The grand experiment
JENNIE KAHLY, POSSUM TAIL FARM
TERRA ALTA, WEST VIRGINIA
Jennie Kahly, along with husband Brian and two children, are in year five of a conscious decision to farm. Their farm, Possum Tail Farm in rural West Virginia, has Certified Naturally Grown status, and they raise grass-fed and finished beef and pasture-raised turkey, chicken, and eggs. Their mission is to create an environment that is healthy for their family, their community and their animals.
This past fall my daughter and I wanted to go WWOOFing for a week (WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). When you WWOOF, you volunteer your time and labor on an organic farm in exchange for some kind of lodging and often meals. It’s a wonderful way for visitors to get hands-on experience with ecological farming practices, and for farmers to get extra labor.
We chose Possum Tail Farm because I wanted a place within a day’s drive, and my daughter wanted to be on a farm that raised animals. We felt instantly adopted into the family by Jennie, Brian, and their 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. We worked alongside Brian and Jennie each day, and let me tell you—we worked our asses off.
The Kahlys follow exacting standards of care for their animals. My daughter’s job was to help Brian with all his chores, which during our stay primarily consisted of feeding and watering the animals, moving the chicken houses each day, and moving the cattle. She also custom-mixed the chicken feed from grains grown on a nearby farm. That was a big job.
My daughter and Brian custom mix bags of chicken feed.
I was put to work in the kitchen because Jennie knew I was a decent cook and I knew how to can. We canned 94 jars of applesauce from their own apples, which took three days. Jennie, her son, and Brian’s mom worked an outdoor apple-peeling operation while I worked the stove indoors. I also cooked all the meals for the family, which for them was a luxury.
Prepping the apples—lots and lots of apples—for applesauce became a family event
One of the ironies of farm life that I’m hearing from many farmers is that the farmers work so hard that they often don’t have the time or the energy to cook the kinds of meals that got them interested in farming in the first place.
It felt so satisfying to me to make nurturing meals for people who really appreciated them and enjoyed the food. I had a lot of fun pulling from Jennie’s well-stocked pantry of foods she has preserved and getting to cook with their excellent meat. The potato shown below and the remainder of the crop from Jennie’s garden made it into one meal. I believe we had only five little potatoes, but they were delicious!
The power of a book
I have a friend who reads Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle every year. I’ve read it maybe twice. It’s a chronicle of the year that Kingsolver and her family chose to eat exclusively locally, with food from their own garden and local farms. It’s an influential book, for sure, but I had never met someone who completely changed her life after reading it until I met Jennie. She read it in 2008 when she was living in Tampa, Florida, working on her MFA and raising her daughter by herself.
“I really just took a look at my life,” Jennie explains, “and felt that I was not living sustainably enough, and didn’t want to eat food from the grocery store anymore. And so I really just started to take actions to change the way that I was living. In the book Kingsolver recommended a couple of cookbooks, and so I bought all of those. Simply in Season was one, and the Weston A. Price one was another. So even when I was in Tampa I was going to the butcher and asking for things like blood and brain. In Tampa, it was impossible to find food from good sources; at least that’s how it felt to me at the time. Probably now if I went I’d be able to ferret out the good stuff, but at the time I didn’t know enough.
“I was interested in doing the same eat-local-only project that Kingsolver did, and I asked my grad school if I could do the project and create a body of art out of it as my MFA work. They did not think that was a good idea, so I just quit.
“When I left grad school I moved to Berkeley Springs, in the hills of West Virginia; I had lived there before, and I really liked the area. I felt that the life I wanted to live would be possible there. That was about six months after reading the book.”
Jennie wanted to source her food locally but not necessarily grow it all herself. Still, “I put in a garden, having never seen a garden before, and I got chickens, and I had probably never seen chickens before.” She experienced many fulfilling moments, like the first cucumber she grew in her own garden, or the baby chicks when they first arrived. But along with some successes came a steep learning curve.
“I’ve been trying to garden for about six years, and I feel like I’m just able to start to reap something from my gardening efforts. But the challenge is part of the fun, I guess. I spent an entire summer trying to bake a loaf of bread, and until now I’ve still not been successful. I can bake bread in a bread machine, so I’ve succumbed to that being okay. For some reason, yeast doesn’t like me. I did manage to make a pizza dough that was yeasty and turned out great, so I’m starting to think that maybe I can try again. But it was kind of depressing when loaf after loaf after loaf was like brick.”
