Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.
Letting go is one of the hardest things to do in this life. Letting go of expectations, of the notion that you can do everything, that you can control everything. But in the process of letting go, of minimizing, you make space for a freedom that’s more rewarding than control. You allow for magic and meaning.
Meet Richard Moyer and his family. I was lucky enough to meet his wife, Jenny, and his children, Kristina, Timothy (it was his birthday!) and Melissa, on the farm that day. Timothy, known as the “wasp whisperer” was feeding grubs to baby chicks, while Kristina prepared to milk the cows.
They offer grass-fed beef, eggs from ducks, chickens and geese, and an assortment of vegetables, heavily focusing on tomatoes this year. I was joined by local farmer, Neal Reid, on this eye-opening visit. They live in an old farmhouse, built by a family dedicated to mindful farming at a time where food was worth so much more. The man down the street who paid for his first two years of school by selling duck eggs. We live in a world now of industrialization where food is merely a commodity. A world in which taking the time to prepare and enjoy food is perceived as inconvenient to our daily lives. Richard has instilled in his life the act of mindfulness through planting, harvesting and consuming. Their farm was another reminder of interconnectedness from who we buy from to the water that runs off a property line and into major lakes and rivers. All the dots connect somewhere.
In the class Richard teaches, there’s an assignment where students are asked to interview a farmer, cook up their food and serve it. Most of the students report back that they were shocked how affordable it was and how much more they enjoyed the food, knowing where and who it came from. I recently made the switch to purchasing almost all of my own food from local farmers, and though it takes an adjustment in seasonal dishes, it’s made meals more fun knowing that the entire affair consists of honest work. I waste less, I enjoy the food more. And slowly, but surely, I’m learning to let go and allow, in more ways than one, throughout my life.
The big question is: how do we educate future generations in economically viable ways to expand grass-fed and organic food? Because really, it’s all about getting back to simplicity and intentionality. Real food is worth celebrating!
Enjoy the following interview and photos where Richard, Neal and I discuss the problems we’re facing today and leading an intentional lifestyle!
Richard: So, the people that grew up here. They remember…that huge tree over there is an ash tree…and the man, Chuck, remembers his mom was sitting on the porch one day and she said…go on top of those hills and bring me an ash seed because we need an ash tree in the front yard. That says a bunch of things. They were educating the kids about what all the trees were, so he knew what an ash tree was. And intentionality—she envisioned “I want a big tree in the front yard, I want it from that spot”, and he came back with the ash tree, planted it, and there that ash tree is. And then these two Walnut trees were seedlings that came up on their own. And they decided they were going to leave them. So, they left them. It’s interesting to hear again about the intentionality. A lot of history here. So, we’re interested in honoring and a sense of continuing the families that grew up in this area that provided for their needs and the needs of others. So that’s what we do. We grow things here. That’s why I quit teaching full-time. I was up for a sabbatical at King and I wanted to learn how to farm, grass-based farm, minimal input farming. So, I did at Roffey Cattle Company first, where Dwayne and his family are right now, for fifteen months. Then looked for a farm that worked for us, and been doing it here now for ten years. We grow for our own needs and sell the extra for the farmer’s market. Occasionally we sell to other things, mostly to people in Abingdon because I like the people connection. Neal knows that. I just respect people who love food. I was thinking this morning the idea of honoring people, but also honoring plants and honoring food and making a connection with people.
Sarah: You’ve been technically farming most of your life, just not at the same scale?
R: Since ’92, we grew most of our own food. But it’s a family heritage. Both sides of our family. One of the best gifts was at my grandmother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, at the funeral it was an extended weekend, and people came forward…I’ll never forget, a little old lady came up and said, may I tell you about your grandmother? She said, when we were five we used to be best friends and we’d wander around the fields together and we’d pick flowers and make crowns for our head. And it was such a gift, hard not to tear up talking about it. But then there’s other people in the family that came up and they just started laughing about all the farming things they’d done, gardening things. The time they tried to make ketchup and it ended up looking like apple butter, and all the funny things they shared. But I got the sense that this a family heritage, of growing food, preserving food, and then making things with food. My mother’s side of the family, we used to always get together and shell out butter beans, pecans…this is Georgia. And that was family time. So, I’m glad to be able to pass that down to my children. Hopefully their children too. But we’re always learning.
S: Oh look at the chicks with their Momma! (They were actually baby turkeys that the Brooding Hen watches over. How amazing!)
R: We got those from David and Barbara King originally. We went to them and said we want some hens that do a great job of raising their young without a lot of care on our part. I don’t know if it’s laziness or efficiency.
Neal: I get it, totally!
R: I’ve got enough to keep me busy. If an animal can love to do what they want to do and we can partner with them to reach our goals, then that’s the kind of animal I want. Or plant, too.
N: No laziness there.
