Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Goodrich’s]

I now challenge you to compare farming and the performing arts for a moment. Large-scale farming plays the role of TV and film, taking focus off of smaller farms. But the small farms are where it begins. It’s where the love is cultivated in a different way, much like being on an actual stage. They’re also both struggling arts. A big question in farming these days is who of the younger generation will continue? When there are cities to be conquered, who would want to live in a small town? Right? Sometimes though, you make a connection that’s too strong to pull apart. Contribution to the community becomes your priority, and doing so by honest means.

Meet the Goodrich’s of Laughing Water Farm. I sat down with Antoinette and her son, Alfie, for a delicious meal and a tour of their farm just outside of Marion, VA. I know I say I learn on each farm visit, but seriously. Y’all. I learn so much on each farm visit.

 

Alfie and Antoinette raise goats, sheep, Ossabaw pigs, and Black Angus cows, as well as grow tomatoes and autumn olives, which were completely new to me. Like olives, you collect them by beating a tree as they fall to a tarp or the like. Packed with lycopene and anti-oxidants, these babies are tart and tasty.

After they trusted me to help them move a group of cows from one field to another, Antoinette and I talked while overlooking the mountains in all their glory. We watched over the cows enjoying the fresh grasses, as a calf found its way back to its mother after wandering too far. She showed me the well water system where the cows push down on a blue ball to not only retrieve water, but keep the water cool and from evaporating or freezing. They’ve got it made in the sun and the shade.

Devotion and respect towards the land stood out above anything else. As we enjoyed a gorgeous lunch spread, we discussed Laughing Water’s beginnings and what it means to come back home…

 


“Sarah: I was wondering how you guys got started? You moved here when you were 5?

Alfie: Yeah, yeah. I was 5. I mean, was born in Indiana. Don’t remember that. Moved to Chilhowie when I was about 2 and moved here when I was about 5. And at first we just had this part of the farm, basically these fields that you can see from the porch. Especially during the winter, when it’s not so grown up, you can see the fields. And then 2007, the rest of the farm went up for auction and we got that.

Sarah: So you guys have pigs, lambs…

Alfie: Lambs, goats, beef, chicken. One chicken.

Sarah: One chicken. For eggs?

Antoinette: We used to have a lot more.

Alfie: Yeah, we had quite a few but it was, like, predator pressure.

Sarah: I was about to say, especially out here. These woods are incredible. What’s down in the field currently?

Alfie: We take care of the field and try to cultivate certain grasses to be grown. For example, one thing we have a big problem with in this area in general is fescue. And the thing about that is, it has a little. What is it called?

Antoinette: Endophyte?

Alfie: Yeah, like a little endophyte and it’s not part of the plant itself. It’s something symbiotic or parasitic that lives on the plant and it creates in the cow, specifically, in the cow’s gut it has a reaction with their stomach or something that produces a lot of heat. So it can actually make them, especially if they’re out with no shade and stuff in a field…normally they’d be fine, with clover and timothy and stuff, but if they get a whole lot of fescue all day they can overheat.

Sarah: Woah. So it elevates their body temperature?

Alfie: We’ve experimented with even putting them in a fescue heavy field during the winter, and that kind of thing. And the cows haven’t told us it helps, but maybe it does. [Note: only dangerous when eaten in excess during the summer]

Sarah: So it’s not actually bad for their stomachs or anything. It just happens to, like, raise their body temperature.

Antoinette: Yeah, and in horses it can cause a miscarriage. But that isn’t a problem with the cattle.

Alfie: Yeah, and it’s also very…

Antoinette: It’s dominant.

Alfie: It’s hard to get rid of. Tenacious. A lot of the stuff like clover. I mean, if you wanted to get rid of clover it would be gone in a couple days. So we’re trying to encourage clover. One thing we do with that is graze the grass down really low and then that lets low growing things, like clover, have a chance. And of course clover is really good because it fixes nitrogen and it’s super tasty and nutritious.

