Interview by Bethany Ivie, Heifer digital engagement specialist
During any given season, around 30 men and women live on and help run Heifer Ranch, a 1,200-acre working farm and education center in Perryville, Arkansas. When they leave, Ranch volunteers take their knowledge and passion for sustainable agriculture with them. Ranch alumni have gone on to found community gardens, promote urban beekeeping and advocate for locally grown food in Arkansas and across the country. Alumnae Adelia Kittrell, Brooke Edwards and Megan Moss found that the best way for them to keep doing the work they love was to join Heifer International as full-time employees.
Many volunteers have their first up-close-and-personal experience with livestock and field work at the Ranch. Not so for Adelia Kittrell, who grew up in the rural farming community of Yellville, Arkansas.
“I grew up hauling hay in the summer and being chased by geese as a child,” she said. Her grandparents owned a dairy farm with cows, pigs and other animals, and her parents kept chickens and a garden. After college, Kittrell joined the Peace Corps and set off to Paraguay as an agricultural volunteer. For two years, she helped farmers implement a sustainable chicken project.
Kittrell met her now-husband, Cesar Bordon, in Paraguay. When the couple returned to the United States, he didn’t speak any English and, after two years speaking only Spanish and Guaraní, Kittrell felt shaky, too. The couple decided to volunteer at Heifer Ranch – Kittrell as an educational volunteer and Bordon as a maintenance volunteer. The Ranch offered the couple housing, a stipend and a welcoming community. “It’s safe, it’s diverse, everyone is kind … I feel like I gained another family,” Kittrell said. Plus, Kittrell was an easy fit for her new volunteer gig. “So much of the work that Heifer does, I did with people in Paraguay.”
Her stint at the Ranch helped Kittrell land a job at Heifer, a goal that had been in the back of her mind for years.
“Growing up in Arkansas, everyone knows about Heifer,” she said. Today, she’s a resource development associate, meaning she plans fi eld visits, reports on grants and keeps donors informed about how Heifer is using its funds.
And she still keeps up with the friends she made in Perryville, some of whom also work at Heifer HQ. Her husband works at The Root, a Little Rock restaurant run by former Ranch volunteer Jack Sundell. “There’s such a kinship at the Ranch,” Kittrell explained. “Even if you weren’t there at the same time, you both know.”
Brooke Edwards visited Heifer Ranch for the first time in her eighth grade year and returned several more times throughout high school. But she didn’t feel the call to volunteer until she was a student at the University of Central Arkansas, when she returned to the Ranch for a service project. “That’s when it clicked that this was something I could do,” she said. “I applied to volunteer at the Ranch that next summer.”
Edwards arrived in Perryville with zero experience in agriculture but with a keen interest in food systems – mainly, the difference between industrialized food production and local, sustainable food. Naturally, this drew her to the Ranch gardens. She signed on as the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) intern and spent the summer tending the gardens. “That was the hardest I’ve ever worked,” she said. The next summer, Edwards worked with the Ranch’s cottage industries, milking goats and making cheese to demonstrate how farmers can use animal products like milk to make a profit. Goats became her specialty, but the adorable ruminants weren’t the only thing bringing Edwards back to the Ranch.
“You’re bringing together a mix of young adults and older adults who have, at least, a stretch of similar values, and they’re living together and coalescing around those values,” Edwards said. The result is lasting friendships and, occasionally, something more: “I’d say at least 40 percent of my friends are former Ranch volunteers. The number of former Ranch volunteers who are couples and have had children is also pretty impressive.”
And she would know. Her husband, Trevor Edwards, was a fellow volunteer who managed the Ranch’s challenge course. After Brooke graduated from college, she began her longest stay in Perryville, as an educational volunteer.
“Global hunger… if I could solve one problem, that would be it. So, being able to contribute and educate people on how they can make a difference … that’s one of the best things the Ranch has to offer.”
In 2004, Brooke left Heifer Ranch to work toward a master’s degree in social work. Though she quickly realized that a career in therapy wasn’t for her, she made two important discoveries. “I realized that I wanted to work on a higher level. I wanted to make a change that would impact a greater number of people.”
She also discovered her knack for writing, so when a job opened up at Heifer’s offices in Little Rock, Brooke seized the opportunity. Now, she is Heifer’s executive communications manager. Though Edwards loves her desk job, she remembers the Ranch fondly. In a dream world, she said, she can see herself and her family back at the Ranch in a heartbeat.
“The physicality of it, you just feel really connected, not just to Heifer’s mission but to the community, but to the Earth. It’s the kind of thing I would recommend to almost everyone.”
Megan Moss came to Heifer Ranch as a college junior with no farm experience. But she did have an interest in food and food systems. “I was a vegetarian for a long time,” she explained, “and I think the original motivators were animal rights. But the more I matured and the more I learned… it became less about vegetarianism and more about the social justice and environmental justice pieces of the food system.” Heifer Ranch was a great place to take a closer look at those issues.
So Moss volunteered at the Ranch as an educational volunteer, making a point to send every visitor with not just knowledge but an action plan. “If you just leave people with the knowledge that there’s so much poverty in the world, then it’s not fair… it’s just kind of hopeless,” Moss explained. So she made a point to show visitors ways they could help. “That was definitely my favorite part of the experience, that last part, helping them come up with concrete ideas …THIS is what I’m going to do.”
After college, Moss married Carsten Platz, a fellow Ranch volunteer, and the two set out for Platz’s native Germany. When the couple came back stateside so Moss could get her master’s degree in sustainable development, her studies, combined with memories from the Ranch, solidified her belief that mission-driven organizations can be powerful agents of change.
And so Moss’ work with Heifer continues. She now works as a resource development officer in Little Rock. “A lot of what I do is help translate our work for external audiences, helping people understand what our mission is, the nature of our work over the years,” she said.
Her job today calls for laptops and PowerPoints instead of shovels and work boots, but Moss hasn’t left Ranch life behind completely. This summer, Moss and Edwards laid claim to a small patch of dirt on Heifer’s grounds. The two planted it with tomatoes, squash, eggplant, basil and flowers. “I still like to get out in the sunshine,” Edwards said.