Born in Bellefonte, Susan Smith-Shannon spent most of her childhood on the road. Her father Vic Russo, who earned his Ph.D. in physics from Penn State, held senior positions with companies all over the globe. She said the “nomadic” family moved about every two years.
As an adult, Smith-Shannon also went into the corporate world, spending 15 years in Boston in the financial sector. She worked her way up to vice president of State Street, a custodial bank that manages billions in investments worldwide. The days were long, and the stakes were high. Waking up at 4 a.m. and coming home by 10 p.m. was not uncommon. Like many city dwellers pressed for time, she frequented a food truck in near quotidian fashion.
About three years after her last day, Smith-Shannon still keeps a banker’s schedule. But now instead of keeping her suits pressed, she makes sure the chickens are fed and the livestock are tended to.
As for the lack of food trucks in the area, she decided to start her own.
“I can’t tell you the last time I got dressed up,” Smith-Shannon said. “You don’t get dressed up to go outside to muck a stall or fill bales of hay. I always laugh because when I lived in Boston, I wore makeup every day. I wouldn’t go out of the house unless I was showered and dressed.”
Now the primping is devoted to her animals. In her new life, the pigs also aren’t made of porcelain — they’re real.
Along with her husband, Kerry, Smith-Shannon is the owner of Mountain View Farm, a parcel of bucolic countryside not far from where she was born, and the Street Meat food truck seen on Tuesdays at the downtown State College farmers market and Saturdays at the North Atherton farmers market. Smith-Shannon, who left Bellefonte when she was 2 years old, returned to the area when Russo and Karen, Smith-Shannon’s stepmother, decided to retire for good. The pair started the farm about 12 years ago when Russo retired from corporate life. They wanted to eat the meat they raised themselves on the pasture.
When they brought pork or chicken to Smith-Shannon in Boston, she could immediately tell the difference.
“I would eat one of their chickens and I was like ‘this is the best chicken I’ve ever had,’ ” she said.
But a farmer’s life was almost unimaginable for the self-described “city mouse.” Boston was home. Going to Red Sox games, eating falafel from her favorite food truck and hopping off the train on a spare Sunday to wander the city had become the norm. For the past few years, she and Kerry had helped drop the American flag over Fenway Park’s Green Monster as part of Opening Day.
When her husband suggested they buy the farm, Smith-Shannon almost thought he was joking. She hadn’t lived in the area for more than three decades. Other than her father and her stepmother, she knew no one in town.
“I kind of laughed and I was like ‘Well, if you want to be a farmer, that’s great,’ ” she said. “ ‘I can get a job in State College — that’s no problem — but that’s not what I really want to do.’ ”
About two years later, Smith-Shannon now teases her husband, who spends most of the year in Afghanistan as a military contractor, that he will have to fight her for the farm when he gets home.
At the farmers markets, she’s gotten to know her fellow vendors, who have helped her transition from banker to farmer in just a few seasons. Mick Kodner, who owns Dancing Creek Farm, advised Smith-Shannon on how to house chickens for the first three weeks, a crucial time while they’re still sprouting their feathers. Dessie and Derrick Carpenter, of Dn’D Farms, were an immediate recourse, she said, because they could relate being in a similar business.
“I kind of became a farmer by default,” Smith-Shannon said, laughing. “And I absolutely love it. I spend a lot of time on the farm not speaking except to an animal. They don’t really talk back, so at the farmers market I get to chit chat with people. With last year being such a huge learning curve, several of the vendors at the North Atherton market were kind of my sources for information.”
Used to passels of food trucks in Boston, Smith-Shannon admitted being surprised that State College, with its college-town atmosphere, didn’t have more. She started Street Meat this year, picking up the truck at the beginning of February and spending the next two months getting it ready for inspection. Figuring out costs, planning recipes and hiring help soon followed.
Dubbed “Beula,” the Street Meat truck faces “Bertha,” Mountain View’s meat truck, at the markets. Painted horizon blue, Beula has already served several customers at the two markets, who have sampled her eight-hour slow-roasted beef sandwiches, grassfed hamburgers and homemade macaroni and cheese. Smith-Shannon devotes a portion of Friday to hand-cutting the truck’s french fries for Saturday. Friday morning is spent baking the blueberry muffins, peanut butter pies and blueberry-lime-cocount pound cake for the next day’s desserts.
Smith-Shannon also names all of her animals — against the advice of her fellow vendors.
“Everyone is the first to tell me ‘you can’t name your animals — you can’t name the animals you’re going to take to the processor,’ but I have them here for so long, of course I name them,” Smith-Shannon said. “I absolutely love them. I adore going out and spending time with these animals.
“I joke it’s cheaper than therapy,” she added.
Smith-Shannon, who turns 46 this year, said she’s gotten used the slower pace of Bellefonte compared to her former home. She doesn’t miss the traffic, for one, and said she enjoys working for herself. Despite the hours being similar in many ways, her life couldn’t be more different. She prefers it that way.
Now her favorite place to be, she said, is with Beula, Bertha and her fellow vendors at the farmers market.
“There were some perks in corporate America that aren’t exactly present in farm life,” Smith-Shannon said. “Physically, I probably work harder than I ever have, but because a lot of what I do is taking care of my animals, it doesn’t seem like work.”
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy