Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Happy Birthday Laura Ingalls!

Despite appearances otherwise, this picture of a belligerent pioneer girl is from my own childhood and NOT the childhood of Laura Ingalls.  It was taken when I was four, on one of the re-enactment wagon trains which my mother so adored . . . and I was absolutely convinced was a level of hell which Dante forgot to include.  The only reason I tolerated these weeklong excursions on horseback across the Dakota Prairie was because I hoped it would bring me closer in spirit to Laura.  From an early age, I was completely in love with the stories of her life which she told in the Little House books.  Today is the 150th anniversary of her birth, and I am reflecting on the impact which Laura had on my life.

As a child, I read and re-read all the books in the Little House series.  Laura's adventures seemed so real to me.  I learned the lesson of always obeying one's mother when Laura's life was saved from a possible bear attack because she did exactly as her mother told her.  I knew Laura & I had to be kindred spirits with her love of her dog Jack, just as I loved our dogs Mop and Aaron and Sadie.  When Jack went missing during their wagon travels, I was heartbroken.  And when he found the family again, I was as joyful as Laura must have been.  I worried about Mary when she went blind, detested Nellie Olsen for being such a snob, and understood why Laura loved working with Pa on his farm.  As a child, my concept of true love was based on the courtship of Laura & Almanzo.  The life which Laura wrote about influenced so much of my perception of my own world.  Even the dresses I chose as a child tended to have a "prairie" influence!

Before I could read the books myself, my mother read Laura's stories to me.  These stories became something that strengthened the bond between us.  My mother knew she could "shorthand" any lesson she wanted to teach me by referencing something that Laura experienced.  We took many trips to visit Laura's homes.  As a child, my mother would let me pick out a doll or another memento when we visited one of those historic sites.  As an adult, I would buy any book about Laura, and then my mother would read it to me as I drove during our travels.  We saw the Little House in the Big Woods in Pepin WI, drove to the cemetery in Independence KS to pay our respects to Dr. Tan who saved the Ingalls family from Malaria, hiked to the site of the dugout on the Banks of Plum Creek, and visited the hotel at Burr Oak IA that Pa Ingalls briefly managed.  Many family trips were taken to DeSmet SD to tour the Surveyor's House, visit the replica of the Brewster School, see the still-standing Cottonwoods that Pa planted on his land claim and read the historic marker there (on which Bette the Poodle enjoyed posing), and pay our respects at the cemetery to Pa, Ma, Mary, and Carrie.  One of my favourite memories was the visit that my mother & I made to the home of Laura & Almanzo in Missouri.  We had an amazing time there, and I learned a great deal about Laura as a writer.  Even more important: I learned that Laura & Almanzo had a herd of goats at Rocky Ridge Farm!  

Through these travels, I learned that the Laura Ingalls Society sponsored an annual essay contest.  In 2007, I wrote an entry about my travels with my mother to Laura's homes, how these experiences drew us closer, and the lessons that Laura & I both learned from our mothers.  It was a humbling moment to be able to surprise my mother with the good news of the recognition I received for that essay.  She was in the last months of her battle with cancer, and I was tremendously excited to surprise her with the essay I wrote on our travels together and the award I received for it.  Laura Ingalls may have lived so long before me, but her words taught me lessons, exposed me to new ideas, and allowed me to experience her adventures.  Reading these stories with my mother deepened the bond between us and I am terrifically grateful for the happy memories which we shared through our love of Laura's books.

When I was a child, an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I can still vividly recall how she laughed at me when I said I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.  I was quite indignant as a five year old that this adult could not appreciate my life goals and told me dismissively that I could not be Laura Ingalls.  And now at age 40, I am a teacher, I am a farmer, I have travelled this country, I am a writer, and I own goats . . . Life goals achieved!  Laura's words still influence my life.  Frequently when I think of leaving the farm for a quick errand while looking an awful mess, I recall Laura's admonition that when you go to town you are always representing the farm community -- and then I get dressed up as Laura would to best represent farmers.  I am grateful that my mother inspired me to love reading and introduced me to Laura, I am fortunate that I found such a remarkable woman to inspire my mind as a child, and I am grateful that Laura Ingalls taught me that a person's life lived with dignity can impact others long after they have passed.  

Happy Birthday, Laura!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A New Year at Harrison Farm

On New Year's Eve, it seemed that every little thing that could go wrong did.  Nothing was catastrophic, but nothing went smoothly.  The animals wanted my full attention, and thus endeavored to create every scenario possible to keep me in the barn.  I finally ducked out to get to the post office before it closed at 10:30 . . . And walked in as the counter officially shut down.  This meant a detour to another post office -- but first a trip to the feed mill.  In an effort to be on time to the post office, I had left my feed sacks for filling at home, and therefore had to purchase new ones.  And then it turned out that part of what I needed was not ready, and so a second trip would have to be made back to the feed mill later that day.  The weather was gray & depressing, I was fighting a headache, I got stuck on an hour & a half customer service call, and by 8pm I was in my garage still trying to prepare hides for tanning.  There is only so long a hide is fresh and can be salted, and so I absolutely had to finish that task even though it was New Year's Eve.  It is a whole new level of partying when you find yourself on your knees in a cold garage scraping flesh off hides on New Year's Eve!  I will admit that my attitude was more than a little cross at that point, and then I made the decision that I needed to change my perspective on the day.

