Jennie Kahly, along with husband Brian and two children, are in year five of a conscious decision to farm. Their farm, Possum Tail Farm in rural West Virginia, has Certified Naturally Grown status, and they raise grass-finished beef and pasture-raised turkey, chicken, and eggs. Their mission is to create an environment that is healthy for their family, their community and their animals.
This past fall my daughter and I wanted to go WWOOFing for a week (WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). When you WWOOF, you volunteer your time and labor on an organic farm in exchange for some kind of lodging and often meals. It’s a wonderful way for visitors to get hands-on experience with ecological farming practices, and for farmers to get extra labor.
We chose Possum Tail Farm because I wanted a place within a day’s drive, and my daughter wanted to be on a farm that raised animals. We felt instantly adopted into the family by Jennie, Brian, and their 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. We worked alongside Brian and Jennie each day, and let me tell you—we worked our asses off.
The Kahlys follow exacting standards of care for their animals. My daughter’s job was to help Brian with all his chores, which during our stay primarily consisted of feeding and watering the animals, moving the chicken houses each day, and moving the cattle. She also custom-mixed the chicken feed from grains grown on a nearby farm. That was a big job.
I was put to work in the kitchen because Jennie knew I was a decent cook and I knew how to can. We canned 94 jars of applesauce from their own apples, which took three days. Jennie, her son, and Brian’s mom worked an outdoor apple-peeling operation while I worked the stove indoors. I also cooked all the meals for the family, which for them was a luxury.
One of the ironies of farm life that I’m hearing from many farmers is that the farmers work so hard that they often don’t have the time or the energy to cook the kinds of meals that got them interested in farming in the first place.
It felt so satisfying to me to make nurturing meals for people who really appreciated them and enjoyed the food. I had a lot of fun pulling from Jennie’s well-stocked pantry of foods she has preserved and getting to cook with their excellent meat. The potato shown below and the remainder of the crop from Jennie’s garden made it into one meal. I believe we had only five little potatoes, but they were delicious!
The power of a book
I have a friend who reads Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle every year. I’ve read it maybe twice. It’s a chronicle of the year that Kingsolver and her family chose to eat exclusively locally, with food from their own garden and local farms. It’s an influential book, for sure, but I had never met someone who completely changed her life after reading it until I met Jennie. She read it in 2008 when she was living in Tampa, Florida, working on her MFA and raising her daughter by herself.
“I really just took a look at my life,” Jennie explains, “and felt that I was not living sustainably enough, and didn’t want to eat food from the grocery store anymore. And so I really just started to take actions to change the way that I was living. In the book Kingsolver recommended a couple of cookbooks, and so I bought all of those. Simply in Season was one, and the Weston A. Price one was another. So even when I was in Tampa I was going to the butcher and asking for things like blood and brain. In Tampa, it was impossible to find food from good sources; at least that’s how it felt to me at the time. Probably now if I went I’d be able to ferret out the good stuff, but at the time I didn’t know enough.
“I was interested in doing the same eat-local-only project that Kingsolver did, and I asked my grad school if I could do the project and create a body of art out of it as my MFA work. They did not think that was a good idea, so I just quit.
“When I left grad school I moved to Berkeley Springs, in the hills of West Virginia; I had lived there before, and I really liked the area. I felt that the life I wanted to live would be possible there. That was about six months after reading the book.”
Jennie wanted to source her food locally but not necessarily grow it all herself. Still, “I put in a garden, having never seen a garden before, and I got chickens, and I had probably never seen chickens before.” She experienced many fulfilling moments, like the first cucumber she grew in her own garden, or the baby chicks when they first arrived. But along with some successes came a steep learning curve.
“I’ve been trying to garden for about six years, and I feel like I’m just able to start to reap something from my gardening efforts. But the challenge is part of the fun, I guess. I spent an entire summer trying to bake a loaf of bread, and until now I’ve still not been successful. I can bake bread in a bread machine, so I’ve succumbed to that being okay. For some reason, yeast doesn’t like me. I did manage to make a pizza dough that was yeasty and turned out great, so I’m starting to think that maybe I can try again. But it was kind of depressing when loaf after loaf after loaf was like brick.”
In Berkeley Springs, Jennie was working three part-time jobs, raising her daughter singlehandedly, trying to raise chickens and vegetables, and cooking up all the fresh food she got from her CSA. How did she do it all, I asked. “I just did it. I managed.”
She also managed to go contra dancing, something she loved. She usually took her daughter with her, who would sit quietly and color. But for one special contra-dancing weekend, she found a great babysitter and went by herself. It was at the dance that she met Brian, as in future-husband Brian. He was living and working in State College, PA, so they long-distance dated for about nine months, until Jennie and her daughter moved to be with him in 2010.
Deciding on a life
Brian had grown up next door to his grandparents’ farm in West Virginia, and about 15 years ago Brian bought it from them. At the time of purchase he thought that someday he might retire on the farm. His parents still live next door.
Through the process of deciding whether they would get married, Jennie and Brian were vetting their options for what they wanted in life. “Brian asked me where did I see myself in 15, 20 years? We wanted to make sure that those visions were similar, that we were headed in a similar direction. Ultimately I wanted to be in a rural area. I wanted to be growing as much of my own food as possible. It really just made a lot of sense for us to move back to his family farm, where he grew up, so that’s what we did.
“The decision was both personal and financial. Brian already owned the farm, which was a huge asset. When we were deciding how we wanted to live our lives, we basically had a decision: either we need to sell the asset and use the money to do something that we want to do, or come and make the asset be part of what we want to do. We came for family reasons: we wanted to have a child, and I wanted to be near family, and Brian’s parents live right next door. My children literally go over the stream and through the woods to grandmother’s house. It’s amazing! It’s so amazing that it’s easy to forget how amazing it is, because it’s just my regular life.
“We also made the decision to move to the farm for health reasons, because Brian was having health problems. He was working as a defense industry software engineer, and it was a good job. But he was sitting in a room with no windows and looking at a screen all day, day in and day out. He wasn’t using his body. So he’d work all day, then have to go to the gym for an hour after work because he’d been sitting all day. He felt little satisfaction or meaning in the work he was doing.”
And so in 2011, when Jennie was 32, they moved to Alta Vista, West Virginia, to try their hand at farming.
The house that came with the farm, his grandparents’ house, had been unoccupied for ten years. Jennie says it was disgusting, and anyone else would have torn it down. But their motto was “Avoid Debt at Any Cost.” They thought it would be a more environmental choice to renovate the house as opposed to tearing it down and starting over. And there was again a family reason. Jennie was pregnant at the time they moved, and she wanted her son to be born in the house his grandmother had been born in.
Jennie laughs now and says that “only two idiots would convince themselves that it would be okay to move, have a kid, renovate a house, start a farm, and home school. It’s amazing we aren’t divorced.”
Next week we’ll dig deeper into what the switch to rural living felt like for Jennie and how she feels about farming now, five years in.