The Early Years
My love for farming started at a young age, though I was not able to act on it until decades later. We have a family cabin in Northern Michigan that we would visit every summer and it was my favorite place as a child. Down the road is a farm that my father worked at occasionally in his youth when he would visit the cabin with his parents. When we would visit, my older sister and I would walk down the road to play with the kids our age that lived on the farm. We would play in the barn, climb the hay, collect eggs, feed animals, run through the planted Christmas trees, and shoot BB guns. “HOW LUCKY THESE GUYS ARE.” I always thought. To me, a city boy, they were so fortunate to live in such an amazing place. Those kids likely thought otherwise at times but I was always envious of their lifestyle. To this day, any time I smell hay, I am transported back in time to playing in that barn during those summers that used to last forever.
When I was not up north at the cabin, I was in the woods. Although we lived in the city our house backed up to a large park that was separated by a few acres of woods. Days were spent building forts with the neighbor boys, trying to catch rabbits and playing in the creek and in the mud. We would pick berries, make traps, and protect our territory with plenty of weaponry as ninjas of the woods. I think it was back then I decided I would rather be in the woods any day over a day at the beach. Though I did enjoy my fair share of TV and video games, the passion for the outdoors was burning bright inside me.
That passion eventually inspired me to apply for a 1-year environmental school for 6th graders at a local nature center. I left my small school full of friends I had known all my life to attend this program and though I had much anxiety over my decision, it ended up being the best time of my life. After all, Blandford Nature Center is where I met my wife Meaghann for the first time, whom I then married 12 years later. Blandford is a half-century-plus-old family farm that turned into a nature center and school. They educate, engage, and empower the community to connect with nature and to connect with their food. During our year at Blandford our love for nature and the outdoors blossomed. We raised chickens with our classmates and sold eggs. We led guided tours through the woods and educated children and adults on nature and on pioneer life. We learned wonderful life lessons through hard work and tough love. Our year at Blandford was an incredible experience and made a lifelong impact that I reflect on regularly more than 20 years later.
Moving To The Country
Having loved the fields and woods at Blandford so much, I wanted to have my own. I longed to have a place where I could hunt and enjoy the outdoors, watching birds and looking for wildflowers. Meaghann and I married in 2007 and after a few years of living in the city, we bought a home on 4 acres in Lowell, MI. It wasn’t the piece of land I dreamed of but it was a great stepping stone toward the life we wanted to live. Our home was across the road from a farm that had over 100 longhorn cattle. There we bred chickens, made maple syrup, and grew more and more in our garden each year. We raised 4 boys in that home over 8 years and we slowly outgrew the acreage we had, all the while scrimping and saving and hustling to fulfill my dream of having our own farm. Though our boys loved looking out the windows every day at the longhorns and the tractors, we decided it was time to move on.
We Bought The Farm!
Now I would have been fine living on a couple hundred acres in the middle of nowhere. Meaghann, however, was not. Having our boys in a great school system was very important to us, as were the friends and neighbors we gained living in Lowell. Meaghann was adamant about staying in the same school district. After months of looking for a home and land that met our requirements, I wasn’t so sure that what we wanted actually existed in the location we needed. We almost decided to make an offer on a farm just on the other side of the school district line, where we would have had to do School of Choice for many years. As fate would have it, we decided to pass on it and the very next week the place of our dreams came on the market just down the same road, nestled in the very corner of the school district we wanted to stay in.
Meaghann and I took a guided tour of the property on golf carts and ATV’s. We went along the many trails to see fern-covered hills, a lovely creek, 40+ acres of woods, and 30 acres of planted corn and beans. We learned that it was a former tree farm and was now lined with rows of pines. It felt like a state park. Without saying a word to each other, we both agreed this is where we were meant to be. Without stepping foot into the house, we decided we needed to buy the property. Now of course we had seen the home online and toured it multiple times before we closed on it – it was not a complete afterthought, but we definitely bought the farm for the woods and the fields so our boys could grow up living the good life outdoors. And so in 2018 we went for it and moved our family of 6 into – you guessed it – a 1-bedroom home! We made plans for an addition on the home – which was definitely needed, as we soon made another addition to our family! Our 1st daughter and 5th child was welcomed onto the farm in 2019.
Discoveries and Barns
Our first year on the farm was full of discovery. We made our first maple syrup from our own trees (previously we went to the neighbor’s woods as we had no maples of our own). We grew our first crops and raised and butchered our first chickens, ducks, and turkeys. We ran water lines and planted berry bushes. Every week we were discovering something new on the farm, patches of blackberries, a hill of our favorite wildflower – Trillium, lilac bushes, intermittent ponds full of frogs, box turtles and snappers, popper plants (jewel weed) and so much more. Another discovery we made very quickly was the necessity of having outbuildings. Other than the challenging housing situation for our growing family, the other drawback to our farm was the lack of outbuildings. No farm is complete without a barn or two and with new construction being expensive, I decided to find an existing one and relocate it.
I was able to locate a 110’x20’ quonset hut barn a few miles away and over the course of a few weeks, the boys and I dismantled it and trucked it home. It was a lot of long hot days and it was quite the adventure. Now we get to have fun all over again as we raise it at our place! We will be splitting it into two buildings, to be used for livestock and for a processing and packing area.