My lengthy customer service conversation that afternoon had been with a representative to renew the domain name for Chimeara.com.  It expired on New Year's Eve -- which I had known for three weeks but did not focus on until I realized the date had "suddenly" arrived.  Just my luck: the customer service rep was named Matt.  We spent a LOT of time waiting for computer screens to process information, and thus Customer Service Matt learned a great deal about goats and about the Matt who broke my heart.  On New Year's Eve 2015, my Matt -- the man who I had loved with my whole heart -- had asked to come out to the farm that evening.  Because I am a decided romantic, I bought some very nice filets and cooked quite an outstanding dinner.  After all, if a gentleman asks to see a lady on New Year's Eve, it must be a date.  I adored Matt with all my heart, and happily welcomed him to my home that night, with the unrelenting hope that we could restore our relationship.  He heartily ate the meal, and then it slowly dawned on me that he only wanted access to my home to get the rest of his belongings.  Rather a heartbreaking situation for those meager remnants of my already shattered heart.  I told the story to Customer Service Matt when he asked about my New Year's plans.  I observed that even being on a lengthy call was better than my previous year, and then he got the full story when he inquired why.  I made Customer Service Matt promise he would never behave like Matt who broke my heart.

So there I was in my Carhartt overalls that evening, scraping flesh off a hide, and trying to improve my perspective about my world.  The hide was being prepared to tan and then market as part of my expanding farm business.  This was part of my effort to honor my animals by using every part of their body that I could to support the farm.  That concept is part of my belief that every animal on the farm must contribute: some contribute by being parents, some by being guardians, some by being companions, and some by being meat.  The farm I love can only be a working farm if every creature on it -- including me -- contributes to it.  And that farm is growing because of my long hours working on it, and because of the stubborn attitude that keeps me going even when others would quit.  Slowly that night, I began to adjust my perspective to understand that even a simple messy task at an inconvenient time could be an emblem of success.

2015 was the most painful time of my life.  The second half of that year brought so many unimaginable challenges.  The analogy occurred to me just recently that I had functioned like a shell-shocked soldier for much of 2015.  I just could not fathom the crises that kept raining down on me, as they followed so closely on the heels of the very happiest time of my life.  I had loved Matt completely, I was decidedly happy working at his family's farm, and I could not wait for the future which we were planning.  And then everything fell apart.  Everything.  And I could barely function from being repeatedly worn down.  A broken relationship, deaths, the robbery of my home, unexpected job transitions, my health issues, severe financial struggles, rejection by extended family members . . . I looked onto my own life like a soldier in the trenches of the Great War who could not get a grip on the destruction around him.

My greatest accomplishment in the first quarter of 2016 was that I did not kill myself.  No one intends for "suicidal" to be an adjective that applies to them.  I cannot fault myself for my struggles, as my entire world was crashing down around me.  My job had unexpectedly ended, and so I was home all day in a drafty farmhouse with a furnace that kept malfunctioning.  My grandmother's belongings from her retirement home were in boxes overtaking the dining room and living room.  I was in a chaotic house where my mother had lived, where my grandparents had lived, and where my great-grandparents had lived . . . And like the Last of the Mohicans, I was the only one left.  I viewed myself as a colossal failure to the dreams of my ancestors, as I sat miserably in a house swirling with their memories.  I had no money, I had no job, and I was terrified of having another seizure.  I had gone off of my anti-seizure medication as Matt & I intended to start a family as soon as we married -- and now there would be no marriage, no children, and no Matt.  There I sat in a house that felt like my tomb, and struggled to find any reasons to keep going.

Even if I could not see it then, I had many things that kept me going.  There have been people in my world who teased me about my devotion to my family, but those ancestors handed down to me their toughness, their discipline, and a hearty dose of the notorious Harrison stubborn streak.  So I just kept going.  There have been people in my world who teased me about my love of animals, but those animals gave me a reason to literally get out of bed every morning.  There have been people who teased me about the value I put on relationships, but those friends kept checking on me & loving me even when I was at my worst.  I did lose some people when my world became so difficult, however, I can no longer regret their absence.  After my dark months, I know that the friends who stood by me are the truest friends that a person could ever imagine.  I did not want to let down my family, I did not want to let down my animals, and I did not want to let down my friends.  So I just kept going, and now I am decidedly proud of myself for that.

We are doing things at Harrison Farm that I could never have imagined a year ago.  We tan hides.  We have a successful egg business.  We make delicious lamb sausages.  We have an internship program that includes Friday Fun Day.  We are a real LLC.  We exhibit our Chimeara line of etchings & jewelry inspired by animals at local shows.  We do event planning work for weddings, and non-profits events, and political fundraisers. We have an ad in our church bulletin.  We are building a website.  We were in Edible Columbus.  We host amazing goat yoga classes and Open Farm events.  I use the term "we" because I know keenly that the farm would not be here -- and I would not be here -- if not for the good friends who support me.  This farm is not just about me, it is about every single person who kept me going to get to this day.  And today in particular is the very first day that I awoke in the farmhouse that I now own, on the farm that I now own.  Perhaps the biggest change in my world is that I now legally own the land which my ancestors originally purchased in 1927.  I blissfully own it, but I will never lose sight of the fact that this miracle only happened because of everyone who gave me a reason to get to this day.

