A Heart-Based Farm
Molly Peterson, Heritage Hollow Farms, Sperryville, VIRGINIA
Walking around her farm, Molly Peterson will often find a heart-shaped stone. She prefers to say that the stones find her. She has them tucked away in her truck, around her house and barn, and in her pocket. I can’t think of ever seeing a rock that resembled a heart before, but Molly sees them all over the place. She feels like they are messages from a greater power—a loved one, the universe, whatever. “I found a big one on the day my Grandma went into the hospital,” she told me, “and without knowing yet about my Grandma, I had a deep knowing feeling that something big was up when I found that stone. They find me when I’m most aware, when I’m feeling like I’m really absorbing the world around me, when I’m most present.”
The stones are a perfect symbol for Molly and Heritage Hollow Farms, which she and her husband, Mike, run with love and reverence.
Heritage Hollow Farms is a livestock farm in Sperryville, Virginia, nestled in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Molly and Mike rent five different properties totaling close to 800 acres, where they manage around 400 animals (cattle, sheep and pigs). They follow a holistically minded approach to their farming, always considering what’s best for their animals, their soil, their business and their lives.
A sign on one of the freezer cases in their Heritage Hollow Farm store, where they sell their meat, explains their practices. “Our cattle are managed according to Nature’s intentions. Managed grazing through our Rappahannock County pastures builds soil organic matter, captures carbon, increases plant and wildlife diversity, and allows our cattle to eat what nature has designed them to digest.”
Molly and Mike approach the stewardship of their land with awareness and integrity, and they raise their animals with a respectful sense of responsibility. They are both genuinely gentle and kind people, and to spend time with them, wrapped in the beauty of the landscape and the reverence they show for their animals, is to feel the joy and sacredness of life.
I’ll be focusing on Molly, because this is, after all, a project about women farmers. But it’s impossible to write about Molly without also talking about Mike, because they are making the journey as farmers together. As a couple, they are closely attuned to each other and work beautifully together as a team. They balance each other. As Molly tells it, he’s stubborn, shy and private, while she’s driven, open and public. “You need that balance,” she says. [Note to Molly for a side business in your free time (like you have free time, haha): you two could offer couples relationship workshops.]
But they didn’t start off their life together thinking they would be a farming couple. Mike’s career was as a chef, and Molly’s as a photographer. Molly still has a successful photography business, so now she is both a farmer and a photographer.
How can you eat that?
Once they found their way to farming (and you'll read later about their journey to farm life), Molly and Mike never even considered farming vegetables. It had always been understood that they would raise animals. Molly feels she understands animals and can be an advocate for them, and her love of the animals is so evident. I had to ask her the question that’s often on my mind when I visit a livestock farm: what is it like to raise an animal that you know is destined to be dinner?
The answer came out in a long conversation.
“I read an article,” Molly started, “where the author, a woman farmer, said ‘I want to be with nature instead of thinking I’m above nature.’ And that really made a lot of sense to me. Because I think as humans we so often think, ‘we can conquer it!’ Like putting heads of dead things on the wall. For me it’s not a trophy, it’s nourishment. And I think everyone’s body is different, and every body doesn’t need meat all the time, or at all. Or maybe your body goes through fazes where sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But I think people have gotten so far away from the intuition of eating and asking the body what it wants. Like I’m really over the bacon craze. I get kind of offended. People just go crazy over bacon. I put a cap on how much people can buy at the store because they’d hoard it if I’d let them. There’s so much more to a pig than bacon! I’m not denying that bacon tastes good, but there’s like this craziness to consume. For me it’s a question of whether it’s fueling the body. Does it make you feel good? Do you feel good when you eat it?
“I think that when we eat an animal, there’s an energy transfer. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it ties in with the respect and value of it. If we’re going to eat meat, it should be with love and gratitude, and we should honor the animal the best we can.
“I look at it as a form of co-creating with them. We all have our own journeys in this life, we all have our own karmas, our own paths. When I say we are co-creating with them, I do absolutely believe that as a species, with their own souls and their own personalities and their own journey, they absolutely know what’s going on. I think that essentially it’s a soul contract, that they are here to help teach us more compassion. And if that means that someone says I can’t eat that, then that’s fine. I just ask that person to listen to their body. There may be times that your body says, ‘I need that, I need that iron,’ rather than say ‘No You Don’t!’ And if you are going to go that way [eating meat], then go the more responsible way. Don’t just run to your first fast food and scarf it down. It’s being more mindful, being more conscious, being more awake and aware.”
