I used to take my hometown for granted. I used to say, to myself and others, “I can’t wait to get out of this place. There’s nothing here.” I used to believe I’d leave and never come back. I used to believe living in a place where things were quiet, where famous people didn’t live, where community theatre was taken seriously, and downtown took ten minutes to walk, was the pits. And I used to believe I didn’t count at all unless the world knew my name.
I moved to Columbia, South Carolina when I was twelve. Before that I’d been living in Los Angeles. For a long time I considered Los Angeles my home. It wasn’t until 2014, while living (briefly, for less than a year) in New York City that I decided my allegiance was to Columbia. Even then, though, I didn’t fully comprehend what it meant to be from and to honor your hometown. I still thought I was better because I lived in the City, that I’d escaped this hometown of mine, a place really only fit for short visits, two weeks, tops. Publicly, I honored my hometown by using it as a novelty when I wanted to stand out, to be intriguing, to other people, who, I believed, would only take interest in me if I was novel. It never felt right. But, even so, it was then I began to recognize/feel Columbia was home.
In October of 2015, I moved back to Columbia. It wasn’t what I’d planned, in fact, it wasn’t even my decision, but it’s where I landed after my semblance of a life fell apart quite suddenly. I’d been stripped of most everything. My heart was devastated and my ego demolished. It wasn’t until one year later that I finally and fully made my peace with what had happened. I’d been given a gift, I realized. I’d been living in a prison, living for everyone but myself, and now, no longer.
Well, not quite.
I spent much of that year just dating myself – meeting me, falling for me, loving me, knowing and accepting me. Now that I had myself, I felt it was time to address the question of, “so what do I do with my life?” Up until that point, I’d only ever envisioned myself as a career artist. But that was more a pain than anything. And no longer felt authentic. A career artist meant selling myself, to please others, so that I could have some level of notoriety, so that people would know who I was, so that I wouldn’t be forgotten. And I no longer cared what anyone thought, because I loved myself and that was enough.
So what to do?
I toyed with notion of teaching, but going back to school didn’t feel right either. I never did and have never done well in an academic setting. But I did want to give back, to serve a purpose greater than myself. It was when I went vegan (I have since ceased to be) that I began to understand the horrific implications of industrial agriculture on our society and planet. My shift to conscious consumer led me to spend more time (and money) at Rosewood Market, Columbia’s only local health food store. There I found an array of local agricultural products, produce and animal. And it was by contacting one of the Market’s egg providers, Paradise Acres Farm, that I landed my first farm job.
Immediately, I knew “this is it.” It all clicked. I’m going to be a farmer. For me it was the perfect combination of manual labor (something I’ve always appreciated), working with animals, connection to the earth, and community service. And best of all, I didn’t have to go to school to get started. I’ll never forget Thanksgiving, 2016. Denise, owner and operator of Paradise Acres Farm, had given me a heritage turkey to share with my family. Now, unlike any other turkey I’d had before, and I venture to guess most anyone in this country has had before, I knew this turkey. I knew it, I fed it, and I was there when it was slaughtered. And it had a damn good life. Paradise Acres is unique in that their poultry is woods-pastured, meaning they have 24/7 access to every square foot of the property’s wooded acreage. As far as I was concerned, this was the peak of humane livestock husbandry. I can’t tell you how good it felt to share that bird with my friends and family. It truly was a joy (Now, you may wonder how and why I went from die-hard vegan to eating turkey. I’ll address that, but not in this post).
It wasn’t more than a month or two at Paradise Acres that I took my second farm job at City Roots, Columbia’s only Organic urban farm. I was excited to be amongst other young farmers, and hopeful that I could finally have the deep and impassioned dialogues about the tremendous social, cultural, and political implications of farming locally. But everyone was far too busy to afford any time to chit and to chat. This is by no means a criticism, they grow delicious produce, but I was disappointed. I was also coming to realize that working for other farmers just wasn’t cutting it for me. I wanted to farm for myself, to have the freedom to grow food the way I felt most honored my values and principles. But I still felt I had more to learn before I began my own enterprise. I applied and was accepted to a sustainable farming program in Charleston, where I hoped, finally, I’d have the conversations with other young farmers I’d so badly craved.
I began commuting to Charleston every week, attending class and apprenticing with a local farmer who put me up in exchange for help on his farm. While attending class only confirmed what I already knew, that school was not for me, I found my apprenticeship to be a trove of incredibly useful knowledge, and it was most certainly my experience there that empowered me to finally start my own farm. So, thank you, Farmer David. It was there, at Wishbone Heritage Farms, I met and fell in love with my first sheep (my love to you, #17), which confirmed what I’d apparently known since, at least, senior year of high school. During my senior superlative interview (most talented), I declared (prophesied?) I was going to move to New Zealand and raise sheep. I’m not in New Zealand, but sheep I am raising!
*Note: I would like to note that while I didn’t find the farming program to be a good fit for me, it is an excellent networking platform to connect you with other farmers in the Lowcountry, and offers useful and essential introductory practices and principles for growing produce. You can check them out at: https://lowcountrylocalfirst.org/gnf-apprentice-program/.
It was during class in Charleston that I decided to buy my first flock of sheep. In selecting a breed, I wanted to find the most sustainable, local option I could. The reason I decided to raise Gulf Coast Native sheep was because they’d adapted over several hundred years, through natural selection by way of neglect, to the Southeastern region of the United States where they’d long ago been abandoned by Spanish colonists. Not only did they sound as local a sheep as I could get, but they also sounded like they’d save me a lot of money (TBD on that, but I’m optimistic my reasoning will hold up).
Flash forward a month later and I’m committed to buying five sheep and have no land to put them on. I was adamant I wouldn’t spend a dime on land, and as fate would have it, I was introduced to an incredible woman in Orangeburg who’d been praying for the past eight years for someone to come farm her land. I couldn’t be doing this without her, and you can be sure you’ll be hearing more about her in the future. Her name is Margaret, and she’s a saint.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wrap things up and get to bed.
I am proud to say I no longer feel the way I did as a kid, bored and underwhelmed by this place I call home. At this point, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on my farm, raising sustainable, humane, kosher animal products and serving my local community. Shalom, ya’ll.
(Handsome 17, the sheep that started it all)