R: I want to avoid the idea that I’m good and somebody else is bad. That we’re better than you. But still, sometimes we’re blinded, we get stuck where we are and don’t realize how we got there, and so sometimes it’s fun or gratifying to be able to push back. So, when we say this is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it, it’s not to label “black and white”, “good/bad”, but they’re alternatives. Farming can be such drudgery, but if you can be open and aware of the possibilities, of letting animals do the work. To me, as a biologist, I always want to have stuff blooming for the pollinators because pollinators are a huge part of ecosystems. We’re certified organic in all of our plots, and organic requires you to have a farm plan that values pharmacology, the whole ecological system. And the more I read, the more I realize that we always need to have something blooming. When I was eleven to eighteen I had a lawn business. I spent a whole lot of time caring for landscapes to other people’s standards. It was the idea of, there’s a little weed over there! Go boy, get rid of it! What’s that weed doing here? So, it’s like, the flip side of that. I’m just letting it happen. There are pollinators and beneficial insects that need that nectar to survive the winter. So, I want to have stuff blooming as long as possible.
N: I love that paradigm. We were talking about that on the way over here. It’s easy to internalize or put on yourself a real sense of shame for weeds when you think about those standards you were talking about. What a beautiful paradigm shift towards letting go of the sort of vanity of how you think it looks, or how you think other people perceive it to look and view it more through the lens of what’s healthy for your ecosystem, which is obviously much more important.
S: And what was the wording you used for natural cycles? Minimal input?
R: Just in terms of honoring the natural cycles that are here. Minimizing all farm inputs, and the idea that we can control anything. The plants want to reproduce. Everything wants to reproduce, and so if we can work with that and manage it and step back. Standing on the edges, doing some directions and nudges here and there. And then seeing what happens, and you’re always surprised which is part of the fun, part of the journey. When people come and they’re like, what about all the snakes? What about ticks? It’s almost like they’re caught in this Grimm’s fairytale, you know, danger of the deep, dark places.
S: It’s because we live in a very sterile world now. We also live in a world where if you don’t mow your lawn in a neighborhood…well I don’t know what’s gonna get you. I guess the boogey man will get you? But it’s like a problem to people for things not to be perfect, so there’s a negative connotation with weeds.
R: I hear that. And so, I don’t spray for tomato worms because there are little tiny wasps that will take care of them. I don’t manage for cabbage loopers because we have the paper wasp and other wasps that eat those and keep those at sustainable levels. And again, this is part of the organic system, that you want to manage for whole, healthy ecosystems. You gotta let things balance. But then you’ve got to tolerate some stuff. It encourages you to let go of some stuff. Once you start questioning some parts of paradigms, it makes it easier to question others as well. And that’s part of the fun. Our tomatoes sell well and we’ve got to be able to take them to market. But we get on this chemical treadmill of, at the first sign of damage you’ve gotta spray with chemicals. Well, that’s money and time. And I’m trying to minimize my use of time and my use of money. Let the systems take care of themselves. Again, that goes back to the people who grew up here. They didn’t have cash. Sometimes I get fooled in the sense that I do have the money, and I think, well I’ve just gotta run out and buy this.
R: It adds up. These are the two babies and two mommas. Where’s calf two? Did it run up ahead?
N: These are beautiful animals.
R: We also do milk on grass alone. I say this is the best kind of alchemy when these animals take weeds that we can’t eat and they turn it into high quality grass. And there’s a human tradition, an agricultural-pastural traditions, for tens of thousands of years where people have partnered with animals and the animals can go out and get, to them, what’s high quality food. We make cheese, butter, sour cream, kefir, and ice cream.
S: Does everybody have their different projects that they work on here?
R: Yeah. It’s an evolving thing. My oldest son’s away at college, my oldest daughter just got married this summer, and the other daughter is a cook out in Colorado. So, we’re trying to adjust to less. We’re trying to figure out which crops and which things work best for us. One model is to do three or four crops at a time and to do them really well. And it can change over the season. Other people, they’ll do like forty something crops. Other people, like Neal, can do some of the very best heirloom tomatoes and be known for that. And then we have so many different heirlooms at our market.
(At the milking station)
N: This is wonderful.
R: So, this building, you can see the hand-hewn logs there where you can see the ax marks where they shaped those logs. We use artificial insemination. We get New Zealand semen, because in New Zealand they’re not on a grain-based meat and milk production. They do it on grass alone. They’ve had a lot of years of research of improving their herds to be on grass alone. People have said, what if the USDA had spent the same amount of time improving cattle breeds and doing nutritional studies on grass alone and how to produce better grass, versus all the effort we’ve done to show how to do meat and milk on grain? So, we get New Zealand semen from the best bulls down there. I go to conferences and people say, you can’t have healthy cattle on grass alone. And part of the reason is because we don’t focus on producing high enough quality grass. We fill in the gaps with corn and soy, which in one sense is cheap calories, but when you total up the cost.