On New Year's Eve I changed my perspective.  I finished my work, put on one of my ridiculous miniskirts & mad bomber hats, swung by the feed mill to pick up the rest of my order on their dock (yep, me throwing fifty pound sacks of feed in a miniskirt is impressive), and then went to a friend's house to enjoy the last couple hours of 2016.  Another miracle of my world besides my loyal long-time friends, is the new friends who have enriched my world in the past year.  The rest of New Year's Eve, and then a brunch on New Year's Day, were spent with friends who became a very big part of my heart in 2016.  Any time I start to feel down about my world, I think about my friends -- and I know that I am the luckiest person in the world.

Through those dark days a year ago, I clung to the lessons of my family.  The integrity my mother instilled in me, the honesty which my grandmother emphasized to me, and the loyalty my grandfather displayed.  I thought so much about Monnie Harrison: home alone, with a fire about to destroy her home, using every ounce of her strength to push her piano out of the conflagration.  I tell that story to every young person who works for me, with the admonition that you never know how strong you are until you are required to be.  That piano is now legally mine, and I believe in my own way I finally showed myself tough enough to be its owner.  How remarkable and how foolish in the face of peril to save a beloved piano from a house fire.  How remarkable and how foolish in the face of peril to risk everything to preserve a family farm.  There have been many people who did not believe in me, but somehow my friends did so even at the times that I did not.  For the first time in my life, I truly feel worthy to be the daughter of Rebecca, to be the granddaughter of Virgil, to be the great-granddaughter of Monnie.

Dulcius ex asperis.  Sweeter after difficulty.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thoughts from Anonymous

This morning, I got up, walked my dog, fed the cats, turned off the night lights I leave on in the barn for the babies, checked water for the animals, let the chickens out to range, gave the chickens fresh water, and then made myself some coffee.  That is my usual start to the day -- all while still in my glamorous pajamas & muck boots ensemble.  Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love my morning coffee.  It is the standard routine, however, that I take care of the animals before I have breakfast.  I love my coffee, but I love my animals more.  I may joke about the fact that the animals get better food & medical care than I do, but it is true.  Inevitably, I really do budget for my own needs after theirs are met.  Harrison Farm is a livestock farm, and -- like all livestock farms -- the well-being of the animals drives the well-being of the farm, which then provides for the well-being of the farmer.

After my morning routine in the barn today, I checked my email, and found this post on my blog from Anonymous: "There's nothing humane about taking the life of a sentient being, you are really confused about love and caring if you think you should kill things that you love. You don't need to eat meat and you are a shitty human being. Personal choices don't have victims and you are just another blinded human. Find your compassion, because you obviously lost it somewhere along the lines of becoming a killing machine. You suck."

Did you read that, friends?  I suck.  I am a shitty human being.  I have lost my compassion to become a killing machine.  

I suspect that Anonymous does not know me.  If they knew me, if they had ever visited this farm, they would know without a doubt that my life is spent caring for this land and the creatures upon it.  If they knew me, they would know that I do without things to make sure my animals have what they need.  I have spent the last six months without a working clothes dryer -- but Cecilia Donkey got the vet treatment she needed to restore her hooves to health.  Decisions like that are standard in my world, because I do love this farm and I do love my animals.  Anonymous does not know the hours I spend working off-the-farm to provide income to keep the farm going, much less the late nights I spend working in the barn after I return home to ensure every animal receives care each & every day . . . No matter how tired I am.  

Anonymous also does not know that today is the day I have long dreaded and feared.  The day that the farmland is being auctioned off to the highest bidder.  I have spent my life on this land.  I love this land with every fiber of my being.  After watching my mother and my grandparents devote their lives to this farm, it would be an affront to their memory if I did not love this land.  And so on the day that I promised I would take it easy on myself, Anonymous decided that was an appropriate time to tell me what a "shitty human being" I am.

From time to time in the farm community, a reference to the "vegan agenda" will be made.  I have many friends who are vegetarian, and some of the people dearest to my heart are vegan.  They know me, and they know my farm, and they respect that I am virtually a carnivore.  I respect that they choose to eat the diet that works for them, just as my diet works for me.  And when you show love & respect to those around you, then differences in perspective only enrich relationships.  Thus, when I hear someone reference the "vegan agenda", I find a way to point out that choosing to eat a plant-based diet does not mean a person is opposed to farming.  That being said, I can understand why a farmer would feel defensive when individuals judge their work without understanding it.  That is what Anonymous is doing to me.  

Anonymous does not know that my life has been one of hard work and many trials.  Anonymous does not know that this journey has forced me to establish and refine a belief system on life, and its value, and the ethics of eating meat.  Anonymous does not know that people who are related to me have said far worse things about me than what they posted, and thus I have been forced to recognize that I do not care what someone thinks of me unless it is someone whom I respect.  Anonymous does not know that my role models are my amazing friends who are champions of integrity, and kindness, and achievement.  Anonymous does not know that I have endeavored to develop the ability to tell the people I love when they are wrong, in a manner that shares my appreciation of them while providing my own perspective.  When I disagree with someone, I do so as Katherine Harrison.  If Anonymous cannot stand in disagreement with me while saying who they are, then this is cowardice.  And as Cap Garland told Almanzo Wilder, God hates a coward.