I asked her what it felt like, then, to say goodbye to an animal that was going to slaughter. “It’s kind of an interesting feeling,” she explained. “It’s not like a heavy sadness, it’s more like a sense of gratitude. It’s kind of this stillness of gratitude.”
In explaining her thoughts on co-creation with the animals, Molly believes that the animals understand their part in the cycle. “The day that it really hit me that the animals know when it’s their day, it was a beautiful day in May or June. There were two steers out in the field. It’s the field we take them to the day before Mike loads them up to go [to the slaughterhouse]. It was a beautiful day, the clouds were perfect puffy clouds, the sun was out, the birds were singing. And I stood and watched them a really long time. They both were grazing calmly, and then they both looked up, kind of how you’d look up and put your face in the sun, and I could see them take a deep breath in, and they were soaking it in. I got teary eyed, because yeah, I get teary eyed, and I knew in that moment that they knew. It sat pretty deep within me, like, this is so much bigger than we all realize. It’s so much more connected.”
The longing for something real
Molly eats a very clean diet that includes meat often but not daily. Her body goes through phases of needing meat and then not needing it so much, and she tries her best to listen to what her body needs.
“People say to me, ‘You’re a meat farmer, shouldn’t you be advocating for people to eat more meat?’ But I think we should eat less meat, and if we’re going to eat it, then the meat should be quality. Meat wasn’t always this easy; it used to be a luxury. There was a sense of sacred and value to it, but now it’s so easy to get, it’s lost what it really means.
“You know, when I go into a grocery store and I look around, I feel like ‘None of this is food.’ It’s so limited what I will buy in a grocery store, because none of it is food. And this is what people are putting inside of themselves. It’s fake, it’s not real. And so when you talk about energy and an energy transfer, what are they consuming?
“I see all this stuff around me that isn’t real, like reality shows that aren’t real, and people who are famous and uber-rich for not being real or authentic. What makes me sad is that that’s what people go for, and yet I think people are craving a connection to real. Which is why I think the food movement is growing, because people were so tipped in the wrong direction. People are wounded, and they don’t know why they are wounded. It’s what they’ve decided to consume. Whether it’s what they’ve decided to consume food-wise, or technology-wise, or energetically/emotionally.”
The idea of being mindful runs throughout conversation with Molly, so I asked if she had a daily mediation practice. “I should, but I don’t,” was her answer. “I did start and try to do a meditation every morning for 15 minutes, and I did fine and it’s good for me. But it’s one of those things I haven’t kept up with. It’s like one more thing on your To Do list. It’s probably one of those things you should do, though, before you even look at your To Do list! It’s very likely that I actually do [have a meditation practice], but because it doesn’t look like it’s ‘supposed to,’ with me sitting on a cushion with my eyes closed, I don’t label it as such.
“But it’s all about being present, and I do feel present so much of the time. When I’m anxious, I know that I’m either thinking too far ahead or too far back, and not right here.” The most calming thing for her is to take her camera out into the field and shoot. That brings her quickly back into the present, and Molly thinks that it’s her ability to be present that helps her juggle so much in her life.
How does she maintain that sense of being present? “I really love my life. I’ve been really blessed, and have found that joy and gratitude. I don’t have a whole lot I can complain about.”
When I meet truly happy, grounded people with what I would call an expanded consciousness toward the grace and goodness of life, I’m always curious how they got to be that way. Are they born with something special? So many of the women farmers I meet have that quality, which is why I always like to hear the story of their journey to the farm. What usually emerges is the sense that they aren’t born with anything different than the rest of us, and that their path to their happiness has been a series of conscious choices and decisions. Choosing what’s right for ourselves is something we all have access to.
There’s something to this…
Molly and Mike were both raised in Rockton, Illinois, and met in high school. She did a year at Illinois State, and Mike went to a local community college, but they moved together to Colorado in 2003, where Mike enrolled in culinary school in Denver and Molly went to photography school in the Roaring Fork Valley. After graduation, he moved to be with Molly; she worked for a photographer and he cooked for a couple different places.
