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.
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 close to the time of delivery and 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, 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 Martha 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 where help will come from
When Molly and Mike purchased Mt. 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.
I asked Molly what they planned 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.