Jennie searches for the last of the potato crop
The gold in the dirt
In Berkeley Springs, Jennie was working three part-time jobs, raising her daughter singlehandedly, trying to raise chickens and vegetables, and cooking up all the fresh food she got from her CSA. How did she do it all, I asked. “I just did it. I managed.”
She also managed to go contra dancing, something she loved. She usually took her daughter with her, who would sit quietly and color. But for one special contra-dancing weekend, she found a great babysitter and went by herself. It was at the dance that she met Brian, as in future-husband Brian. He was living and working in State College, PA, so they long-distance dated for about nine months, until Jennie and her daughter moved to be with him in 2010.
Deciding on a life
Brian had grown up next door to his grandparents’ farm in West Virginia, and about 15 years ago Brian bought it from them. At the time of purchase he thought that someday he might retire on the farm. His parents still live next door.
Through the process of deciding whether they would get married, Jennie and Brian were vetting their options for what they wanted in life. “Brian asked me where did I see myself in 15, 20 years? We wanted to make sure that those visions were similar, that we were headed in a similar direction. Ultimately I wanted to be in a rural area. I wanted to be growing as much of my own food as possible. It really just made a lot of sense for us to move back to his family farm, where he grew up, so that’s what we did.
“The decision was both personal and financial. Brian already owned the farm, which was a huge asset. When we were deciding how we wanted to live our lives, we basically had a decision: either we need to sell the asset and use the money to do something that we want to do, or come and make the asset be part of what we want to do. We came for family reasons: we wanted to have a child, and I wanted to be near family, and Brian’s parents live right next door. My children literally go over the stream and through the woods to grandmother’s house. It’s amazing! It’s so amazing that it’s easy to forget how amazing it is, because it’s just my regular life.
Jennie’s son makes the trip through the woods to Grandma’s house.
“We also made the decision to move to the farm for health reasons, because Brian was having health problems. He was working as a defense industry software engineer, and it was a good job. But he was sitting in a room with no windows and looking at a screen all day, day in and day out. He wasn’t using his body. So he’d work all day, then have to go to the gym for an hour after work because he’d been sitting all day. He felt little satisfaction or meaning in the work he was doing. For me, the more I learned about food and how to grow food and how to raise animals for food, it seemed like a natural step to become a farmer after that.”
And so in 2011, when Jennie was 32, they moved to Alta Vista, West Virginia, to try their hand at farming.
The house that came with the farm, his grandparents’ house, had been unoccupied for ten years. Jennie says it was disgusting, and anyone else would have torn it down. But their motto was “Avoid Debt at Any Cost.” They thought it would be a more environmental choice to renovate the house as opposed to tearing it down and starting over. And there was again a family reason. Jennie was pregnant at the time they moved, and she wanted her son to be born in the house his grandmother had been born in.
Jennie laughs now and says that “only two idiots would convince themselves that it would be okay to move, have a kid, renovate a house, start a farm, and home school. It’s amazing we aren’t divorced.”
Jennie and Brian moved to Terra Alta, West Virginia, as sleepy a rural town if there ever was one. I wondered what the move had felt like for Jennie, who relocated from the busy college town of State College, Pennsylvania. I’ll let Jennie explain it.
“When I first moved here in 2011 there was a great deal of relief. When you live in a city, it’s hard to even understand the impact that the cement has on your body. The square buildings—everything is so angular. When you come to the country and things are a natural shape, well, there’s a softness to the shapes. For me that was really healing for my soul.”
The stillness of dusk settles over the farm
“Moving to a rural area meant that we had fewer food options—in the beginning at least. We moved from this amazing place in Pennsylvania, where we could get raw milk, veggies, fruits, meat, anything we wanted at the farmer’s market, and just take it home and cook with it—noodles even! Then we moved here and there was nothing. I almost burst into tears a couple of times at the grocery store. Like not being able to buy organic yogurt, or things I really felt were absolute staples in my diet.
“But now [five years later] we are at the point that almost everything we eat is produced locally. Probably more than 75%, and I take it for complete granted. I remember a time, back in State College, where we looked down at our dinner from our garden and went “Wow!! Everything on this place is local. Isn’t that something?” And now we don’t even think about it—it’s commonplace. And that was all part of the plan.”