At the time, they were caretakers for a little ranchette that had seven horses as well as chickens and rabbits. Mike read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, otherwise known as the gateway drug for local food. As Molly tells it, “Mike read about this Joel guy in Virginia who did something with chicken feed [the infamous Joel Salatin]. We didn’t have that many chickens, but Mike wanted to feed our chickens that way. So for our first wedding anniversary we took a drive over the mountain on a beautiful day to visit some guy who mixed his own chicken feed. We loaded up the truck with the chicken feed and the guy says, ‘Come on in! I just made some fresh goat cheese.’ He had goats running all over, and he served us this fresh goat cheese that had lavender on it. We sat there looking out over this vista, and it was just beautiful, and the sun was shining, and it was a little bit brisk because it was Colorado in June, and the food tasted so good, and I’m like, ‘Honey, there’s something to this.’
“Our chickens did well on that chicken feed that was like that Joel guy’s in Virginia, which I think is hilarious because now we know that Joel guy in Virginia. It’s funny how life works out, because less than two years later we were at his house for a private tour. I mean, without intending it. It’s just funny how things work out.
“We made a sudden decision to move to Virginia. We came here for a different job. It wasn’t for cooking, it wasn’t for farming. But that’s very much what it evolved into. We became caretakers for some horses for people who came out on the weekends.”
Mike had grown up around his grandparents’ dairy back in Illinois, so he was around the idea of farming, but his grandmother likes to say now “Of all the grandkids, I never thought it would be Michael” [who would become a farmer]. Molly grew up in a rural area with 15 acres and a variety of animals, but her family never farmed. But she did fall in love with piglets at an early age. “The grandparents of my best friend in kindergarten were our bus drivers, so we’d just ride home with her grandparents after school to play. We’d go out in her grandparents’ piglet barn, and we’d come out just smelling so bad. My parents would strip me off before I came into the house and throw me in the bath.”
So how did two kids from Illinois end up on a farm in Virginia?
“I’ve always loved animals,” says Molly. “Mostly horses, bunnies. We had a turkey that showed up once, and he was a pet. We had goats for a while. All sorts of stuff. But the animals were more like pets.
“We didn’t have a garden, so there was no connection there for me to homegrown food. I remember being over at my Grandma’s once. She had a garden, and my dad was trying to get me to try a fresh tomato. I did not want to eat that tomato! It just didn’t seem normal to me. I also remember a lady about two miles down the road. She had fresh eggs, and I remember my dad saying eggs tasted best fresh off the farm. Those are the two little blips that I remember of consciously making the connection between food and farming, but that’s it.”
A few more little blips came later, like that day in Colorado with the chicken farmer and his goat cheese. Or some children she babysat for in Colorado who drank raw milk and got Molly interested.
But full-on awareness didn’t open up for Molly until they were living in Virginia and Mike was working as a chef at The Inn at Little Washington. Actually, it came after Mike left the Inn. He was coming home from cooking feeling kind of burned out and wanting a break from the kitchen. Together they made the bold decision that he would leave his job and work as an intern at the nearby Mount Vernon Farm, with the intention that he would return to work as a chef. “But once he’d been here just long enough,” Molly says, “he didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Molly, meanwhile, was building a successful photography business. She got a job with the sadly now-defunct Flavor magazine doing the photography, and that got her around food in restaurants and out on farms. “It started slowly, but it was all evolving—Mike’s career and mine.” And suddenly they had a new connection with each other that they hadn’t had before.
Hanging around the farm
Mike started at Mount Vernon Farm in 2009, and Molly started hanging out and taking some photos of the farm. “I was just happy he had a job where I could see him, even though it was long hours and nights and weekends, we could do it together. Cliff, the farm’s owner, didn’t mind that I was tagging along.” She began doing marketing for the farm. “And then it got to a point that I was doing so much I said, ‘Hey, I’m doing so much now and providing value, you gotta pay me.’ At some point they put me on the payroll part-time. I was kind of doing the marketing and some customer outreach, but I also did some bookkeeping. And I’d work in the farm store on Friday and Saturdays.”
When Cliff retired in 2013, Mike and Molly bought the business (the customer list, the meat inventory, and some of the livestock) and signed a five-year pasture lease. “We incorporated Mount Vernon Grassfed, but we rebranded it as Heritage Hollow Farms, which gave us the flexibility to be us and not Cliff’s name and brand if that lease ever expired or if we took on other farms.”
They rent additional pasture land from other farms, and are now up to renting 800 acres between five farms.
