Pittsburgh billionaire Thomas Tull adds farmer to his list of titles
January 8, 2017 12:00 AM
Thomas Tull at his farm in Bulger, Washington County.
Thomas Tull with some of his cows at his farm in Bulger, Pa.
Goats and sheep roam at Thomas Tull's farm.
A view of a barn at Thomas Tull's farm.
Several cows graze at the entrance to Thomas Tull's farm.
A view of what locals call a "sugar shack" on Little Sewickley Creek Road near Walker Park. The building is owned by Thomas Tull and will be used to make organic maple syrup and honey.
Muottas, the stone Colonial Revival home owned by Thomas Tull, was moved last year from Edgeworth to Leet Township and placed on a new foundation. The historic home's front porch is gone. Mr. Tull bought Muottas, a mansion on the old 115-acre Walker estate, in 2015. Initially, he applied for a demolition permit, but decided to move the home instead.
By Patricia Sheridan and Marylynne Pitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thomas Tull is famous in Pittsburgh as a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and CEO of Legendary Entertainment, the studio that filmed “The Dark Knight Rises” in his adopted hometown.
Now you can add farmer to that list. Mr. Tull has purchased a 157-acre farm in Washington County that will raise organically grown lettuce, tomatoes and apples and some of the most pampered dairy cows ever seen in Western Pennsylvania. Each one ranges in price from $120,000 to $200,000.
“These are very valuable cows, but the way they are treated is very, very important to us,” said Mr. Tull as he walked around the Bulger property that he bought for $3.65 million in August. The name of the farm: Rivendale.
PG graphic: Thomas Tull’s farm (Click image for larger version)
“This is not a hobby farm,” he said. “Whether it’s the crops or the dairy side of it, there is something very gratifying about it.”
Tull, a native of Endwell, N.Y., said he has always dreamed of having a farm.
“What really fascinates me is what is going on between science and farming in terms of how to sustainably feed the world’s growing population.
“We are really excited about using cutting-edge technology, robotics and all kinds of things to make sure we are getting the most yield out of the land … and doing everything in a natural way.”
The original plan
Mr. Tull said he had originally intended to build the farm on 88 acres he owns in Leet Township. In April 2016, Steven Victor, a landscape architect with Victor-Wetzel Associates in Sewickley, applied on Mr. Tull’s behalf to the Leet zoning hearing board for permission to build an organic farm with up to 40 beef and dairy cattle.
“We looked at it, we certainly did,” Mr. Tull said. “We looked at all the possibilities and we also wanted to be good neighbors, and didn’t want anything to be intrusive. Once we looked at the scope of the farm we wanted to build, it just wouldn’t fit or be able to grow in the direction that we wanted to go.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to be in a place that was truly agricultural,” he said.
The 88 acres in Leet are part of a 115-acre parcel that stretches into Edgeworth. In November 2015, Mr. Tull paid $5.5 million for Muottas, the old Walker estate in Edgeworth. He created an uproar when he applied for a permit to demolish the 111-year-old stone house on the property. Mr. Tull then announced he would move the Colonial Revival-style house to another part of the tract. In the fall, Millcraft Development Services moved the house intact and built a new access road from Camp Meeting Road.
The road was built on two additional parcels of land Mr. Tull bought in Leet. In the first half of 2016, he paid $745,000 for a two-acre property with a four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home at 210 Camp Meeting Road. He also paid $800,000 for the adjacent, two-acre property at 200 Camp Meeting Road.
Some parts of the Leet farm were built. Later this month, construction will be completed on a “sugar shack” and honey house for making maple syrup and processing honey across from Walker Park. More than 300 maple trees on the Edgeworth part of the property will be tapped and 30 to 40 beehives are set up nearby,
“We love the Sewickley community but when it became clear that some of the things we wanted to do wouldn’t be a good fit, we pivoted out of that,” Mr. Tull said.
A foundation was also poured for a new modern house for Mr. Tull, his wife Alba and their three children. In November, Mosites Construction Co. stopped building the house.
“It was going to take three years to build,” Mr. Tull said. “I am out of the business of building homes.”