Friends, if you are reading this, you know me.  You know who I am, you know my struggles, you know my heart.  I hope you are unsettled by what Anonymous wrote.  I hope it makes you pause before you issue a judgement on someone without knowing their heart.  I hope that what you learn from this is to not be "Anonymous".  The world has plenty self-righteous individuals who judge others; it needs more kindhearted individuals who lead with love.  Anonymous did put a dent in my morning, but those who act with cowardice & judgement have not stopped Harrison Farm thus far -- and certainly will not today.  We live as if the world were what it should be, to show it what it can be.  And, frankly, when I go back to the barn, my animals will care much more about what I do to help them, than anything posted on the Internet.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Words Matter

On this penultimate day of my thirties, I am reflecting greatly on my grandfather and what he taught me.  He was a giant of a man -- in height, in character, and in intellect.  He was kind and patient, no matter the situation.  I saw him extend to everyone he met the same courtesy, no matter what their race or creed or nationality or orientation might be.  He had a smile as brilliant as the sun, he loved a good story, and he truly cared about each person in his world.  My grandfather did not drink, did not gossip, never smoked, and to the best of my knowledge he only cursed twice (once in re-telling a story to a neighbor which included a curse word and once in the presence of my grandmother when he was angered).  His appreciation for the arts and his love of a witty joke negated any chance of him becoming a prude.  He never failed to offer gentlemanly behavior toward a lady, yet raised his granddaughter to be able to manage any task from driving a tractor to castrating a lamb.  He was a great man.

Of late, I have reflected often on what he would say about the evolution of society and the current political situation.  One of my mother's best friends sent me a note recently which touched my heart with its memories of my grandfather.  He was a hard worker, he was always patient, and he truly loved his farm.  In my youth, I did not realize just how marvelous it was that he worked with his hands all day -- operating equipment, caring for animals, fixing every broken thing on the farm -- and then withdrew to his study at the end of the day to pore over one of the books from his library.  Shakespeare's collected works, the journals of Lewis & Clark, his favorite Lincoln biography "With Malice Toward None".  He encouraged me to read, and he engaged me in debates on both history and current events from the time I was small.  I marvel now that the caliber of his words & actions were a reflection of the quality of the thoughts which his mind entertained.  

My grandfather was a gentleman.  He was a man.  He had no patience for men who cheated on their spouse or failed their families.  My grandfather worked every day.  He was understanding of those who faced challenges that impacted their ability to work, but had no patience for laziness.  He cared about the integrity of a person's soul.  He voted in every election, with the belief that the franchise was a great blessing to all American citizens.  He loved his country, and he tended to support politicians who exhibited a similar love of country and integrity of character.  Just as he had no patience for Roosevelt or Kennedy cheating on their wives, I am sure he would not forgive the adultery of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.  My grandfather taught me to think before I spoke.  This was not an easy lesson for me, and I am still learning it.  Yet, if even I can make some achievement toward this goal, it seems all the more ridiculous that a presidential candidate of any party would think themselves above this lesson.

Friends, in the last week, I have become quite despondent at the magnitude of unpleasantness in social media.  I have found that if you express outrage at the words of Donald Trump, then you are immediately attacked as a supporter of Hilary Clinton.  I have heard people excuse Trump with the term "locker room" conversation, and say that people should "get over it".  Memes posted by my friends have indicated that if you have read Fifty Shades of Grey, you have no right to be offended by discussion by Mr. Trump of sexual assault behavior.  While I have not read Fifty Shades of Gray, I am rather taken aback that a choice of literature should diminish a woman's right to be offended by unacceptable words.  I am personally offended by both the sexual indiscretions of both Mr. Trump and former President Clinton.  This is not about a political ideology or party, this is about having the integrity to say when words or behavior are unacceptable.  These are not "just words" when they demoralize others.  If an individual posted a terrorist threat on social media with no intent of actually carrying it out, I doubt anyone who is excusing Mr. Trump would say these were "just words".

My grandfather was a man.  Individuals who speak as Donald Trump and Billy Bush did are either children or perverts . . . They are not men.  Real men do not speak in that manner toward any person.  I support my friends who are voting for Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton who are able to elucidate how they reached those decisions based on policy discussion.  I am the granddaughter of Virgil Harrison, though, and I will not cast a ballot toward an individual whom I view as immoral, no matter their party.  However many memes are posted stating that this view means I am a "fool" or I have no right to be offended or I just need to toughen up, I will continue to stand that treating any person with sexual aggression or utilizing disparaging terminology is unacceptable.  Such things create a culture where women become even more afraid to speak out when they are impositioned.  My grandfather worked to make this world better for me, and I will endeavor to make this world better for those who come after me.  In particular, I never want the strong & beautiful young women who come after me to think it is normal for a man with a certain level of power to make sexually charged advances toward them.  I would ask my friends to recognize that this issue is not about either political party, it is about character & integrity.  I have no problem if my friends support Mr. Trump based on his policy positions, but words matter.  Words matter.  

