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 Part 2 will talk 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 as a species, 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.”
In Part 2 we’ll follow Molly’s path to that place of joy and gratitude, from the childhood bliss of getting smelly with piglets to the choices one makes as an adult.