When they bought Mount Vernon Grassfed, Molly was 50 percent of the business. Mike was managing the farm and Molly doing the marketing and customer service. “But I always said I didn’t want to be the wife that didn’t know what was going on, the wife that says ‘I have no idea what he does’—I mean, we’re a team. I need to know what’s going on. It’s also no fun if I’m just all the computer and bookkeeping, and he gets to be out in the field every day. The majority of it is still me at the computer and Mike out in the field, but I know that I get really uptight and anxious when I don’t get to do the farm side of the farm. All aspects are important to make sure it all goes, but talk about grounding! It’s easy to lose sight and get hyper-focused if you’re not out there more.”
When did she start to consider herself a farmer? “I guess when we started the business in 2013. I used to struggle a lot whenever I thought about whether I was a photographer or a farmer. For example, thinking ‘I’m a photographer and I’m giving all my time to the farm, and I can’t do my photography.’ Or when I’m on the farm and I really love it and I’m happy. I know that my photography business could be more successful financially if I gave more time to it. Sometimes I think it’s over in the corner going ‘Um…Hi! Hi! Do you think maybe we could do some photography work?’”
But now she’s accepted that she’s both a photographer and a farmer. And she’s tried to let go of any guilt about splitting her time between the two. “I hate it when people apologize all the time, like ‘So sorry I didn’t get back to you over the weekend.’ And I think, ‘It was the weekend!’ I think people apologize too much. The farm needs me right now, and I’m not going to apologize. It’s been a real big test of surrender and patience for me, to just let it be what it is.”
I pointed out that taking on either one of those endeavors—photographer or farmer—is a full-time job, and Molly acknowledged that she’s had to learn boundaries too. “I guess this is all part of my journey in life, to learn those things. To know my limits and stick to them. Because having a business and having a farm—it’s a stress. It’s not all bucolic and dancing through the field. As much as there are those moments, it’s still a business.”
Giving and receiving help
One thing that I wasn’t expecting from my time spent with farmers is the feeling of community that revolves around a farm. My early misconception was that a farm could be a lonely place, but I had it all wrong. People are constantly showing up on every farm I’ve visited, stopping to say hello or offer help. Even the animals are helping. Molly told me the story of two of her sows, Virginia and Harriet, and how they helped each other.
Molly names most of her animals and enjoys their individual personalities. Walter is a rather singular-looking, sweet-as-can-be, enormous red boar who was most likely responsible for the pregnancies of both Virginia and Harriet. Boars being what they are (happy to impregnate at any opportunity), Walter was for the time being kept in a separate fenced area, along with a young male for companionship. When I met Virginia and Harriet, they were both pregnant and close to the time of delivery. They lay together, belly to belly. Both had given birth once before, at the same time. During their deliveries they also lay face to face, pushing on each other’s bellies to help the other along. When the piglets were born, they cross-nursed, just a jumble of piglets crawling over each other to get to whatever nipple they could.
I’ve never been able to actually catch a birth in progress on any farm visit, so I hoped that on this day I’d finally get my chance. Those girls were so very large and already seemed to be breathing heavily. Molly and I started the day at the barn where Virginia and Harriet lay, then went to do chores in other areas around the five parcels of land that make up Heritage Hollow Farms.
But we kept checking back all day. Nothing. It turns out the sows didn’t deliver until two days later, and this time not together. Harriet delivered first, and Virginia delivered her own later that night. There was no way to know whose piglets were whose; again they cross-nursed. And as soon as Molly saw they were all red, she knew that Walter was indeed the father.
Molly laughed, politely of course, when I asked her to describe a typical day on the farm. Because, really, there is no such thing as a typical day, especially when animals are involved.
On one crisp March morning, I accompanied Molly on her morning rounds, stopping first at one of the large fields where the cattle and sheep graze. Given that it was early spring, there were lots and lots of babies being born.
After some snuggle time with a young lamb (see the photo that starts this article), Molly spied a tiny lamb lying by himself, obviously abandoned by his mother. He was just a few days old. Mike had tagged his ear with the number 23 a day or so ago, and remembered tagging his little sister as well, so Molly’s theory was that the mother may have decided that she couldn’t take care of both lambs or that something was wrong with the male and she left him. “We’ll never know.”
Whatever the reason, Molly scooped the little guy up, and any plans for a typical day went out the window.
She wrapped him in her jacket, and off we drove to get him some nourishment. He lay listless in my lap during the ride back to the farm store, and I was so worried he would die right then. My maternal instincts were already in high gear. It was nippy outside, and who knows how long he’d been away from the warmth of his mother’s body.