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tough Times at the Harrison Farm

My friends, this is a post which I do not want to compose, but I know I need to say something.  The signs went up today for the auction of my grandfather's farm.  My heart is so sad, and I can almost physically feel the blood gushing down my back from all the knives that have been shoved into it.  A large sign was hung directly across the road from the farmhouse, so I have the opportunity to have to answer my neighbors when they stop to ask why in the world the farm is being sold.  This does, at least, give me the opportunity to affirm to my neighbors that the land is being auctioned against my wishes.  And then I seem to start crying every single time.  

do not have much to say at this point except to offer a few items . . .

am adamantly opposed to the auction of the land.  

I made two offers to my aunts to purchase the farmland.  The first was at the appraised value, which they declined.  I also offered to let them name their price, which they declined.

My grandfather passed when I was 19, and thus could not have envisioned that I would return to the farm after college and spend my life here.  I cannot fault him for not planning his estate in a different way.  

My grandmother had been in deep struggles with dementia at the end of her life, and while I wish she would have planned her estate differently, this is the reality of the situation.  Her trust mandated that the farm was to be sold.  The trust administrator made clear that my aunts could have agreed on a direct sale to me at any value.  They chose not to do so.

I will be at the auction on 11/3/16 to bid on the 44 acres that surround the farmhouse & barns, in an effort to preserve the pastures where my livestock graze -- which are part of the land to be auctioned.  Anyone who bids against me will be risking reciprocals including and not limited to a large army of goats rising up against them.

My heart is very, very sad, yet I am trying to focus on the good things in my world.  My grandmother made it possible that the farmhouse and the barns were not included with the rest of the estate.  I have a home and my animals have a barn.  In fact, I have a really beautiful red barn in which five generations of Harrisons have tended animals.  I have a wonderful ramshackle farmhouse with beautiful memories from my youth of my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother.  I have crazy and amazing animals who make this farm an adventure.  My mother taught me independence and tenacity and stubbornness.  My grandfather encouraged me that I could do whatever I put my mind to doing.  He taught me our family history and he instilled in me a love for farming.  My grandmother nurtured me in my youth, and stressed to me the importance of honesty & loyalty.  No auction, no trust, and no one can ever take from me these things.  

I have spent nearly my whole life working this farm.  During planting & harvest when I was small, I would take my grandfather lunches in the field.  Once I was old enough to be trusted with a tractor, he trained me on his Oliver 1850.  I was eight when I began baling hay with my grandfather in the field across the creek.  I was nine when my grandfather taught me to drive in a 1978 green Suburban when we were working south of the Baird House.  I would help him load lambs and unload coal.  I was his companion on errands to the feed store and the hardware store and Mid States wool growers.  Every spring I was allowed to stay home from school to be his assistant on the day he docked & castrated lambs.  And through all of those adventures, we talked.  He talked about politics and religion and economics and philosophy.  He told me about our family history, and his childhood, and who we were as Harrisons.  Beyond his words, he demonstrated to me every day what it meant to be kind and just and courageous -- in small ways and in difficult situations.  Because I paid attention to those lessons, it hurts keenly to know the land on which he spent his life will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  I suppose if one had not paid attention to such lessons, it would be easy to sell it off for top dollar.  But I did listen, and I will never forget what he taught me.

Harrison Farm may be much smaller in acreage than it was in previous generations, however, it will continue.  I believe in this land, I believe in farming, and I am not going anywhere.  This place has magical creatures and beautiful spaces, and I know this farm can serve a purpose to connect people with animals and with farming -- whatever size it may be.  I know this is not the situation my mother would have wanted, or my grandfather, or my great-grandfather, or my great-great-grandfather . . . But this is the reality of my situation, and we will carry on.  The sun will come up the day after the auction, and I will figure out a way to make everything work, and the goats will be belligerent, and the chickens will complain, and it will be just another day.  I will carry on, and I will find ways to keep Harrison Farm going.  After all, tomorrow is another day.  (Cue inspiring & uplifting music!)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Goats & Yoga

I tend to make a lot of business decisions with my heart.  This practice is not the best for maintaining profitability or efficiency at a business, and this habit has unfortunately put me in situations that did not always work out in my best interest.  Over the years, though, it has allowed me to understand what is truly important to me as a person, as a farmer, and as a Christian.  This habit has also instilled in me the desire to nurture relationships with the people who matter to me -- whether it is a friendship or a business relationship.  Now that I am running my own farm business, I have been fortunate to find that a lot of good things are starting to percolate because I follow my heart and I value relationships.

On Sunday 9/18, Harrison Farm hosted its first ever "Goats & Yoga", with the amazing Dana Bernstein.  It was a wonderful success, and I have had so much fun telling my friends about this event.  Dana is a warm & inspiring woman.  She is such an accomplished yoga instructor that she has even made this ungainly goatherd adore yoga!  We capped our inaugural class at twenty people . . . and we actually achieved that number plus eight unruly goats, the five members of the Kitty Family, a few visiting chickens, and one overly excited Bonnie Blue Pooch!  Finn Lambkins apparently thought he was just on duty as a greeter: Finn came up during registration, enjoyed some grain & attention, and then literally walked to the barn and let himself back into his pen when the yoga session started.  This proved that goats are more naturally attuned to yoga!  Dana led the yoga session in the front lawn of the farm -- with the big red barn as a back drop, goats milling about, and roosters crowing loudly.  Afterwards, complimentary snacks & beverages were enjoyed and many goat selfies were taken.  It was a very exciting day at Harrison Farm!

