This is My Story

By Sherri Dugger

During a recent radio interview, the show host repeatedly referred to me as a small farmer, a journalist, and a media and outreach director for Indiana Farmers Union. Each time he called me a journalist, which he did several times throughout the hour-long program, I cringed. I no longer feel like a journalist. I no longer think of myself as a journalist. The title seemed unfit and untrue. I had the urge to correct him. Instead, I remained quiet. 

I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller. And this is my story to tell.

Yesterday, I was on a lengthy phone call during which I was asked a few personal questions about myself. We were talking about farming, and some of these questions covered topics I often think about. Others, not so much. 

The one topic I think about: "Tell me about a life philosophy you hold and how you came to it." I immediately launched into the four guiding principles of my life. These are the reasons I do everything that I do. This was an easy question to answer. 

1. Treat others well. 

2. Treat animals well.

3. Treat the earth well. 

4. Treat myself well. 

These tenets all came about by my reading the Bible some years back. I am embarrassed to say it took nearly 40 years of living for me to reach these very obvious conclusions about how to live. But the first 30-plus years for me were of a self-centered sort. I'm ok with admitting that, and I openly apologize to anyone who bore witness to that earlier version of me. In 2011, I began reading the Bible and attending church regularly, neither of which I still do today. With or without regular church attendance, these very basic lessons serve as my daily ritual. They are my religion. 

They have guided and served and changed everything about my life. When I began reading that Bible and attending those church services, I lived alone in Indianapolis with two cats. I had an expansive garden in my backyard where I spent most of my time, digging in the dirt, unearthing worms and weeds and seeds and giving birth to a new life in me. I rarely went out socially, so much so that friends of mine at the time reprimanded me for it. I spent some much-needed time with myself. I explored the Bible, talked to God, and began reshaping myself into who I am today. 

This is why you're reading this blog. This is why I'm no longer a journalist. It's why I call myself a storyteller, and why I tell the stories that I do.

Less than three months after that first church service, Randy came into my life. My days are now filled with more love and beauty than I sometimes feel prepared to handle. Regularly, people refer to our lives in the country as "the dream."

"You are living the dream," they say. Often, when I hear this, my mind reverts to the shoveling of poop that I do on a nearly daily basis. I think of the unexpected vet visits. The enormous cost for feed. The fact that the first hour or two of my days are spent taking care of animals instead of taking care of me. The fact that we rarely, if ever, are able to afford a vacation. I think about all the things that make this life not so dreamy.

It's easy to forget that these people are right. Daily, I get to feel all this love ... for Randy, for our dogs, for our many, many cats, for the goats, for the alpacas, for the chickens, even for the tiny bees that bless this place. I also get to love the dirt, the mud, the misty mornings, the cloudy days, the rainbows, the sunrises, and the sunsets. And I get to do everything I can to care for all that I've been given. This is a dream life.

The Bible taught me how to take care of all this. The Bible taught me that I must do this. When talking yesterday, I chatted about some of my experience editing Farm Indiana, a publication that I wanted to turn into a statewide magazine. I spent five years editing that publication, and the time spent assigning, reading, and editing the stories served as a college-sized crash course in agriculture. I learned about grant opportunities, government programs, and state conferences and workshops, along with the many inequities in our food system, injustices toward family farmers, the barriers to entry for new and beginning farmers, the struggles of marginalized farm workers, and food insecurity issues. I assigned and edited hundreds of stories on these topics.

As a journalist, I was supposed to remain unbiased. As a human--especially one with the newly formed guiding principles previously discussed--I was unable to do this. Eventually, I became a not-so-good journalist, because I was a biased journalist. I desperately wanted to create a statewide publication that told the stories--and often the plights--of Indiana's family farmers. I wanted nothing to do with the promotion of industrial agriculture. And I also came to want nothing to do with the other aspects of my job. I no longer held any interest in editing glossy lifestyle magazines, which was supposed to make up for 50% of my time. I no longer wanted to run the special publications department and manage the people who put out dozens of other publications. I only wanted to grow this farm publication and to tell the stories of good people doing amazing things in our state. I wanted to support and celebrate them. I wanted to spread the word, encourage the conversation, and bring these issues to light. I was ready to evangelize.

I wanted this so badly that I did what most editors should never do. The publication didn't have a dedicated advertising sales staff. I'd asked for one, but one was never offered. I began selling ads myself. If this publication was going to stay afloat, I was the only one to make that happen. This was also a bad editor move. Editors and advertising should always remain separate. Developing relationships with advertisers, or potential advertisers, could further influence the decisions I made editorially. I knew this was a journalistic nightmare, but I believed Indiana needed this publication and I was desperate to make it happen. I was even starting to successfully sell ads, something I'd never done before. Who knew I could do that? 

I also began reaching out to organizations to help distribute the publication. There were two problems with growing the publication--advertising and distribution--and I was determined to fix them both. When the company was sold and new investors came in, however, they didn't see my vision. December of last year, exactly one year after they'd made their entrance, I lost my job. This was a long-held job that admittedly was really great. I received a nice salary; I had a team of women who worked for and with me whom I admired greatly and who likewise admired me. I had overheard my boss say on several occasions that as long as he worked with that company I would have a place alongside him. He overestimated his capacity for making such things a reality, clearly. And that's ok. 

I no longer want to be a journalist. I want to be a storyteller--with purpose. I want to tell you the things I learn, what I see, whom I talk to, and what I know. 

The other question posed to me yesterday: "Tell me about a leader you admire and why." This was a question I never think about. Joe Maxwell popped into my mind. He's an amazing family farm advocate who has a healthy political career under his belt. He also recently spoke at the Indiana Farmers Union annual convention. (Have a look here.) Joe has the ability to take real life stories and historical facts and distill them down into great stories. These truth tales, as I like to think of them, engage and inspire. They make you get up off your seat and want to do something. I want to be a storyteller who inspires such action.

Our food system is so incredibly broken. Eating is the most intimate of acts. It's how we care for our bodies, for our loved ones, for our animals, for our world. Do you know what you eat? Our food system is also responsible for the health and well-being (or the lack thereof) of our environment and for the future of our world. 

1. Treat others well. 

2. Treat animals well.

3. Treat the earth well. 

4. Treat myself well. 

My stepson recently pointed out that I was once simply the girl who liked to garden and wanted to move to the country. His point was clearly made about how much I've changed. I can't deny that he's right. These tenets guide everything I do, on the farm, on this website, on social media, on Capitol Hill. They are the reason I tell stories. They are the reason my own personal story is changing on a daily basis. I hope they are the reason that your story--today and into the future--changes, too. 



Editor, FarmSherri DuggerComment