Sarah: For all the different animals?

Alfie: Yeah. Goats are interesting. You know they have this reputation for eating anything, right? But the funny thing is, they’re very picky and they will actually only go for tree type things that are dangling. They don’t like to eat off the ground. And that’s one reason why they’re so disease resistant is actually that they don’t…and like cows, they don’t really have a bathroom mentality. They just go. And so they know that on some levels, and don’t wanna eat where they’re defecating. So they go to, like, autumn olive and thistle. Especially thistle blooms. It’s funny, because you put them in a field with clover and, you know, a month later there’s still almost as much clover as there was before. Then you put the cows in there and they [chomp chomp].

Sarah: They’ll eat anything. Nature is so interesting the way it will always find a way to curb overpopulation.

Antoinette: There’s that balance, yeah.

Sarah: We try to control everything, and we can’t.

Alfie: Yeah, treating the fields like they’re a chemistry set. That’s one thing that we’ve had to figure out how to do too, is how to approach it from a scientific approach of, you know, like this works this way on this field and so we need to introduce these grasses to raise the levels of these nutrients.

Sarah: So, like, the checks and balances system?

 

Alfie: Yeah. And treating it kind of like a petri dish. So there’s that approach, which is valid in a lot of ways, but then it’s also a hugely complex system. It’s as complicated, I’d say, as prescribing medicines for someone’s brain. It’s that complex of a system because it’s made up of so many of those living organisms. So we almost see it as an art form. You’re going out there day to day and listening to the cows, and walking through the field, and not just thinking, “Ok, I put this here so we have higher nutrients”, and now we’ll take a soil sample and such and such. But you walk through the field and see, “oh my gosh, there’s so much more ironweed”. Now maybe we scour the field and plant a whole lot of stuff with the seed drill, but in the process that might end up with a whole lot of ironweed coming up. So that needs to be addressed, too. So, a lot of times it’s really about…you know, you try something because you have good reason to believe it’ll have a good affect. But you’re just monitoring it the whole time and make no assumptions that it will. Just keep trying, and if something works well one year, you can’t count on the same thing next year. Just keep working at it and try to make things better.

Sarah: It’s like a constant experiment.

Alfie: It is.

Sarah: I’ve been thinking lately about how farmers and artists are so similar because there is no end product. You’re always constantly working, constantly trying new stuff. And you kind of have to fall completely into it knowing that, like, monetarily there’s not going to be the biggest gain. That’s not why you do it. Those things are always nice, but you do it…

Alfie: For the love of the craft.

Sarah: Yeah, for the love of the craft. So, what were the first things you raised?

 

Alfie: Oh, chickens pretty much exclusively. I can remember running around with my friends in middle school and putting up chickens. Things like that. And those were for eggs. And then we would sell those at the church and stuff, and gave them away.

Antoinette: So, a lot of what we do is wildlife habitat. Plantings. Because when we came here, it was cleared field. You could count the trees on one hand.

Alfie: I feel like we’re working more and more towards treating the whole farm from a permaculture approach. Everything eventually [planted and raised] will have a purpose. We’ll have fruit trees anywhere where there won’t be animals constantly grazing. Getting everything really healthy, a solo pasture kind of idea with trees and animals in the same lot. I mean, animals love it when they have trees around for shade.

Sarah: Where did the name “Laughing Water Farm” come from?

Alfie: My Mom and Dad were looking for different places to get in the area. So they found this farm and they wanted to move here because he got a directorship position at the Smyth Bland Regional Library in town. So they came here and were looking for a place to settle down, build a house and stuff. And went down to the river and it was bubbling rapids, the rapids were laughing. So.

Sarah: That’s lovely. And for you, you went to college and then came back here. And a lot of people wouldn’t do that.

Alfie: I didn’t think I would.

Sarah: Why did you end up coming back and staying? That’s a weighted question.