A food preserver’s dream
Jennie has an impressively stocked cellar and pantry. She preserves whatever she can for a variety of reasons: “My goal in preserving food is to minimize packaging and landfill waste while maximizing nutrition, keeping costs low (we have run the numbers), food prep convenience, and having food through the winter. I make stock and I can dried beans throughout the year. When I make stock I generally can 14 quarts at a time. I pull the meat off the bones and freeze those in approximately one-pound bags. I can make a soup from scratch with this preparation in about 20 minutes. That’s convenience! Same with the beans. If I have beans I canned on hand I eliminate the hours it would require to cook them at the same time the only waste I make is a small canning jar lid.”
She also puts up tomatoes, peaches, jams, pickles, apple rings, beef and venison jerky, ketchup. And remember those 94 jars of applesauce we put up during our WWOOFing stay? Her root cellar, which was dug underneath the house and is damp and chill, is lined with rows and rows of jars. The freezer in the cellar is stocked with meat. The kitchen pantry is overflowing with stored flours and grains and dehydrated fruits.
She buys other things she needs at the farmers market, such as dairy and some magnificent local buckwheat; Jennie made us yeasted buckwheat pancakes one morning, topped with her canned peaches. Yum. She also mail orders or ventures into the grocery store for some family must-haves: tea, corn chips, tortillas, salt, and so on.
Last year as a special anniversary present to Brian, Jennie gathered and preserved copious amounts of blueberries, Brian’s favorite. Dehydrating blueberries is a time-consuming, multistep process that takes many days. Jennie said normally she wouldn’t go to all the trouble, but what a sweet gift that was to Brian so he can enjoy blueberries year-round with his morning oatmeal.
After the move: Now What?
What did Jennie and Brian want their 148-acre farm to look like? “I’ve never been a successful gardener, so it never occurred to me to be a vegetable farmer for a living,” Jennie says. “I mean, I had never had success with it! But I did have success with raising chickens, and it was a natural transition to go from having raised a backyard flock of laying chickens and some meat birds to raising a very small batch of meat birds our first year of being here. We went from 50 birds our first year here to 1,000 the next year. Because once you know how to raise one, you can raise more.”
They raised those 1,000 birds in ten batches of 100 birds, so the animals were well taken care of. The photo below may give the impression that the birds are crowded, but they are not. Those girls are in a large pasture and roam freely throughout the day. When I entered their space, they all came rushing up to greet me. There was about half a football field of fenced pasture behind these birds. As soon as they realized I wasn’t there to give them food, they lost interest in me and scattered away.
Jennie continues: “I’m a true believer in tailoring the kind of farming that you do to the land and facilities available to you. We happen to have land that has the potential to be really good pasture land. We don’t have wooded land. If it were wooded, we might choose to do different things, like raise woodland edibles and maybe some pork, things like that. But because we have pretty lush grassland, it makes sense for us to be raising grass-fed beef.”
They started their grass-fed beef operation with two steer, and now have anywhere from 28 to 37 a year. Their goal is to finish 50 animals a year. That number could be higher if they rented other pasture land, or fenced in more of their own. They transitioned the farm into Certified Naturally Grown status (a grassroots alternative to the National Organic Program) in 2012.
Jennie and Brian follow meticulous practices in how they raise their beef. During the growing season, cattle are given a new section of grass every day, and during the rest of the year they spend only three or four days in any given area. It is a labor-intense grazing practice, but the Kahlys have equal commitments to the care of the animals they raise, the quality of the beef they sell, and the health of their land. Moving the herd so often helps to improve pasture density and plant variety while preventing over-grazed and trampled land that can lead to soil loss and watershed pollution.
“At this point,” explains Jennie, “all the Certified Naturally Grown beef we are selling is born and raised on our farm. We also sell a few steers as grass-finished beef that we buy from a local farmer. I’m very attached to the conditions that the animal is raised in. Because it takes two years to take a steer to market—two years from birth to butchering—most farms either do a cow-calf operation (where they have brood cows and then they sell the calves at the end of the year and the brood cows have another set the next year) or they finish animals raised elsewhere. Folks who grass finish will buy cattle from those cow-calf operations and finish them on grass, or the cattle is sent to feedlots to finish on grain. On our farm, we are finishing them on grass with management intensive grazing. In addition, we keep statistics on our animals, which help us know specifically when they are ready to be harvested, so hopefully we are managing not to butcher animals until they are getting a decent amount of marbling on grass.”
