast DC. When the couple made personal, free deliveries during the first few months of the pandemic, the daily routine was tough – literally waking up to the chickens for farm chores, then walking 200 miles a day. But Fuller says that “making the deliveries ourselves is such a gratifying thing – knowing everything we put in the animal, knowing that someone will appreciate the food, and that the animals help heal the earth.”

After showing me around the fields, Fuller and Rales made their way to their home, an 1862 white farmhouse with a cozy front porch begging to be read. They led me to their wood-beamed kitchen lined with pots of tomatoes that Rales and Fuller had grown in their garden. The entire setup is a city dweller’s dream of what rural Virginia farming should be like – an idyllic escape fantasy for anyone fed up with city life.

When Fuller moved to the farm in 2017, there was a point where she thought she might never go back to her old life. “If I decided I didn’t want to make movies anymore and wanted to get into something else, I would allow myself,” she said. “Corn [rural life] only reinforced how much I love cinema. As a result, she now divides her time between farming and filming. Last fall, she won a grant to make a documentary about a central California shepherd fighting wildfires with his grazing practices. “Food, farming, and feminism are kind of my strong point,” Fuller says.

At some point, when post-pandemic life returns, she is expected to be working on season eight of Chef’s Table, and she is involved in another documentary series, for the Apple TV + platform, Dear. . ., for which she shot an episode with Oprah Winfrey. Of course, there is one obvious story that would make a great subject for a documentary: a hip young couple move to the countryside to raise cattle and return to the land. Would Fuller ever want to document ODA’s own story?

“I haven’t wanted to say it yet,” she said. “It’s hard to think your own life is interesting. I think everyone’s life is interesting. For now, living it is pretty good.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the restaurant and bar scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in New York and St. John, in the US Virgin Islands.

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