Autumn Olive Tree

Alfie: Yeah, well, it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. When I left and would come back, I found out, oh there’s more to this area than just school. For one, there’s a great farming community around here, and throughout my whole life I’ve always loved the farm. I had a real connection to this specific place. And I definitely feel useful here. Like, I’ve grown up working this piece of land and there’s a quote by Wendell Berry that says it takes about 6 years for a farmer to learn how to work a new piece of land…or how to farm on a new piece of land. So even a farmer who’s been farming their whole life, you put them on a new piece of land and there’s something about the land that has specific needs and, you know, things like which fields do we harvest which hay from? And what rotation? Basically what we’re trying to do with the farm is we’re trying to be stewards of the farm instead of just harvesting resources from it at all times. We’re trying to actively improve the land, so if we find a practice is really good for the land, it’s not because we’re gonna then harvest all of that crop.

Sarah: It’s more process-based than result-based?

Alfie: Yeah, exactly. That process and knowing about that is something I’ve developed over all my life living here. I’ve kind of invested in this land, specifically. So that definitely is encouraging for me to come back here and work on it.

Sarah: I’ve noticed that too. You see things differently when you’re younger. You can be in a big city and make the smallest impact, and then you can be in a place that’s so tiny and have a much wider reach. It may not feel as glamorous, but that’s something I’ve been dealing a lot with, too.

Alfie: I think that’s a big thing for our generation. In order to really make a big difference, do I need to go, you know, lobby politicians about certain issues and make phone calls to households asking them to vote certain ways? And the political, kind of, trying to change the whole institution on a large scale. Certainly that’s important and it has its place, but I think that what I’ve found personally is…I can make a lot more meaningful difference, meaningful in my own life and a lot more discernable impact on what I’m working on here, just trying to improve 250 acres. 250 acres out of the United States is nothing, you know, it’s tiny. Just the fact that I can actually know that I’m making some kind of positive impact over a large amount of time feels really good.

Sarah: It gives the proof. We actually have physical examples out here. Not just saying, but doing it.

Alfie: That’s another huge thing. And having the examples, like what Neal’s [Reid] doing, is amazing working with. He’s taking a lot of these things that people are theorizing about and applying them to actually making annual crops of vegetables in a better way than it’s been done. You know, how many years has agriculture been around and we still think that spraying the chemicals and tilling is the best way to do it. Even though it’s scientifically proven to cause so many detriments…10 years later your field is going to be so much worse than it was before. Obviously, if we know anything, we know that that’s not sustainable. I think that kind of thing is really valuable, showing a case study for what actually works and what doesn’t.”

 

 

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the McIntyre’s]

How do I begin to describe the astounding trust and communion with the land that I witnessed last week? Meet the McIntyre family, owners of Goshen Homestead who also work for Roffey Cattle Company. A homestead means living a life of self-sufficiency. Vegetables, fruits, cattle, chickens…all can be found on this gorgeous piece of land about 25 minutes from downtown Abingdon.

Winding my way up the driveway, I found myself speechless from the overcast views of rocky pastures that reminded me of the Irish countryside. You already never want to leave. With 6 laughing children running about the kitchen, I chatted with Stacey and Dwayne, while taking turns holding the 2 and 4 year olds. Stacey was in the middle of roasting coffee beans. Heaven may in fact be a place on earth. Just saying.

After caffeination had taken it’s full affect, we explored the land they call home. With the youngest daughter, Rachel, by my side we walked through the garden, visited cattle, made friends with chickens, and my personal favorite…suited up and got close with some bees. Stacey and Dwayne’s oldest son, Nathan, has taken a fancy to bee-keeping, and boy is he excellent. This fearless 10 year old introduced me to the art of bee-keeping, and what’s abuzz these days with honey. I’m so sorry, I had to.

Over the course of the morning, we talked about modern-day issues that have been bouncing around in all of our heads, such as the rise of allergies and why all of a sudden our bodies can’t tolerate natural foods. Perhaps because our bodies no longer know the difference between natural and processed? It’s all a fast moving train with an evolution of folks attempting to slow it down with every fibre of their being. Our society has decided that slow is bad, fast is good. But by speeding everything up, we are negatively affecting the art and beauty of our natural systems.