I asked how much a steer should weigh before it is butchered, and how, exactly, do you weigh a steer? “We have a weighing program [yes, using a huge scale]. It’s not about reaching a certain end weight; it has much more to do with their growth pattern and the weights of their parents.” Butchering is done at a USDA facility that is thankfully only 20 minutes from the farm. They make every effort to minimize stress to their animals.
Jennie’s nightly walk to the hen house to gather eggs
Jennie is the marketing division of the operation, and she sells directly from the farm and to restaurants in Morgantown. This past spring she began making quarterly deliveries to Pittsburgh and a few stops in the DC area. She’s recently started using the Barn2Door selling platform for ease of customer pre-purchasing, and it’s working well for her.
They also sell their eggs, chicken, stew hens, and turkey through the same channels. They do their own chicken processing on the farm, and their daughter helps bag and seal the birds.
So how does Jennie feel about their grand experiment now?
The Magic of Farming
“I think it was the ancient Greeks who said the only truly meaningful professions were being a soldier and being a farmer. And I really feel that. For me, farming is a kind of alchemy. It’s one of those careers where you get to create and be witness to magic. The other careers I’ve been part of have been in education and in helping families to have their babies, and for me farming has the same magic.
“I’ve grown into this feeling that our bodies are here to labor. Our bodies love to be used, and I feel like many careers don’t allow people to use their minds in creative ways to solve problems and use their bodies physically, and that’s one of the amazing things about farming.
“Farming allows us to be self-employed so we are available to our children, which is one of our number one priorities. So sometimes I feel extremely lucky when we get to wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 and hang out with our family. No one is rushing to get dressed; no one is rushing to get on the road to fight traffic. We just walk out the front door, and maybe sometimes we do our work in our pajamas, and our kids are right there with us. We watch the school bus go by and we laugh and wave. And that’s amazing!”
Jennie homeschools her 13-year-old daughter and plans to do the same with her 3-year-old son when he’s a little older.
Raising kids on a farm will be a recurring theme on Grounded Women, because, well, I’m a mom and mothering issues take up a large part of my brain (along with food). Having raised a suburban child, I definitely have my own (positive) thoughts about the kids I see growing up on farms. But I was curious what Jennie’s thoughts on the subject were.
“I think kids growing up on a farm know they are needed, and I mean that in a really big sense. They are absolutely necessary as a member of the family and a member of the farm. I think that kids who grow up in the cities are almost ornamentation. They feel that they are just sort of there, that there’s no reason for them to be, that there’s nothing for them to do. Nothing they are needed for.
“But I think that you can definitely accomplish that sense of being needed in a city. If you think consciously about inviting your children into the work that needs to be done. Maybe even in community—like helping the elderly neighbor mow his lawn.”
How was the transition for her daughter, I asked, in moving to the farm from State College at age 8?
“Oh my gosh. My daughter struggled. Now she loves being on the farm, but there’s still more of an I-I-I mentality rather than a We-We-We mentality. Because on the farm, life is really “We need to get this done, the animals need to be taken care of. My daughter also struggled for the first couple of years rising to the challenge of the physical demands. My son, on the other hand, was born on the farm and has a completely different way of being. He sees us working, and he picks up a tool and he says, “OK, we are working! We’re going to work. Here we go! Here’s my shovel, here’s my nails, here’s my hammer. I’m here to help.” Which is completely different [from my daughter] and I think that’s totally awesome.”
“The balance to that is that they don’t necessarily have the opportunities for cultural enrichment. We are a musical family and actually do have a lot of music at the house among family members, so they do get that. But they don’t see art museums, things that you do get if you live in a city.”
The cost of farming
I asked Jennie what she would want people to understand about farming, and she didn’t skip a beat. “The food is expensive because it takes that to raise it! It’s so hard to go to the farmer’s market and have people say, ‘What are you feeding those cows, gold?’ My beef prices are exactly the same prices as organic beef fed in feedlots that you buy at Sam’s Club. The same price. $6.50 a pound.
“People just don’t understand what it costs to raise good beef.”
Jennie admits that she and Brian are able to do what they do because they already owned the land and don’t have a mortgage. And they live frugally. They would make more money if they produced higher volume. If she raised 5,000 chickens a year, for example, instead of the current 700, “I would make an exponential amount more money, but then the balancing act is remaining the small family farm. So where do you lose the small family farm? How many employees do I have to employ before it’s not a family farm any more, but it’s something different?”