Inevitably, when I tell my friends about "Goats & Yoga with Dana", they want to know how this all came about at Harrison Farm.  The easy answer is that through my friendship with Dana, we found a way to combine our two passions of yoga & farming.  The more in depth answer is that my lifetime misadventures somehow conspired to bring really good people into my world that made this event possible.  Years ago, in my misspent youth, I did quite a bit of volunteer work with the Columbus Museum of Art's young professionals group.  Through events there, I met a young lady named Stephanie who was working for Columbus Alive during her time at Ohio State.  We immediately clicked, and I knew I wanted to be friends with this woman who possessed such a bright spirit.  Thanks to the Museum of Art & Columbus Alive, I found one of my most treasured friends who has stood by me through thick & thin, through struggles & joys, through losses & celebrations.  

When the catastrophe that was 2015 occurred in my world, Stephanie stood resolutely by my side through all of my struggles.  As I grappled with making huge decisions on my life & my career, Stephanie was one of the many amazing friends who encouraged me personally and offered important professional advice.  As I began booking some jobs as an independent event planner, Stephanie connected me with her friend Dana who was getting married.  Thanks to this connection made by Stephanie, I had the pleasure of doing day of coordination for Dana's wedding to her awesome husband Jon.  Although this was not the first event which I booked for 2016, it ended up being the first to fall on the calendar.  I knew that I needed an opportunity to "get back on the horse".  As a child, whenever I would get bucked off a horse, my mother always made me get back on that horse.  I hated this as a child, but it instilled in me a level of toughness as a human being.  My mother taught me that the best way to overcome a fear is to become the master of that fear.  Being an event coordinator at a venue is quite different than being an independent event planner.  Thus, I knew that the first wedding that I did on my own would be a real test for me.  It would be the professional equivalent of getting back on the horse that bucked me off.  This was half of the reason that I agreed to coordinate the wedding of Dana & Jon in exchange for getting to be Stephanie's "date" to their celebration: I knew it would test me in a comfortable situation with good people.  The other part of the reason I did it essentially complimentary was because I knew how much Stephanie valued her friend Dana.  I can never pay Stephanie back for all the love she has shown me, and thus it made me happy to help a friend she loved.

My spiritual aunt Nancy Beery always tells me to "lead with love".  By agreeing to help coordinate a wedding in return for being Stephanie's "date" to the reception, so much goodness has come back into my life.  Dana & Jon have become friends that I treasure.  They are both kind, inspiring individuals who live their lives with integrity.  The wedding was truly a labor of joy for me, as I had the opportunity to refine my skills at a wedding that reminded me of the great beauty that happens when two people open their hearts & their lives to each other.  Dana & Jon are creative & remarkable individuals who have forged even greater success as couple.  Their wedding celebration was an authentic reflection of who they are as individuals and as a couple, and this love was reflected by the warmth & joy of their guests at this wonderful celebration.  I got to meet a wealth of lovely people who are their friends & family.  Their wedding remains one of my very favorites, because it was so authentic and so full of love. Despite the rain that day, it was a beautiful event.  I managed to get soaked in the rain on three separate occasions during my efforts.  In many ways, that rain was purifying as I tested myself with a new venture.  Without rain, there are no rainbows.

Since meeting Dana & Jon, I had the pleasure of attending a couple of yoga classes with Dana -- and I loved her teaching style.  They visited Harrison Farm, and got to meet all the unruly creatures that I serve as principle minion.  I had heard of animal-therapy being combined with yoga, and after reading about a farm that did it with goats, I knew it was the perfect idea to create an opportunity for Dana & I to work together.  And since she is so amazing, Dana happily signed on for this adventure!  We had no idea if humans would sign up for this class, much less if the goats would actually behave.  Blissfully, it turned out to be an extraordinary success!  I loved having people come to the farm I adore to enjoy such a great activity, surrounded by really good people & a passel of misbehaving animal friends.  I was extremely touched that several of my friends were there: representing connections made through the Harrison Farm student assistant program, through my work in the event world, and through mutual love of animals.  It was engaging to also have new visitors to the farm who were seeing this beautiful place for the first time.  Beyond that, I could hardly believe that one of the guests -- whom I had never met before -- actually had the same name as one of my goats.  That was a fortuitous surprise that could never have been planned!

During the dark winter of 2015-2016, I spent much time searching my soul to understand who I was, what my place was in this world, and how I could make this world a better place.  The struggles of that time made me recognize how important it is to me to use the resources I have to make life better for others.  It also made me willing to stake my future on doing things that I love and that I feel have value.  I love celebrations, and I love animals, and I love teaching.  "Goats & Yoga with Dana" incorporated all those things in a beautiful manner.  It was a huge moment for me as a farmer to see these things come together in an opportunity for others to enjoy this farm that I love.  It was also a huge moment for me as a person to feel that good things were happening because I followed my heart.  For someone who feels emotions as heavy as I do, it has always been painful when my employers or colleagues have told me to remove my emotions from my business decisions.  Now that I work for myself, I am finding great reward in following my heart.  