From Reality TV to Reality
So, what about farming? While I have wanted to own land for many years, it wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I realized I wanted to be a farmer. I stumbled on a reality TV show called Farm Kings on the Great American Country Network. It was a show about this wonderful family of 9 siblings in Pennsylvania who started farming together “to make farming cool again”. They operated a farm stand, produced a ton of vegetables and poultry, and really connected with their community with the farm-to-table movement. They were in business together as a family and it was such an amazing venture they all took part in. However, I really thought it was unattainable for me. My perception of farming was that it was a legacy occupation and you had to be born into it or at least marry into it. I didn’t have hundreds of acres of land or hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. And I didn’t have the knowledge. I wished I had gone to school for Agriculture. Any time I would go to the county fair, I would be amazed by and jealous of these young kids who were milking cows and handling livestock with ease. There were a fraction of my age and had many years of experience on me. I thought my farming ship had sailed.
And then I stumbled onto Permaculture. After cutting the cord with our cable TV, I was looking for some content to watch on YouTube. I remembered the Farm Kings episode where one of the brothers traveled to Joel Salatin’s PolyFace farm in Virginia to apprentice. I searched Joel Salatin and watched a few interviews, and then stumbled onto a video that changed my life. One of the suggested videos that popped up was one of Justin Rhodes’ Great American Farm Tour videos. This particular episode was when Justin and his family visited JM Fortier’s farm in Quebec. What caught my attention was the title of the video – How Market Gardener, JM Fortier, Farms 8 Acres (Without A Tractor). “Wait a minute!” I thought. I have 8 acres now! And I don’t have a tractor! I watched the video of Justin and his family tour the amazing small farm that was doing very big things. It was my first exposure to permaculture and market gardening. It was amazing.
I immediately became a fan of Justin Rhodes and his wonderful family. They have 4 children, just like us at the time. Very similar ages as well. I began my winter of binge watching of all of Justin’s videos, especially the Great American Farm Tour, where they took a year of their life to travel the country in a converted school bus as a family, visiting amazing small farms in every state in the country. I was so inspired and encouraged by all of these like-minded people who were growing healthy food, healing the land, working incredibly hard, and making the world a better place. I made Meaghann rewatch a number of videos with me. I whispered to myself, “I could do this.” The thought stuck with me while the next year flew by.
The Longest Year Of Our Life
In addition to all of the discoveries that were made in our first months on the farm, the first year was dedicated to infrastructure and learning. I built chicken tractors and mobile chicken coops. I ran a couple thousand feet of water line through the woods. We planted our first crops and turned a cornfield into a pasture. We tore down the big barn and broke ground to re-erect it. All while I absorbed myself in permaculture. I read books by Joel Salatin and JM Fortier. I joined a dozen groups on social media that were focused on permaculture, sustainability, and farming. I began visiting and worked a bit on organic farms several hours away (the amazing Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, MI with Brian Bates, the incredible Sower’s Purse Microfarm in Benton Harbor, MI with Chris DiCicco, and even the faraway De Stadsgroenteboer farm in Amsterdam, Netherlands with Andres Jara). I made contacts and friends with amazing folks like Casey Ostwinch at Honey Tree Farm in Conover, NC and grew incredibly grateful to those who took the time to educate me and offer their sage advice. I did all this while working a regular career in finance. I even changed employers that year, which was a rarity for me. Oh, and somewhere in that exhausting first year we welcomed our beautiful daughter Lily into the world! People always asked, how do you do it all? 5 kids, 3 playing sports, a career, a farm – how do you have time for everything? One of my favorite comments I received was from our wonderful neighbor Greg who we bought the farm from – “I get tired any time I even think of you.”
Truth be told, it was a very long year. The longest and hardest 365 days we’ve had so far. I tried to make the most of every minute I was not at my day job. Building a better life on nights and weekends is awfully hard to do. But early in that year I was asked a question and it lingered in the back of my mind for months.
The Big Question
After meeting so many amazing farmers and homesteaders across all 50 states on the Great American Farm Tour, Justin Rhodes posed a question to his viewers, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I scoffed at such a silly question. To me it was obvious. If I WASN’T afraid, I would simply become a full-time farmer. The answer was the easy part; it was the question that I struggled with. And therein was the problem – I was, in fact, afraid. The prospect of farming full time was terrifying. It was also unbelievably alluring. The risks were high – starting a business in a field (pun intended) that is stereotypically thankless with long hours and low pay. All of this with a large mortgage payment, a bunch of little mouths to feed, and plenty of startup costs. I talked with people about the notion of it all. Some thought I was crazy, mainly family. Some laughed and said I will end up poor. Others thought it was an amazing idea and offered lots of encouragement. Some mentors suggested jumping right in with two feet and others advised easing myself slowly into the hot tub.
I asked myself that question countless times throughout our first year. I looked at myself in the mirror and there staring back at me was a face showing signs of fading youth coupled with ever-emerging gray hair. Here I was in my mid-30’s feeling as if life was passing me by with my dreams still in my chest. After much consideration, I decided I needed to play my part in making the world a Better Place and start making my dream become a reality. The seeds that were planted long ago began to sprout, and Better Place Farm was born.