Barefoot and smiling, the McIntyre children run to show me the chickens and apple tree. The work here never stops, but neither does the bounty. I feel lucky to have met this beautiful family. They sell at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, as well as provide the kale for White Birch Juice Company. What can you purchase from these lovely folks? Coffee, pickles on a stick, kombucha scoby, honey, eggs, chicken, beef (I’m currently enjoying a divine tip roast), raw milk and raw cream.

Enjoy the interview and photographic journey!

 

“Dwayne: We’ve started to branch out from Roffey Cattle Company and start our own. That’s Goshen Homestead…We’re not born and bred farmers. Like a lot of people at the market, started as a passion project for us that funneled into an occupation, and the whole atmosphere. I mean, it’s unlike really anything else I’ve ever been a part of. You know, surrounded by the kind of people that we’re surrounded by. The customers, I mean, my God, you guys are awesome.

Sarah: I mean, it really becomes like a family, I feel like too.

D: What’s crazier, for instance, back a couple years ago when I first moved here and I helped ASD try to do an online cooperative for meat vendors and stuff, and uh, and there’s just no financially viable way to do this without hiking up prices or people paying more through the co-op then they could just going straight to the market and getting it straight from the farmer. And there was nothing that we could do. In order to make the system actually work, we had to somehow generate an income to actually facilitate the system. And people were signing up left and right. Let me pay more, I support you!

S: It’s worth paying just a little bit more to know where it’s going, to know where it’s coming from.

D: I also think that within our food movement here in Abingdon and the region, people just understand the odds we’re against to implement a food system within a system that’s just got such a strangle hold on the market. For instance, chicken. We do chicken. It’s unsustainable. There’s absolutely no way you can produce chicken for 99 cents a pound without lots of government subsidies and money. But, you know, people still want quality and will do whatever feels necessary to get it. So, it’s pretty awesome.

S: And I think more people are finding out the things that are going into our food. Yeah, it may be cheaper, but what’s going into the actual livestock and chicken that is making that cheap?

D: Now this is crazy stuff, but I learned this the hard way. When I came here, my boss gets all these cattle journals. And he’s like throwing at me, saying you need to read these. And I didn’t know much. Literally I came here completely without any farming knowledge. We had a garden back north, but no real farming knowledge. And so, I’m reading through these cattle journals and I find this full-page ad for chicken manure. And it’s advertised to cattle farmers to buy this chicken manure. My first impulse is, well that’s how we fertilize fields and stuff by buying a lot of natural fertilizer and spreading a stuff. But there was something in the article I wasn’t understanding, because it wasn’t directed as a fertilizer. It was directed as an input for keeping cattle. Literally, I came to my boss and I said, “You know, this is crazy man. This article for chicken litter makes me think that it’s for feeding cows.” He’s like, “You’re not crazy. That’s exactly what it’s for.” Cheap grain is still more expensive that just buying poop off of other mass producers of chickens who have all this chicken crap and they don’t know what to do with it, so beef producers buy it for pennies and literally mix it with molasses or some sugar..

S: What??

D: …it makes the cows enjoy it. And the beef you’re eating from the grocery stores is fed chicken poop. I mean, I was in shock. I knew there were some awful practices in the industry, but I just did not realize how bad it was. And how open it is. They’re not trying to hide it. This is business as usual.

 

[Daughter Rachel comes in the room]

S: You want to take a picture with your monkey?

D: Monkeys holding monkeys.

Rachel: I wanna see!! It’s me!

S: It’s you! They’re such happy kids.

D: They’re free-range, organic kids.

S: So I know you’re from the Philly area. When did you all come down here?

D: 2008 I believe.

Stacey: August 1st, to be exact.

D: August. Actually we’ve got our 8-year anniversary [of moving here] coming up.

S: Well congratulations!

