I ask mom for the hundred thousandth time if we can get a sheep, and while she rolls her eyes I launch once again into a vision for our farm as a place of multitudinous, diverse, vibrant life. She asks if I will make the two-hour drive home to take care of it every day. She is a pragmatic farmer; I’m an idealist. We need each other.
Our “farm” is a sort of accidental collection of animals who needed a place to go. It started with a whitetail deer named Precious, then it was a beagle puppy for rabbit hunting, then a stray cat, another stray cat, and a horse. When we built a barn for that horse, we realized that she would be lonely, so we adopted two paint geldings—a father and son who had been living in squalor somewhere south of Pittsburgh. Next came a bunny, and after that was another puppy. A few winters later, Dad found an emaciated mama kitty with two little babies. They live in the barn now—warm, happy, and excellent hunters.
More recently, we’ve loved two little beagle puppies (the next generation of rabbit dogs) and two more rabbits (a Holland Lop and a cottontail). Each of these has come and gone, or will go someday. This corner of land is dynamic and transient, a daily reminder that life is sweet and short. Stones dot the land where we have tucked lovely creatures back into the earth. It makes every inch feel like hallowed ground.
As I live, and love, and learn to grieve, farming feels more and more like peace for my soul. Shaping land is endless work, as I am reminded every time I come home on “vacation.” I used to resent the chores of hauling wood and mucking stalls and mowing pastures and feeding puppies, but now, falling into the rhythm of this place feels like breathing again. The rawness of this proximity to life makes me feel vulnerable, sort of like therapy but without the armchairs.
Just last night one of the bunnies made a nest—a sure sign that she was about to have a litter of kits. When we came out to check on her late in the evening, we found just one baby, partially formed and stillborn. The excitement we felt when we saw tufts of fur lining the deep nest of hay was replaced with quiet stoicism. Sometimes life doesn’t work out, and you bury a baby under the apple tree. But the next day is still so full of life and so busy with caring for creatures that grief can’t stay. The momentum of the world struggles always towards life—with my roots in this tradition of working the land, I’m trying to understand how best to help it along.
I work in food retail, with a company full of people who love food and want to share that love by sourcing the best products from companies that share our values. Our journey to the best-tasting products led us deep into the world of organics, where we found better flavor and more unique variety. The challenge was, and continues to be, the accessibility of organic practices to farmers who are shackled into conventional farming by their farm’s infrastructure, government subsidies, and the steep cost of transitioning to organic farming. To help with some of these things, my company started an organic test farm in New York that can carry some of the R&D risk on behalf of our partner farms. It’s a good first step, but it doesn’t get us all the way there.
As I learned more about organics, I was aware of the challenges of converting, but I was also troubled by the leading discourse of elimination and blame. It seemed like our language about farming was increasingly focused around limiting, ceasing, and omitting inputs while blaming farmers who were trying to produce food in larger quantities and at cheaper prices, which consumers have demanded for generations. What I have seen and lived was at odds with a rhetoric framed by scarcity, but I still appreciated what people were looking for: better tasting food, accessible to all, that nourishes bodies and leaves the land healthier after each harvest.
By staying in the conversation and with the help of some smart, passionate friends, I eventually stumbled into the world of regenerative organic agriculture. Finally, I found a model built on abundance that submits to the perfect design of God’s creation, that embraces the tenuous harmony of all creatures, and that makes room for the farmer as keeper of the peace. And that is why I want a sheep—more grazing, more manure, more life.
I’m still learning, but this feels like a way forward as we contemplate the future of our food systems. This feels, in many ways, like a return to what we’ve always known.
Apricot Lane Farms (The Biggest Little Farm is absolutely worth 90 minutes of your life)
Where We Grow From Here (LOVE this podcast—it focuses on the relationship between the flow of capital and our food system)