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John Starr grew up on a farm outside of Leechburg, and often resented it. "My buddies were riding bikes and playing Space Invaders, while I was chopping wood and shoveling manure," he says.
Starr almost put that behind him. Today, he's vice president of global services for Ariba. Starr's 300-plus employees are scattered from China to the Czech Republic, from India to Brazil.
Back home, though, he runs a farm on the side. "You can't hide from your roots," he says.
He's not alone in feeling that way. The masters of the global economy might hire software engineers half a world away, but they'll pay extra for food produced in their ZIP code. Sparked by Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma, there's an increasing demand for "locally sourced" food raised closer to home, and closer to nature. Most grocery-store beef, for example, is fed on corn. But cattle are supposed to eat grass ... and proponents say grass-fed meat is leaner, lower in cholesterol, and tastes better too.
"A lot of people I worked with were going to Whole Foods," Starr says. "It was my coworkers who got me into this concept."
That concept became Starr Valley Farms, which Starr and wife Margie bought near his father's spread in 2002.
Starr Valley is grass-only and certified organic -- shunning artificial fertilizer and other adulterations. It's also a boutique operation, with a herd of just 40 animals. Customers get a 40-pound box -- which consists of one-eighth of a steer and costs roughly $400 -- with cuts ranging from Delmonico to ground beef. Starr says the boxes sell out six to nine months in advance.
Starr has a prestigious day job, and relatives to help with the farm work. (He got into farming, he says, partly because "my dad doesn't golf.") Even so, 2009 was the first year the farm broke even.
"This isn't a path to prosperity," Starr says, driving an ATV across muddy pastures to show off the herd's "breeders" and the "feeders" grazing contentedly. "But it is a path to happiness."
And the path has come full circle. The high-tech guru's home is heated by wood furnace. And the five Starr children will be spending a lot of time in the woodpile, he says -- "just like I used to do."