D: Time flies though.

S: How did you end up here?

D: Well, I was a painter up north. Our farm story begins with my wife getting pregnant. Something…I don’t know what it was. But when she became pregnant, there was something that changed about us. Like, we don’t have money. We don’t have land. We don’t have a great big inheritance. We don’t have all these things to give our children. What can we give them? And it kept singling into that we can’t raise them on the food we were raised on. The junk food. It always came back to food. Like, what we can give our children when they turn of age is the gift of food, of health. And you know, I can’t speak for my wife, but I know by the time I was 20, I’d made some of the worst life and health decisions I could have ever made.

S: Oh yeah.

D: It was completely due to a lack of diligence. It’s all just food, it doesn’t really matter. Education or whatever in the department of health. You’re young, you’ll live. You’ll recover and life will go on. I’m not sure what the attitude was…So when she became pregnant, all we were thinking was developing this baby in her womb with the utmost chance of survival and health. And it just led us into fresh food. And at that time, we were just kind of “coming into the food movement”, if you will. We had just seen Food Inc. and it was all over. The next thing you know, we’re documentary hungry and we’re consuming all this information and it led us to moving out of our town-based lifestyle into the Amish community where we could rent land, have a big garden, have animals if we wanted. And, uh, so that’s what we started doing. We rented from the Amish and just started emulating all their gardening and all their food growing and stuff. They seemed really blown away that the English people wanted to do what they were doing. Most people were trying to get away from them, and here we’re just coming in like, “Where do we sign up?!”. So, ultimately, we just started doing that. And being that my job was a painter, it gets slow during the winters and I had a van with cargo room and passenger room, and it kind of became a thing that I would taxi the Amish around and I got to know a lot of them. And then, ah, we had a big thing for raw milk. That was one of our early things. So we met an Amish guy who did an organic milk product, and we just befriended him. Well, he buys grass-fed cattle from my boss now. My boss and him were just having a conversation and my boss was saying, “Oh you know, my help is moving out and I don’t know what to do. We’re stuck.” And the Amish guy was like, “Well, we know this family up here and they’re really weird and they’re really into this stuff. I don’t know, they talk about wanting to do it all the time. Maybe they’re interested.” He gave my boss our number. He called me like 6:30 in the morning and I’m trying to act like I didn’t just wake up, and he’s like, “So I hear you want a job.” And I thought it was just for painting or something like that. You know, trying to play the part. And, ah, then he’s like, “Yeah, I’ve got a farm down in Virginia.” I’m like, no I don’t think we’re looking for a job like that. He was persistent. He said, “Let me come up to you and tell you about the job and if you’re interested then we can talk more about it, and if not I’ll just go my way.” He drove up 8 hours the very next day, and we sat out in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot for like 3 hours talking about this job. And when it was over, I was like, God that sounds exactly like what we wanna do. I mean, we had our family and our business. This like July 1st, and after that we moved down here exactly 30 days after.

 

S: That’s crazy. It’s crazy that you just knew.

D: We were packing up, we’re going to Virginia! The thing was, we were entertaining it. When he first came up, we thought, oh this sounds too good to be true. He said, “Why don’t you come down for the second half of the interview to the farm and check it out.” We didn’t even get through Chilhowie, we were like, “We are moving!!”. I mean this place is unbelievable. It sold us. We didn’t even get to the farm and we were sold. Like, southwest Virginia is a gem.

S: It really is. The fact that every morning this is what I see. It sucks you in, you know? It’s just gorgeous.

D: I’ll tell ya, for local food…there’s just something down here. Different. The soil is different. It actually requires education and it requires really strong diligence to get the soil to a point where it actually produces for you. We gardened up there, and literally all we did was peek out the windows…the Amish are plantin’ something…Hey buddy, whatcha planting? Oh, peas? See ya! And that’s what we did. We just followed their lead. Down here we didn’t have that. It’s taken a lot of work, and you’ve just gotta learn down here. It’s kind of interesting.

