In the Beginning

In the Beginning

by Caroline McCulloch of Piqua, OH

My home isn’t a conventional or even a traditional farm. No hundreds of acres of corn and beans nor the kind with an old farmstead, handed down for generations… just one generation really: from Grandma to me. It came with a lot of indelible memories: siblings, family and friends eating great dinners, camping, sledding, fishing, and riding horses. The north part sold after Dad passed, and now I share a property line in the woods with somewhat reclusive new neighbors. Sometimes I miss that old pond, and at the same time am glad people are living there that take good care of the place.

But here on these twenty five acres a steady transformation is happening, a confluence of fortuitous events, opportunities, and passion that brings me to the righteous work of land stewardship. Dad’s father was the classic outdoorsman: big game hunter, horseman, fisherman on the great rivers; he was also an insurance agency owner, writer, soldier, community organizer. He bought this land in the 1940s. It was mainly a sanctuary for wildlife, and for family too. Though the biggest thing I hunted was a squirrel once and my greatest fishing story entails catching bluegill in the pond, it’s fair to say habitat conservation is the one thing he began that I have the sacred honor of continuing, albeit in a slightly different form: sustainable food production. It seems few endeavors have a higher calling than to use the land to its fullest potential without destroying it. I’m picturing Scarlet O’Hara, holding that fistful of soil, intoning “Tara!”

I confess to having returned home some twenty years ago from my travels as a horse trainer mainly for sentimental reasons (and in no small part because the horse business burned me out). I knew my siblings wouldn’t want to live at the farm; I didn’t want it to pass out of the family when Grandma was gone. Beyond that, I had no concrete plans at the time. There was hardly a strategy involved. As it turns out, life had some kind of mysterious strategy for me. I found other work, kept my horse here, and assumed the role of caretaker for the fences, grounds and buildings… and I eventually became a caregiver too: first for Grandma, then for Dad.

They are each gone now, and the enduring embrace of this land spreads out before me like the promise of dawn in the high summer of my childhood. There is just enough capital from my inheritance to make a go of it, and a window of time to build a business. After two years of major renovations and new construction, 2018 beckons me to literally put my money where my mouth is. For a decade I’ve talked it up about sustainable farming, while faithfully supporting the local food producers. More than 50% of my grocery budget stays close to home; it goes to these friends and neighbors.

Chez Nous Farm (French for Our Home) is the culmination of my story, my life’s work. Its present chapter stands on the foundational experiences of the past and envisions a bold future: building a community around farming, food, and health. That strange confluence of fortuitous events, opportunities and passion I mentioned began in 2006 with the reading of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It had a dramatic and lasting effect not only on my thinking, but on choices. It was strangely akin to a religious conversion.

First and foremost, I was shocked at the level of my ignorance about the industrialization of food and its negative impacts on health. Secondly, I was angry that my concept of wholesome nutrition had been most of my life dictated by marketing — not science, education, or the wisdom of tradition. My lifestyle changed almost overnight: a big garden, a raw milk herd share, basics and creativity in the kitchen, chickens in the field, and no small amount of activism. Today, the mortgage is behind me; with tools and skills, with time, fitness, and passion — the path to take seems like, well, pretty darn clear. It’s a good thing I’m no stranger to hard work. People sometimes say “that’s a lot of work,” as if work in and of itself is a bad thing.

The myriad tasks seem impossible some days, in scope and in number, here in my single life. Managing my middle age energy budget and prioritization is the daily challenge. A few lines from that 70s Led Zeppelin song paints my picture:

Standin’ on the hill in my mountain of dreams
tellin’ myself
it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems

But singleness isn’t quite what it appears to be. Support comes in many forms other than a spouse or family. A dependable, affordable, available, and skilled neighbor with the world’s best collection of tools, materials and machines was introduced to me in 2015; that has made all the difference in the world. In fact, he has become like a good uncle, cheering me on and seeing that I have what is needed, going above and beyond the role of paid help. Now here is one of those fortuitous events referred to earlier. With that kind of support, one’s confidence leads to amazing achievements. We have put on metal roofing, built and installed replacement doors on every building, repaired sagging roofs, cleared land, constructed a starter greenhouse, and the list goes on. In some ways I am his apprentice, and appreciate very much the opportunity to learn about fixing things from someone with more experience.

Providence also sent me a local farmer to help manage the crop field, just when I needed a new one after deciding against another season of chemical based commodity grain production. No doubt passersby and neighbors wonder what the heck I’m doing, as they’ve never seen anyone use multi-species annuals as I transition that field to perennial pasture. In this neck o’ the woods, the norm is monoculture crops based on pesticides (they should be called biocides), synthetic fertilizers and genetically engineered seeds. The story of that transformation in our food system — another eye-opening epiphany, thanks to Michael Pollan and others — is a can of worms for a different essay.

Suffice it to say, I take this land stewardship role seriously — meaning there are some options that for me, are not really options. Using imagination and initiative is the path to seeing just what is possible, and “a lot of work” is just opportunity in disguise.