While we drove I asked Molly if seeing baby animals not survive got any easier. She said, “I don’t think it gets easier. It sucks every time. But when you see it enough…I don’t know if easier is the right word. Maybe acceptance? We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve seen it a lot. And you try with every single one, and you always hope for the best.”
And this little guy? Did she think he’d make it? “I don’t know. I hope so.” Hang on, Number 23. Please don’t die in my lap.
When we got back to the store, Molly prepared a bottle of lamb formula and proceeded to try and feed him, but he wouldn’t take the nipple. I wondered if he was just too weak. We both kept trying with the bottle. We moved outside once the sun got warmer, which perked him up a little. He walked around and seemed like he wanted to nurse on our arms, but still no luck with the bottle. Molly’s friend Deb Dramby of Willowsford Farm came over with an intubation kit and quickly got a tube down his throat so that Molly could feed him formula. She made a sling out of an apron to carry him, and we all went off to the barn to admire Virginia and Harriet’s nine-day-old piglets.
Afterwards we bought a smaller nipple at the farm supply store, which was exactly what Number 23 had been wanting. He nursed from that nipple just fine.
Molly took him home that evening and set him up in the laundry room with a female dog diaper and a warm dog bed. For the next four days and nights, she fed him every four hours, until she thought it was time for him to go back out to the field. How do you know a lamb is strong enough to go back out? “Intuition and hope,” Molly explained. “You kind of guess and hope, and watch it. You’re paying enough attention to interfere if you need to, but you hope you don’t have to interfere again. You want nature to be nature as much as possible.”
Two days after bringing Number 23 home, Molly found a set of teeny tiny unresponsive twin lambs out in the field, and she gathered them up also. She was sure that these two would die, but one went back out to mom after just one night; the other one Molly kept for a few more nights. After moving the mom to a pen, Molly placed the twins as well as Number 23 in with her. They all needed help nursing, but after a day of guidance, they were on their own and all three were nursing and doing fine.
You never know from where help will come
When Molly and Mike purchased Mount Vernon Grassfed in 2013 and rebranded it as Heritage Hollow Farms, they also decided to move the existing farm store to a new location off the farm but still within the town of Sperryville. Conveniently, Molly’s mother’s background was in retail. She had just retired her own store and was thinking about what to do next, so she moved out to Virginia to help them set up and run the store.
They’ve since moved the store to a different location within Sperryville, and Molly’s mom helped set up that one as well. Both shops have been beautifully designed and decorated, with Molly’s photographs featured on the walls. Molly’s mom stayed three years. By the time she left to move to Illinois, Mike’s cousin Matt had moved out to work part-time on the farm, but out in the field, not the store. So Molly is back on store duty. They’d like someday to afford to have Matt on the farm full time.
And then something happened…
One evening this past spring, Molly and Mike got home very late from an event. A friend had called earlier and suggested they enter something called the Agility Prize, a contest sponsored by AT&T to help small businesses pursue their dreams. Mike went to bed, but Molly had a look at the entry form, which was due that night by midnight. She quickly wrote an essay about what agility would mean to their business and sent it off, with a photo of the farm. What the hell, right? The grand prize was $50,000.
A few days later they got a call from AT&T announcing that they were in the top ten out of about 1,000 entries.
The next step was to write another essay, send in more photos and a 3-minute video. They only had a few days over the weekend to pull it all together, and they were busy working in the store.
Once the store closed they hurried out to film a few video clips, which Molly quickly pieced together with some photographs from her archives.
After a period of open community voting, Molly got a call that they made it to the top five, and AT&T would be going around to film all the finalists.
During the filming a short time later, the AT&T spokesman tells Molly and Mike that guess what? Surprise! They are actually the Grand Prize winners. What? Molly wasn’t sure she heard correctly. Neither of them could talk. They got choked up. This AT&T video captures the actual moment. Molly says she suspected that they might have won something, because it’s a big deal to send a whole film crew, but she truly had no idea that they won the jackpot.
What do they plan to do with their prize money? “I still just kinda want to look at it! We haven’t officially figured out what to do with it yet. We want to be smart about it, and figure out how to make it last longer.”
Has winning $50,000 changed how they think about the farm and their life? Molly says it hasn’t changed how she feels about their work, but she has felt even more blown away by their community of supporters. “We feel an even deeper appreciation for our community. We don’t do what we do for pats on the back, but that feeling of standing beside us means a lot.”
Help from all around.