Sustainability in farming is not just about the environment, it is also about society.  Giving visitors the opportunity to see Harrison Farm allows them to connect directly with a farmer in a comfortable situation where they can ask any question they have about agriculture.  I believe this farm can serve a valuable purpose to connect people with animals and with farming.  I am so blessed that I have phenomenal people in my world like Stephanie and Dana and Jon who support me in this effort.  I suspect if I told Virgil Harrison about "Goats & Yoga", he would smile and shake his head slowly with a beautiful light in his eyes as he said, "Are you sure about that?"  But I also suspect that my grandfather would be fiercely proud that his granddaughter is working so hard to make this farm of value to others, while also fighting to preserve the legacy of the farm he loved.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Thoughts on a Visit to a Slaughterhouse, on a Long & Trying Day as a Farmer

Right is right, even if everyone is against it.  Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.  This thought greatly influences my actions in divisive situations.  I keenly dislike being involved in disagreements, but I have become more comfortable speaking out when someone's words or actions are unacceptable.  I detest when others make judgements without accurate knowledge or understanding.  I have been in several uncomfortable situations where my own family members have turned on me when I would not join their bandwagon to hate on someone.  Because I try to judge individuals with accuracy based on both their good qualities and their poor qualities, I refuse to jump to a judgement of any form without knowledge.  This has led to strained relationships with some of my extended family, when I would not wholesale condemn those they disliked. In turn, it has made me more willing to stand by my instincts & analysis, and has eventually led me to understand that people who judge without reason are not people I need in my world.  I am at peace with that, even if it creates difficulty to some extent for me.

I share that personal reflection to offer some understanding of how I recently became involved in a social media firestorm over a slaughterhouse in Hilliard.  The Columbus media has recently covered the story of a gentleman who has purchased 5.136 acres (the figure which I found on the County Auditor's website), and has started an on-farm slaughter facility.  This gentleman is residing in the home on the front of the property (per the Columbus Dispatch), and has animals and a small custom slaughter facility on the back part of the property.  From interviews conducted by the local broadcast news & print media with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the regulations have been met for this custom on-farm facility, and the owner is also in compliance with necessary codes for Division of Meat Inspection and Ohio EPA.  As the property is over five acres, it meets the land requirement for a business to be classified as agricultural exempt -- meaning that it is regulated by agricultural codes. 

A few days ago, one of my best friends posted an article on social media related to this business -- and many people commented on it in a manner that was derogatory toward livestock production and meat processing.  I replied to comments asserting that slaughterhouses are a key part of the farm community, that they provide jobs & pay taxes, and that they offer food to our community.  I consistently maintained that if this business has met the needed regulations & codes, that I would encourage the neighbors to simply give it a chance -- knowing that the Department of Agriculture would absolutely shut it down if it was not meeting legal standards.  This led to some negativity directed toward me in further comments, despite my efforts to provide perspective and keep asking that people simply give this business a chance.  Beyond that, those who were opposed to the business kept saying it was unethical, without giving any factual information on how it was unethical.  

I raise livestock, I ran a slaughterhouse, and I care about the farm community.  I also strongly dislike seeing people judged based on speculation and not fact.  Thus, I reached out to the new slaughterhouse, and yesterday I went for a visit.  Considering that I was simply interjecting myself into their business day, the workers were very polite.  There were three with whom I spoke, two of whom were just part-time help for a busy week.  I talked shop with the third gentleman (whom I understand assists with managing the operation), and he shared with me how sales had been lately.  I visited briefly with a couple who had gotten an animal processed and were departing.  I also visited with a gentleman who was getting ready to purchase a lamb.  I did not get to speak in depth with the owner, as he was interfacing with the Meat Inspector onsite.  

It is funny how I still have an immediate reaction when I pull up to a processing facility and see that state car that indicates a meat inspector is onsite.  I shift into the perspective of looking at the location thinking how an inspector would see it.  When I managed a slaughterhouse, I tried to keep myself educated on regulations and learned to perceive the business as the inspector in charge would.  Oddly enough, I immediately slipped into this perspective again yesterday as I viewed this business.  I started observing scents and sights and sounds, formulating how this business would be reviewed.  There was an aroma of livestock and processing -- much as any agricultural endeavor has an aroma.  There was a dumpster onsite for waste, just as there had been for the slaughterhouse I ran.  Animals were housed under cover, and seemed content.  There were other animals in the field behind the facility.  Nothing was untoward from my initial observations.  I did not see the carcasses laying about of which neighbors have spoken, nor did I see entrails strewn across the back pasture.  The absence of buzzards indicated that there had not been entrails strewn there in the last few days at minimum.  There was no river of blood, there were no distressed animals visible, and there was nothing from my initial observation that was alarming.

I am sorry that this new business has been so distressing to some of its neighbors.  It is never good to experience change you cannot control in your neighborhood.  I would not want to live on that road myself, but for a far different reason: across the road a new subdivision with many, many houses is being built.  I would much rather live next to a slaughterhouse than next to a subdivision.  I recognize that nothing I am sharing will likely change the minds of the neighbors who are residing next to this slaughterhouse.  I would once again simply ask that they give this business a chance.  If the owner violates codes, it will be shut down.  From my work experiences, I have a great deal of confidence in the Department of Agriculture -- and particularly after all the media attention on this slaughterhouse, the Division of Meat Inspection would certainly not let issues slide at this establishment.