N: Externalities. [noun—a side effect of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods]
R: Let’s go up here and look at tomatoes. We heat with wood. I really like the idea, too, that every bit of heat in our house, we know where it comes from. And some of these logs we then use to grow mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. But again, I know right where this tree came from and I can point to the spot where the sun was captured, the wood I’m growing mushrooms with. I just like the idea of local. Local heat source, local wood. I’d rather just use what’s here.
N: You keep going on back to the sun and it seems like you’re very aware of the solar energy component, it all comes back to that for you.
R: Wendell Berry [environmental activist, poet, farmer] says shorten your supply lines. Which is both a challenge and a quest or an adventure, I should say. A journey or an adventure. I don’t wanna see it as a burden, but how can we continue to shorten our supply lines? Because the people that grew up here, this worked for them and there was a time when people could make a good living from farming alone. So, we put out six hundred tomato plants and the most we’ve done is eight hundred. These are all heirlooms, all disease resistant, so we do minimal spray.
S: Did you do seed saving for them?
R: Some of these. Most of the seeds are from Southern Exposure. It’s all organic.
S: And is Southern Exposure a catalog that you can order from?
R: Yeah, they’re a community near Charlottesville. We’ve been growing seed for them for years. They did a great job of what works here. All these tomatoes have a story. This is an “Eva Purple Ball”. This one was developed in 1888 in the black forest of Germany. And it works well for us. This one is a “Mortgage Lifter”.
N: I’ve heard of this one!
R: So, you can look at the size of these tomatoes. This was bred in West Virginia and a man paid off his mortgage in one year selling plants of this tomato. He bred it. But look at the density of foliage and how healthy it is.
N: Didn’t he do twelve varieties and crossed them into one super tomato?
R: Yeah, he’d put them all together and he kept doing that. Selecting for size. Look at this guy!
S: Oh, my gosh! So, it eats off the bacteria?
R: A lot of people see that and think, oh I’ve got to kill that. My kids used to see those and think we’ve got to feed it to the chickens because the chickens will fight over it. But, that is a factory right now in the positive sense of parasites. It’s been parasitized by wasps, most likely, and it’s gonna have tiny little cocoons all over it soon. If we can be patient and leave this here, if I let nature take care of it, I don’t have to spend the time or the money to buy the spray. Why not just celebrate the natural cycles, tolerate a little bit of damage and then allow the predators to come in to control that? Oh! One thing you’ll appreciate, you can see this here. When the bottom leaves die, it’s got all this new foliage coming up. Quality tomatoes need leaves because leaves are solar collectors. Then all the sugars and flavors get stored in the tomatoes. The plant makes tasty fruit. This is my teacher in me…why do plants make tasty fruit?
S: Why do the plants make tasty fruit?
R: What’s the goal of it? They could just make a bare seed, but they surround the seed in something that looks good, smells good, and tastes good.
N: To make it transferrable to help itself spread.
R: Yeah! They want their children to do well, is what the plant does. It’s calling all these animals out here saying that I’ve got this green thing now. It’s hard, it’s crunchy, it’s starchy, don’t bother it now. Come check back when the color changes and it has all these aromas. I’ve got sweetness there for you. I’ve got protein. I’ve got fats. I’m gonna nourish you if you help me spread my children. I want my children to do well, I want my children to go to the world and succeed other places, not hang around home. So, the plant rewards the animals it partners with. So, Neal, there’s a lot of things I haven’t done this year but I have, to do some degree tried to get the tomatoes taken care of. At the end of day, or sometimes first thing in the morning I think, I can’t get everything done today. It’s the time of the year where you’ve gotta give up on some things.
N: Yeah. Let go!
R: You know?? It’s not all gonna get done to my ideal this year and sometimes I’m uncomfortable with this money grubbing thing of, I gotta get my money, gotta get my money! You sit down, you look at your books, what’s coming in and what your outlays are. Sometimes you gotta make money to keep doing it. If you’re gonna hold onto the land and keep this heritage going, you gotta figure out what makes money for you. But part of that is what you enjoy doing. The ideal is when the things that make money and the things that bring joy to you and your customers, when those can come together sometimes. So, tomatoes for us are one thing.
S: Do you have a personal favorite task on the farm?
R: That’s a good question and it’s like asking me to name a favorite child.
S: It seems like, for you as a science mind and everything, that putting together the pieces of the puzzle is something that you enjoy every day. Every day is a new problem to solve.
R: But there’s also a sense of wonder in that, and joy. I wanna keep that in mind, too, because so many people talk about farming as drudgery. We need to figure out how to bring on future generations. Whenever people come to the farm, I say, don’t teach me, teach my kids. I want you to teach the next generation.