Despite being the 7th generation in a farming family, Nora Crist had no intention of making farming her career. She was interested in horses, and went off to college to study equine business. (You can read the first installment of Nora’s story here.)
But then something happened that threw her off course. During her first semester in college in 2005, Nora started experiencing joint pain, specifically in her hands and wrists. Doctors weren’t sure what was causing the pain, and it kept getting worse. She was having trouble using her hands and walking. By January every joint in her body was constantly throbbing. She pushed through, thinking at some point the pain would go away.
But it didn’t, and in March of her freshman year she finally received a diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis (RA). She was told that RA was chronic and incurable but that she would be able to manage the disease and the pain with medication.
Nora was terrified. She was 18 years old with big plans to work with horses, but instead was given a lifetime sentence of a painful disease. And Nora’s arthritis was a severe case. She told me she never cried much growing up, but now she cried a lot, daily. She cried from the pain and from not knowing if she’d ever be without pain again. She didn’t know how she was going to live her dream of working with horses, much less even function in school.
She says she just tried to continue with her life, but everything hurt: opening a door, brushing her teeth, getting dressed. She hurt just as much sitting still as moving, and moving was difficult. She couldn’t walk fast, and she had trouble holding a pencil. She wore her hair down for a year because she wasn’t able to put it up.
She didn’t want to tell people what was going on with her for fear they’d treat her differently. She also had the feeling that telling people would make it real. Her roommate knew and one teacher who Nora was close to, but that’s all.
Nora’s plan had been to secure a summer job on a horse farm, and she was excited by the prospect of going anywhere she could find a job. But with her horrible pain, finding a job didn’t seem likely. “What would I say? ‘I have crippling rheumatoid arthritis but can I come work with your horses for the summer?’”
Instead, she came back home that summer after her freshman year and again managed the produce stand that she had managed while in high school. She was in considerable pain and needed to have support around her in case she wasn’t able to function physically.
But somehow she managed to make it to the stand every day. Each evening she would take the cash drawer to her grandfather, who at that point was near the end of his life and didn’t leave the house much. She would bring him some corn and a ripe tomato and let him know which customers stopped by and asked about him. Together they would count the drawer. (That’s such a sweet image, and one I wish I could have photographed.) This was their routine every night of the summer, until he passed away at the end of August.
Nora says that despite her crippling pain, that summer’s experience held a silver lining. “If I hadn’t had my disease and I had gone somewhere else for the summer, then I wouldn’t have had that time as an adult to get to know my grandfather. I also started to grow up and realize that the farm was not something that was holding me back or holding me down, but it might be a gift, it might be something I’d appreciate. I didn’t want to see coming back to the farm as a safety net, I wanted to see it as something I wanted, and that summer it became an option.”
“I joke now that I didn’t see farming as an option or a career when I was in high school. Nobody farmed. You didn’t meet farmers, and if you did they were 60-year-old men who just sat in tractors all day. Doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher…those were careers. But I started to see farming as something I would enjoy, something I could do.”
The medical treatment
Essentially Nora’s treatment for the RA was prednisone, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and the least detrimental of a class of medicines known as disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). She had to start at the lowest level of a DMARD and take it for a while to see if it would help. If it gave no relief, she would have to raise the dosage. Nora says it was like a waiting game. When the medicine failed to bring relief, she would again up the dosage until she reached the maximum amount, then she’d move on to a more powerful drug. Soon she was taking Methotrexate, a drug used to suppress the immune system. It’s a chemotherapy drug used for autoimmune diseases and cancer. Every six weeks, finding little relief, she upped her dosage, until she was at the maximum oral dosage. She suffered from bouts of nausea, frequent colds, and thinning hair.
But the pain was finally lessening. Nora knew the drugs would have bad side effects, but she felt following her doctor’s recommendations was her only option. As she put it, “As far as I had been told, this was all I could hope for and it would be how my whole life would be, ups and downs, lots and lots of pills, and the possibility of stronger meds down the road.” She loved her rheumatologist, who she found to be very supportive, and she soldiered on.
The return to the farm
After graduation from college in 2009, she returned to the farm with the idea of making farming her career. By then her disease was pretty much under control through her medications.
One of Nora’s goals for the farm was to change how the farm stand worked. The farm grew tomatoes, corn and sweet peppers, and everything else was purchased elsewhere to resell at the stand. But Nora wanted to grow all the vegetables herself and be able to say, “I grew this—I grew all of this.”