So . . . If the business is following all necessary codes, if the landowner has more than the minimum acreage needed for this operation, if we advocate for personal property rights, and if everything appeared copacetic from my own observations . . . why is this such a controversial issue?  I would point to two reasons.  First -- and my biggest concern relative to local foods -- as a society we have become very disconnected from agriculture, and particularly from meat processing.  It used to be that there was a small slaughterhouse in every community, and being a butcher was a skilled trade.  Now, these neighbors are a case in point that many people find a slaughterhouse to be somehow offensive.  This concerns me greatly.  Farming livestock is a noble endeavor and meat processing is a legitimate manner of providing food to our community.  Without local foods, we undermine America's food security.  I am very proud of the years I spent running a slaughterhouse, I am proud of the butchering skills that I have mastered, and I am proud that animals I have raised have fed so many people.

The other facet?  The owner of this business is an immigrant and a Muslim.  I do not want to believe that people are judging him based on those facts.  Alas, with the lack of clear evidence of regulatory violation, I cannot help but wonder if this gentleman is facing greater scrutiny due to his religion and his culture being different than the majority of the community.  It depresses me that logical objective analysis of this business has been replaced by subjective prejudice.  If the business is improperly run, it should be shut down, but not as influenced by prejudiced perceptions.  I worked too hard for too long at a legal slaughterhouse to have any patience for those who are outside of code.  Conversely, knowing how difficult it can be, I want to support others who approach this business legally.

I started this blog pieces hours ago as I waited on my SUV to be repaired.  I finish it having come into the house to sit down for lunch at 9:30pm.  That is my reality as a farmer.  When a day is difficult on the farm, it is my responsibility to manage it.  My day started when I responded to my neighbor Joseph's request for assistance with a goat.  I headed to his family's home to attend to the goat with the injured hoof.  As I drove back to my farm, I realized a ewe was down in the field.  As I tried to move this very pregnant sheep, my neighbor David drove by and offered his help.  He was obviously on an errand, but immediately pulled in to offer help when he saw me struggling.  I nursed the ewe all day, thinking that she would feel much better after delivering her lambs -- only to lose her late afternoon.  This triggered an emergency c-section in the hope of saving her babies.  They were big & they were beautiful, and alas they were already dead.  

I like days that bring healthy new babies.  I detest days that involve painful losses.  After the loss of the ewe and her lambs, I still needed to bury them.  I managed to drag the huge mother sheep only a few feet when I realized I could not get her out to the compost area by myself.  There in the yard, I managed the easiest solution, which was to remove her internal organs & front legs and carry them separately.  I am very honest about the work which I do, and the reality of the difficult parts of farming -- but you never know how someone could judge you if they do not take time to learn about what you are doing.  If someone photographed me dismembering a sheep in the barnyard, it would have looked quite questionable, even though it was a situation that is easily explained.  

Farming is life, and it is death.  Farmers work long hours, in difficult conditions, for little pay.  I have given my life for this farm.  I work every day to look after the animals in my care.  It is not easy, in any way.  There are beautiful moments that keep me going, and struggles that are overwhelming.  No one can prepare you for what it is like when you yourself have to end the life of an animal you love because it is suffering.  It is only through life experience that a farmer comes to understand their own ethics in raising animals for meat, and finding peace with the circle of life.  There is no text book and no professor that can teach this.  And there is no training for a farmer to find the strength to go without their own medical care and groceries, because they have put the needs of their animals first and exhausted their financial resources.  This is the reality of farming.  It is tough, especially for someone who does it alone.  Most farmers I know work with their spouse, or their parents, or their siblings, or their children.  I do not have those options, and thus I have even more appreciation for the help of my neighbors.  

I could not operate this farm without the kindness of my neighbors, and I try to reciprocate.  They are not perfect -- and I am certainly not perfect in any way, not as a neighbor or a farmer or a Christian -- but we help each other as we can.  I am absolutely sure I have done things which they have questioned.  As if butchering sheep on the lawn is not crazy enough, I am notorious for doing the morning chores in my bathrobe & pajamas.  Despite such eccentricities, my neighbors have been supportive of me and my farm.  We have different faiths, we have different families, we came to this community at different times.  And we support each other despite such differences.  I cannot imagine if my neighbor Joseph had told me this morning of his goat's injury, and I did not respond because we are of different faiths.  I cannot imagine if my neighbor David had watched me struggling with the mama sheep in the field, and immediately jumped to conclusions that I was an unethical farmer.  When you are a farmer -- when you live in the farm community -- you will be much more successful if you learn to work with and support your neighbors.

Friends, judging others without trying to understand them is unacceptable.  When you see something that concerns you, ask about it.  Learn.  Expand your horizons so that you can better discern a situation.  Value those around you.  My farm would not exist -- I could not exist -- without the good people who help and support me.  They have taken time to learn who I am and what I value.  I owe it to these friends to offer the same to the others in my world.  Complaining is an easy route that takes no effort.  Learning does take effort, but makes life more worthwhile.  It took time out of my schedule for me to actually go and interact with the people at the new slaughterhouse, but I am glad that I investigated the situation myself to be able to better understand it.  I want to be a person who offers this courtesy to others -- not someone who judges a situation without trying to better understand it.