Moving to the Country
By Sherri Dugger
This fall will mark the fifth anniversary since my husband, Randy, and I purchased the property that we now call Dugger Family Farm. We signed the papers in October of 2012 and quickly got to work on our 3.5 acres in Morristown, Indiana. It took us a year of weekends, traveling back and forth from Indianapolis to restore the farmhouse. In September of 2013, we arrived in the country with the last of our belongings and two cats and two dogs in tow. Randy’s teenage sons would come to stay with us on the weekends. Now both of his boys are enrolled in college, and our animal family has, you might say, multiplied.
Randy and I are shy on experience when it comes to running a small farm. When we moved to the country, he was a full-time mechanic, and I was a full-fledged journalist, editing glossy lifestyle magazines for high-end households and readerships. I had a taste for gardening and a desire to acquire a few farm animals. Since we’ve arrived, I’ve had a million ideas about what we could do here, and as time has worn on, most of those have fallen away. All the while, a more formal plan has shaped itself into life as we know it today.
The usual things occur when you move to the country. Your social life dwindles. Your clothes and shoes are always covered in mud, or poop, or both. You randomly pull bits of hay from your underwear and hair. Fur, feathers, goat-teeth-sized holes, and grass stains also regularly find their ways into your wardrobe. Your fashion “style” quickly goes from non-committal to full-fledged farm-ravaged chic. (Emphasis on ravaged; chic only because you want people to think you actually wanted your clothes to look that way.) And don’t think about regularly shopping for new clothes. There are too many vet bills to pay.
When you move to the country, scooping poop and pitchforking straw becomes cathartic, dirt under your nails is a trophy and a reason for an added line on your resume, and dust and hay on your kitchen’s wood floors remain an inevitable fact, for which you no longer apologize. Moving to the country brings other consequences.
1. You realize you were wrong. When we moved to the country, I believed life would be simpler. I had a vision of life that involved a farm dog, laundry dancing in the breeze, and bluegrass music as the soundtrack. Never did I imagine the piles of laundry on the dirty floors, dishes in the sink, goat barns and chicken coops and litter boxes to clean, gardens to weed, a farm store to manage, full-time “off-farm” jobs versus full-time “on-farm” chores, family visits, birthdays and holidays, doctor and dentist appointments, vet visits, and everything in between.
2. You realize all that you didn’t know. In high school, I’d opted for shop class instead of home economics; I chose to hang out with my friends rather than spend time with Mom in the kitchen. I fancied being a writer, a magazine editor, and a motorcycle rider. I eventually became all three. Never did I imagine myself a farmer. Agriculture was not in my family’s background, and food never inspired much thought for me. For most of my adulthood, I had no understanding of industrial versus diversified agriculture. I didn’t know where my food came from, nor how it was grown. I knew not how to cook whatever raw ingredients landed in front of me, and I didn’t understand the health benefits of what I ate. I completely missed the lesson on the importance of our food system’s pollinators, and environmental conservation … what? I also couldn’t have told you the difference between straw and hay, what someone did with a front-loader or a scythe, or about the anatomy of a chicken, a cow, or a goat. That was the pre-farm me.
3. Your relationship with food, like your shoes, becomes muddied. Check the “It’s Complicated” box on Facebook when it comes to your love of food. Before I lived among chickens and goats and alpacas, I don’t recall thinking much about what was on my dinner plate. Critters are not only living, breathing beings, but they experience fear and anxiety, and they protect and alert one another when danger is near. We’ve taken in male goats (called “wethers,” a term I didn’t know prior to farm life) that would have otherwise been sent to slaughter. We’ve fostered and adopted alpacas. Our farm is home to nearly 15 cats, a dog, a compost bin full of worms, and thousands of bees. We also raise approximately 35 laying hens (along with one super happy rooster). My daily interactions with all of these critters has taught me about their many methods of communication, divisions of labor, and group decision-making skills. Animals living together form micro societies. They are loving and responsive, they have mood swings, and they often look to you as their leader. (At least the goats do.) Since living on the farm, eating has become an ethical act for me. I respect the cycles of life, the arguments for and against meat consumption, and I understand why folks opt for the former. Since moving to the farm, however, eating meat is no longer for me. Regardless of which way you swing when it comes to what’s on your plate, living on a farm forces you to respect the lives that are lived and lost for our consumption.
4. Everything multiplies. (And, if you’re me, you realize your maternal instincts.) I never had children of my own, and I make no joke when I say that my maternal instincts have kicked into high gear out in the barnyard. I’m a protective mother hen when it comes to the critters that we keep. Every morning and evening I walk the yard to make sure everyone is eating well, looking healthy, and socializing as they should. Vet visits are common, and, likely, more common than on most farms, but these animals are a part of the Dugger family, and their health and happiness is important to me. What started out as a simple desire to have a few farm animals, then, has become a desire to care for as many critters as we can without going broke because of it. When we moved to our new property, I didn’t expect to have so many lives depending on us. But the truth is: I gain as much by having them around as they get from me.
