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.”