As we talked, I sensed some sadness in Jennie’s voice. I asked her if she regretted taking on the farm, and she said, quietly, “in some ways.”
“My husband had an excellent job [as a software engineer in State College, Pennsylvania], and we lived on a couple of acres. We could have continued to do what we did, maybe expand it. I’m all for homesteading. I’m just not sure if I’m all for farming.”
Jennie explains the distinction. Homesteading is being as self-reliant as possible and needing as little as possible from outside your own community. Farming, on the other hand, is raising food for other people. Jennie thinks that possibly she could have derived as much pleasure out of doing things on a much smaller scale. It’s doing it on a larger scale and providing food for other people that feels like it stretches them too much.
And yet: “We have customers who are so happy to get what they get from us, and I love the personal relationship we have built with our customers. That’s a big reason why we wouldn’t want to quit farming. Those people would have to get their food somewhere else! We are their source of food. So that feels really good. And it feels really good to know we are eating food we grew, too.”
What a hard-working farmer fantasizes about
But farming is a tough lifestyle.
I was surprised when Jennie told me her secret dream. “I fantasize about Brian going away to work and then all I have to worry about is being with the kids and homeschooling, and working in the garden, and then he comes home at a normal time—like 5 pm—and we actually have our nights together.” Jennie begins to cry. “I really miss that, and it’s something that we don’t get. Because Brian is working so much.
“I mean, we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and I know that’s amazing, and yet it’s such…hard…work, that I fantasize about the other.
“My son talks about chopping heads off of things, and bleeding, because he’s been exposed to so much farm life, it’s just normal for him. But it’s kind of weird!!”
I pointed out that he could be sitting in front of a computer screen talking about killing things, or that Brian might come home from his fantasy job worn out, soul-sucked, with no energy or joy to really be present with the family. Don’t most of us fantasize from time to time about living a different kind of life? I know that personally, when my life feels overwhelming and harried and complicated, I fantasize about being out in the open space of a farm. As if I wouldn’t feel equally as overwhelmed and harried on a farm if it became my livelihood!
And there’s Jennie, fantasizing about living a more 9 to 5 kind of life. I have to chuckle at that one.
I couldn’t help but remind Jennie of the lack of satisfaction Brian felt in his job in State College, and why they left in the first place. “Yeah,” she agreed, “now our life is chock-full of soulful meaning. We’ve got that coming out of our ears! But we have to work really hard for it.
“That’s why I love the winter so much. That’s the time when our family cozies up to the wood stove in the evenings, because it’s impossible for Brian to work after dark. Farming has really made us part of the natural world and the seasons. The way we schedule our lives is really based on seasonal changes.”
I could hear Jennie reminding herself of the reasons they farm. She says that the primary reason they host WWOOFers is because the WWOOFers mirror back to Jennie and Brian all the great things they are doing on the farm. “Oh yeah, what we’re doing here is really awesome.” They get to see how outsiders experience the farm, and they are reminded all over again about why they chose to make farming their life.
I was curious if Jennie feels isolated and if that was part of what fuels her “regular life” fantasy. She replied that No, she doesn’t, but she thinks that some people would. “I personally have a genetic makeup that makes this a comfortable experience, but I think extroverts would have a hard time being on a farm like this.
“I like being out here because of the visual impact that the environment has on me emotionally and spiritually, and for me, being farther away from people is very calming.
“But I would like to encourage people not to think of farming as a pastoral dream, because it’s not. What we do here can be done on any scale, anywhere. That just because you live in a suburb, for example, does not mean that you can’t do amazing things where you are. And really, it needs to be done everywhere. The idea is not to move out to the country and leave all the bad stuff behind, but it’s being the change where we are. This is the farm Brian grew up with, so in a way we are being the change where we are. But I don’t think people need to go out and buy these 150-acre farms just to have this. There are many permutations to living an authentic life, and it doesn’t mean you have to be in the country or own lots of land.
“We have to shift our thinking about this. It’s not 100 years ago when there was a lot of land. You can do an amazing amount in a city environment.”
Thank you, Jennie, for sharing those inspiring words. We can all be part of the move to reclaim the health of our food system and the land right at home, because for so many people farming is just not a reality.