By Emily Elam, Appalachian Ohio Restore Corps member (Chesterhill Produce Auction/Sustainable Agriculture Community Development)
Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture program’s third annual Whole Farm Planning & Mentoring series is well underway! This year, we have 14 mentors and 15 participating beginning farmers (or farmer partners). One of our mentors, Abbe Turner, a supporter and consultant of our Whole Farm Project, co-published a book with her daughter Madeline in 2019 with the help of Rural Action.
Abbe’s experience as a farm business owner inspired her to share her story of leaving the corporate world and trading an office for a dairy farm. But she also felt called to include the stories of other leading women in dairy in Ohio.
“The Land of Milk & Money” is a compilation of reflections, suggestions, and business tools to guide anyone to begin a dairy business in Ohio. It is especially meant to strengthen women and other under-represented farmers.
In recent years, there has been a significant re-emergence in the demand for fresh, local food, and a desire to do the work to make it a reality. In a world of supermarkets and shopping malls, human progress has distracted many of us from the way our species has survived for thousands of years: hunting, gathering, and cultivating food from our immediate environment.
This desire to return to a life sustained in such a way is calling on movements such as “Slow Food, Slow Money, and Sustainable Agriculture” for collective action that leads to fundamental change in the why, who, when, what, where and how of food, as the book’s sections are so aptly named. As Abbe reminds us, “Eating is a sacred act.”
But what exactly does that mean?
This is definitely a question for us each to answer on our own, as it is specific to our cultures, locations, and personal interests. Madeline offers this: “Farming, through the unique relationship one develops with the land through cultivation, accesses specific and meaningful aspects of identity, spirituality, and social movements.”
Farming is innately human and many believe it should be an undisputed right. Not everyone wants to be a farmer, but someone has to be. So why are the laborers who feed the world struggling to feed themselves? How can non-farmers adapt to better support them? These questions are familiar to anyone paying attention, and questions we are working to answer here at Rural Action.
The dairy industry in particular is suffering under the burdens of demand, law and policy, competition, and climate change. As of 2019, when “Milk & Money” was published, hundreds of dairy operations were closing monthly.
The goal of the Turners’ book is not to discourage those interested in starting a dairy business, but instead to share the wisdom of those who have already suffered — so we don’t have to.
Abbe is definitely one of those leaders. In 2009, she left her day job behind to pursue goats!
It started with a small herd, and continues today as Lucky Penny Farm and Creamery, through which she has collected awards for her cheeses, business accomplishments, and insight. She is also the development director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, or OEFFA.
Much like Rural Action, Lucky Penny strives to meet the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits in their work. This goes two steps further than most businesses and addresses a concept somewhat obvious in retrospect: to value profit only guarantees ruin; for what good is your product if there aren’t people to buy it or any resources to make it?
Besides, we must care for each other and our world for the sake of their own immeasurable value.
“The Land of Milk & Money” features many other important women leading in the Ohio dairy industry, including Sasha Sigetic, owner of Black Locust Livestock & Herbal in nearby Albany, Ohio. Sigetic is also the current program director at OEFFA.
I know her as my former teacher and program manager of the Hocking College’s agroecology program, where I learned to love farming and farmers. She continues to be a wonderful friend and resource to my fellow graduates and me as we all pursue farming in our own ways. Her permaculture property is home to many critters, chiefly being her heritage breed dairy goats.
When “Milk & Money” was published, Sigetic’s goat farm consisted of eight does, two bucks, and a number of kids who she has continued to breed-up with the intention to achieve a pure British Guernsey. On top of operating a small raw milk herd share, Sasha and her family rely on her goats for their milk and dairy needs.
The story of Bonnie Ayars, longtime cowgirl and current program specialist at The Ohio State University, also really inspires me. As the first person to graduate from college in her family, she spent her youth on a small dairy farm and participated in 4-H as a teenager.
As a woman, she has faced consistent barriers in the world of dairy, but persevered with grit and positivity to make her place in the dairy industry. In addition to her role at OSU, she runs Ayars Family Farm, home to 120 cows. She embodies the reality that dairy farming is a family affair and her work is an active investment in her community.
Before wrapping up the book with acknowledgements and a collection of resources, Abbe includes the Entrepreneurial Tenets of Lucky Penny Farm. A stand out phrase there is, “Yes, you can!” This is the message I took away from the read in general.
Yes, there will be many obstacles as a woman or other underrepresented person pursuing a life in dairy. And yes, you will fall on your face (or let’s be honest — trip) sometimes and feel that you can’t get back up.
But you can! And you don’t have to do it alone — there is a community already in place to support you on your journey to fulfill your dairy dreams.
For those who are interested, there are free copies of “The Land of Milk & Money” at the Rural Action Office at 8 N. Plains Rd, The Plains, OH 45780. Reach out to Emily Elam at email@example.com with any questions.