5. Which leads to: You become a champion. I’m a walking contradiction. I no longer eat meat, and I’d love to establish an official animal rescue on our farm. Meanwhile, Randy and I also have a small farm store, where we sell meat and dairy products produced on local farms. I’m a member and proud supporter of the Indiana Farmers Union and of Indiana’s family farmers who provide our state with food, fuel, fiber, and feed. Some of those farmers raise animals for consumption, and I support those enterprises. In the past five years, however, I’ve become more outspoken and mindful of how animals are raised in our state—and in our world. Taking a position, I’ve found, oftentimes doesn’t win you many friends.
6. You start to better understand the local food system. Right after you’ve proclaimed your champion ways, life becomes infinitely more frustrating. Because making change, my friends, is arduous and slow. Our local food system is inefficient and oftentimes ends up costing the consumer who is trying to support locally grown foods. Our small farm store sells peanut butter made by an Indiana family, for instance. The peanut butter is delicious, mind you, but it’s already priced higher than any other major brand because that family doesn’t have an efficient system, a massive factory to make the peanut butter, massive wholesale discounts for buying peanuts and jars and labels in large quantities, etc. The price per jar is likely twice as high as regular commercial brands. Then the peanut butter goes through a local distributor who adds on its tiny commission. The distributor brings it to us, and we add on a tiny commission. (Despite commissions, we’re making zero on our little store and actually losing money on it. Still, we think it’s important to have a local food offering out here, so we keep it open.) The consumer, who wants to buy local, who wants to support local, is then paying nearly three times the amount of what they would pay if they just bought Jif. We try to reason these inefficiencies away. There are health benefits, we say. There are fewer chemicals used. The food is fresher and tastes better. We are supporting a local economy. And these are very likely all true. But nothing speaks to consumers more powerfully and clearly than price points do, and until we find systems to bring the costs of local food production, processing, and distribution down, we’re on the losing end of this local food battle. This model that I’ve just described is true for anything locally made, by the way, regardless of whether it’s food or T-shirts or socks, etc. There’s no local mass production system available, no processing system available, no efficient distribution system available to small producers to make the price even close to being comparable. These new conclusions one is able to draw about our local systems in turn makes you more clearly understand the world at large. And none of these realizations are pretty. Particularly right now.
7. Which leads to: You build your very own soapbox. (Although you’re not sure anyone’s actually listening.) When Randy and I first moved to Morristown, we heard word that the town council was entertaining ideas of allowing a power plant to be built nearly on top of the town. This water-guzzling plant (to the tune of 8 million gallons a day) would have first rights to our area’s H2O and would account for more noise and air pollution than our newly adopted town had ever seen. Before we knew it, Randy and I were attending meetings and handing out flyers—and that was just the start. Since learning about our local food system and dissecting how incredibly important it is to our health, our economy, and our environment to eat local, I’ve found myself engulfed in activism. Everything I do is to empower and support our local food systems and diversified, sustainable agriculture. I am no longer a glossy upscale magazine editor. I now work with intent. And I try to tell others about it every chance I get. Here’s looking at you, farm life.
8. You write your own stories. I have been devoted to the written word for most of my life. As a young girl, I used to fill empty books with drawings and stories that I made up, fancying myself a writer even then, and also conceiving myself to be the heroine in each new tale. As I aged, the focus of my stories shifted to others. I’ve now spent nearly half my life promoting the work, creations, businesses, and ideas of others by telling their stories—or assigning someone else to tell their stories—for print. Somewhere along the way, while living in the country, I desired to become less a historian (by way of journalism), and more a producer, a maker, a creator. As I age, I am less interested in consuming and collecting, and more focused on the impacts I will make before I leave this world—on the environment, on animals, on others, and on our economy and food scene. While I’m still here, I hope to rely less on words and more on action to tell my tale. (Which means I’m almost done with this list.)
9. You might accidentally start a business. I say this in jest because there’s nothing about starting a business that feels like an accident. But coming from someone who never had an entrepreneurial inkling when she was younger, I’d say we sure have a lot of LLCs to turn over to our tax man this year.
10. You might also, not so accidentally, build a community. There are days when I wonder why I am doing any of this. We aren’t making money off of our farm yet. Living here is hard work, and there are times when I look around and see nothing but a fragmented and wholly disconnected agricultural and local food scene. Several times while writing this I questioned exactly why I was writing. (I’m still questioning that.) Still, something keeps me going each day. Something keeps me engaged and talking and writing and working and trying to get the message across to whomever is willing to listen (or read). If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Because of you, and others like you, we’re building a community and, one hopes, an incredibly different forecast for our future.
Sherri Dugger co-owns Dugger Family Farm (www.duggerfamilyfarm.com) with her husband, Randy Dugger. She created the local food website, Hoosier Locavore, at www.hoosierlocavore.com. She works as the media and outreach director for the Indiana Farmers Union and as the Market Basket 360 coordinator for Purdue Extension, and serves on the board of Hoosier Harvest Market, the only farmer-owned online food hub in Indiana.