S: I know there are people that a lot of folks look up to and learn from.

D: And you know, you’ve got your Anthony Flaccavento’s and they are completely available. He wants to help. He got his degree for the aiding of, you know, helping the system grow. And we’re suckers for information. You prove that you know something I don’t, you’re gonna be my best friend…Ultimately, the main reason we’re farmers is the more we learned about the food industry, the less we could trust it. You’ve probably done this, where you read something or you learn something and go, oh this is the bad food. I’m gonna switch to this and it’ll be okay. And then just, like, a couple months later you realize that there’s just as much wrong with that. And it got to the point where I was tired of it. I was so tired of thinking I was eating good food and then finding out it wasn’t good food…So we were just like, forget it. Fine, we’re growing all of our own food. That’s the way it’s gonna be. That’s ultimately our underlying path to farmer-ship.

S: I have a question. I don’t know a lot about raw milk. What are the health benefits of that?

D: Well, think about it like this. Fresh milk, raw milk. I mean, for one, it’s fresh milk because the stuff you buy in the store is like a week old at least. And if you ever let milk just sit around for a week, it just changes. It’s not the same as it was. But they pasteurize it so they flash kill everything off of the milk. So, milk comes with its’ own enzymes and its’ own beneficial flora. You know when you drink it raw it’s actually a benefit to our guts. A benefit to our digestion and of course, you know, it’s loaded with nutrition that our body can absorb easily. When you boil it, you’re killing off all of that benefit. Then you’ve gotta re-fortify it with synthetic vitamin A and vitamin D and calcium and stuff. And it’s already loaded with it. But the problem is, is that when mass industry kind of took off in the early part of last century, there was…it’s an unsustainable model. I don’t think we were ever meant to have 1,000 cows on 200 acres, living in their own poop, and then consuming the product from that. So when the cities started really building population, the demand started going high, everyone’s like well I’ll just go get 10 more cows, squeeze ‘em into my herd…When you get 10 more cows, you get 10 more times the poop, you get 10 more times the chances of it being contaminated. And so, you know, what happens is basically the industry, the milk industry…the product that they produce without pasteurization and sterilization is completely unfit for human consumption. I mean, it’s a death sentence to walk into a big milk plant and start drinking the milk out of the tanks. We’ve been living and thriving off of milk for millenniums.

 

S: And somehow is wasn’t good enough the way it was.

D: And so, that’s what they sell. This idea that, oh, it’s innately going to kill you. We’ve gotten to the point now where people don’t even know what fresh milk is like.

S: It’s kind of like a scary thing.

D: That’s because of all the propaganda they sell. That our milk is gonna kill them, and their milk is safe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that raw milk is absolutely safe, because you need to know who’s producing it. My attitude is this: if the farmer is not drinking their own product or eating their own product, why do you want to eat it? If the farmer has to dress up into a bio-hazard suit to produce the food that he’s trying to sell you, is that completely healthy? There’s just something wrong with that…

[When out visting the cattle]

D: The breed that we have is Red Devon…When the industry went commercial to a real large scale, Devons were the original cow in our country. All those old pictures, cows pulling a plow on a field and stuff. Those are Red Devons. But what happened was, when the industry went large scale and everyone was all about bigger and better, these kind of fell by the wayside because, ah, they just weren’t big enough. They started genetically making these Angus, these really big cattle, and so these kind of went by the wayside. Now we’re realizing that all this pumped up grain-fed cows are not very healthy to consume.

Rachel: [As I take pictures] Can I see?!

S: Yeah, you can see it…

D: Now we’re going back to this grass-fed. So there’s this Devon herd, Red cattle. Which is really good on grass…they fatten up really nice on grass. And, um, and now there’s a high demand for these cows because you can actually get a really prime finish on these smaller animals on grass than you can on Angus and other breeds that are just commercially bred to these enormous proportions.

Rachel: Look up! Baby eating milk!”

Can you spot the Queen Bee?

 

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