Not quite knowing what she was doing, the plan was for the farm manager to help her learn; sadly, though, he suffered a stroke and passed away that summer. She was on her own, and definitely out of her comfort zone. She says she was just lucky to meet many people who helped her get through her season.
Over the next few years, she says she learned mostly through trial and error, by asking other farmers, by looking in books, and by searching the Internet. “It’s amazing that I’ve been able to learn hands-on. I make mistakes, and that’s been incredibly valuable to my growth.”
So one day this woman walks into my farm stand
For the next six years, her treatment fluctuated between being under control and needing to step up the medication. After the oral meds came painful injections, and after that came day-long infusions—all with horrible side effects and not much effect on her pain. She was told there was no alternative, so she persevered.
“Knowing that the infusion was horrible and that it was poison, I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to take this horrible medicine for the rest of my life, however long that may be, let me eat healthy and that way I can prolong my body as long as possible.’ But what is healthy? I don’t know what that is. Is it whole grains and what the USDA pyramid says? Is it olive oil? Fish? Vegan? Raw food?’”
She ate what she thought was healthy, what she’d grown up on: low fat everything, lots of boneless skinless chicken breast and vegetables, olive oil, rice, pasta, hamburger helper with 90% lean beef.
One day, Nora was engaged in conversation with a customer at the farm stand. She learned that the woman, Gina, was a certified health coach, and despite Nora’s belief that food coaches were “full of junk,” she liked Gina’s answer to the question What is healthy to eat? “Whole foods, real foods. What our grandparents ate. Butter, cream, pasture-raised meat, and organic vegetables.”
“Whether she’s right or not,” Nora says, “that’s the answer I want.” After some basic diet cleanup, Gina suggested Nora try gluten free. Nora’s thought: “This chick is crazy. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m not going to go gluten free. I mean…quality of life here, come on.”
The food-body connection
But then an interesting thing happened. One day Nora made some homemade bread and ate just the bread and some crackers all day. The next day her pain was markedly worse, so she decided not to eat any gluten that day. The very next day she felt better, and pain free. It was a light-bulb moment. “Maybe…food…affects…our… body.”
In retrospect she says she can’t believe she didn’t make that connection before. She immediately chose to go gluten free and cleaned out her kitchen and pantry of anything containing gluten.
The switch to gluten free came about two weeks before her next scheduled infusion. She cancelled it. Her doctor scoffed at her and said to call when she was in pain. About two months later she was, indeed, in pain again, but this time, she says emphatically, she called Gina and not her rheumatologist.
Gina suggested she do the GAPS diet, a rigorous diet with the goal of healing an imbalanced gut by focusing on whole foods, healthy fats, bone broth, and fermented foods. The diet is extremely challenging, but Nora was committed to getting healthy. She started immediately, and she stuck with it, despite feeling worse before she felt better and then often experiencing occasional bad flareups. Throughout, she took no medications. After many challenging months, she felt better and had more energy.
She has committed to following the GAPS diet for the rest of her life. “That’s okay, though, because I am in control of my disease instead of relying on the pharmaceutical companies to be in control of it.”
She credits Gina with helping her realize that everything we put into our bodies has tremendous implications to our health. She says she is 100% sure that changing her diet saved her life.
“When I meet people who aren’t well but who complain about how hard it would be to change their diet, like going gluten free, for example,” Nora says, “I just want to grab them and shake them. I mean, you have the rest of your life. Are you going to choose to be sick, or healthy?”
It’s been ten years since Nora’s RA diagnosis. She is not 100% pain free all the time; she has good days and some bad days. She says there is still inflammation in her body, and she’s working with a chiropractor to build strength and range of motion. She has to watch that she doesn’t keep working when she’s feeling pain—a huge challenge for the nonstopping Nora.
She says she’s learned so much about how the body functions and the essential role of gut health. She’s studied micronutrients and vitamins and minerals and probiotics. Now she’s learning about that same system in the soil, and she realizes it mirrors the body systems. “It’s amazing. All life is the same!” She’s come to understand the fundamental importance of balance in all biological systems.
Nora’s journey towards health has not only brought about tremendous healing in her own body, but it has also informed a higher level of health for the land she maintains, the animals she raises and the vegetables she grows, all of which contribute to the health and wellbeing of her lucky customers.
Part 3 discusses how Nora expanded her vision for the farm.