When the Tulls are in Pittsburgh, they live in a 5,350-square-foot Downtown penthouse in Three PNC Plaza. They paid $5.2 million for the unit in 2013.
Mr. Tull said his family will not live at the farm they are building in Robinson. “It’s a real working farm.”
TV show seeded idea
The property, which was known as The Farm when it was listed for sale for $8.5 million in 2011, includes a century-old farmhouse with an updated kitchen, three bedrooms, two baths, an outdoor patio and a greenhouse. Its 157 acres also held a no-till orchard with apple, pear and peach trees, two glass-enclosed conservatories and a two-story barn made from 100-year-old barnwood. A chandelier hung in the barn, which is currently being used for storage.
“That will probably be a conference room,” Mr. Tull said.
He noted that Lucas Piatt, president and chief operating officer of Millcraft Investments, was the person who suggested he look at the Washington County farm.
Construction has started on several barns slated to be finished in the spring. Mr. Tull has hired Rod Rankin and his wife, Linda, to run the dairy farm. Both are originally from Pittsburgh and Mr. Rankin is the former manager of Arethusa, a state-of-the-art dairy in Litchfield, Conn., that is the model for Rivendale.
The billionaire also has partnered with Stone Barns Center For Food & Agriculture, an organic farm in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Mr. Tull said he discovered Stone Barns while watching a television show about a farm-to-table restaurant.
“It was ‘Chef’s Table,’ season one, episode two,” he recalled. “It is what finally made me say, ‘I’m doing this.’ If you watch that, you will see what we are trying to do here,” he said, adding that he will not have a restaurant at Rivendale.
In charge will be Neil Stauffer of Garfield and his wife, Susanna Meyer. She is former director of agricultural production for Grow Pittsburgh, an advocate of community gardens. He was general manager for Penn's Corner Farm Alliance.
“We have an orchard and poultry for eggs and with our partnership with Stone Barns, we will be bringing varieties in that we think people will be excited about,” Mr. Tull said.
Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns, comes to Washington County once a month. “He is probably the best grower in the country,” Mr. Tull said.
"At Stone Barns Center, we experiment with a wide range of resilient agroecological practices that support soil health and whole farm biodiversity,” said Mr. Algiere. “Thomas is very interested in adopting the most innovative methods, both from Stone Barns and from other partners, to support diverse, healthy and regenerative farming.”
Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns, said the operation will be tailored to Western Pennsylvania’s soil and climate.
“The focus at Rivendale, as at Stone Barns Center, is on building soil health, raising animals humanely and, ultimately, producing delicious food."
Another key player is Chris Hoke, a defensive lineman for the Steelers from 2001-2012 and Mr. Tull’s business partner.
“I met Chris the first year of the [Steelers] ownership group and he is just a fantastic guy,” Mr. Tull said. “Right away you recognize his drive and work ethic. He is an overachiever in everything he does.”
To research the best way to operate a dairy farm, Mr. Hoke visited a half-dozen dairies, including Arethusa, which has 375 cows and produces 7,000 gallons of milk a week. The cows, Mr. Hoke said, are treated “like a professional athlete.”
“This is going to be a country club-style barn. There’s a steam room for these cows,” Mr. Hoke testified before Leet zoning officials in July.
Mr. Tull agreed that the cows will be treated royally. “We are making sure the cows have the absolute best care regarding cleanliness and their health.”
The other animals also are being treated well. During the tour of the farm, Mr. Tull pointed out sheep and goats being guarded by two Great Pyrenees dogs on the lower pasture.
“The foundation here is fantastic and it is just a beautiful place,” he said.
He said of his wife, a professional photographer, “She is obviously very busy with her photography career and has taken some amazing photos out here. ... It’s hard not to be enchanted by this place.”
Mr. Tull said Western Pennsylvania is the perfect spot for his latest venture.
“I have bled black and gold since I was a little boy. Pittsburgh represented a very special place to me aspirationally.
“If you think about what this place has become in terms of a tech center, a cultural center and the museums, the restaurants, the sports — it’s an amazing experience. I am not sure there is another city in America that has re-imagined itself as successfully and truly pivoted from industry.”
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, Twitter: @pasheridan, Instagram: pasheridanpgh. Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter: @mpitzpg
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