By Ragan Sutterfield, World Ark contributor
Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas, is known as the place to visit to learn about food systems, hunger and poverty. What’s less known is that the Ranch is run largely by young volunteers who live in community housing, tend animals and fields, and lead tour groups.
Being a Heifer Ranch volunteer can have a tremendous impact, not only on the volunteers, but also on the world. Many volunteers are inspired to create businesses and organizations that are helping reshape our food systems. Here are the stories of four volunteers using the inspiration they got at the Ranch to reshape the future of American agriculture.
Kristy Lynn Allen
The Beez Kneez, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Kristy Lynn Allen first came to Heifer Ranch as a chaperone for a high school group. She was going into her last semester at the University of Minnesota, looking for where she would land next, and Heifer Ranch seemed like the perfect place to continue her interest in global studies. From 2008 to 2009, she volunteered to care for livestock and lead groups through the Ranch’s Global Village programs. It was an experience that changed her life.
“Heifer Ranch was where I formed my passion for agriculture,” said Allen, who has dedicated her career to the tiniest of livestock — the honeybee.
While at the Ranch, Allen heard a program from a visiting agronomist about colony collapse syndrome. This was well before the mysterious die-offs of honeybees hit the mainstream press, and it intrigued Allen as much as it worried her. Bees are a critical part of our ecosystem, essential for agriculture, and yet many were dying off for reasons scientists still do not completely understand. Allen began to wonder how she might help the bees.
In the meantime, her aunt married a beekeeper in Minnesota, and after a short stint in Ecuador, Kristy went to work for her beekeeping relatives. “The moment I stepped into a beehive, I was transformed,” Allen said. “It smells good, it sounds good, and there are always unknowns in beekeeping, so it is always challenging.”
A passionate year-round cyclist in Minneapolis, Allen soon combined her love of bicycles and bees into a honey delivery business called The Beez Kneez. At first she delivered her aunt and uncle’s honey, but eventually Allen began her own urban apiary.
In the five years since The Beez Kneez began, Allen has grown the social enterprise far beyond a delivery business. The Beez Kneez offers education programs to teach school children about nature through bees, incorporating the experiential education approach Allen learned at Heifer Ranch. The Beez Kneez also offers education to adults through a week-long bee camp, where participants can learn to keep their own beehives.
To enable more urban dwellers to keep bees, The Beez Kneez also created a collective honey house where beekeepers use special pedal-powered honey extractors. To date, pedaling beekeepers have extracted over 10,000 pounds of honey.
At the heart of The Beez Kneez are, of course, the bees themselves. Allen continues to be a passionate advocate for their welfare. “We as human beings can learn a lot from how bees work as a social organism,” Allen said. “Bees are concerned for the good of the whole rather than their individual egos.”
The Root Café, Little Rock, Arkansas
Jack Sundell had just returned from a Peace Corps tour in Morocco when he signed on to volunteer at the Ranch. “It was a kind of cultural halfway house,” Sundell said. “At the Ranch, I was isolated with like-minded people, and so it was the perfect place to get over the culture shock of returning to America.”
Working from early 2006 through mid-2007, Sundell held a variety of positions at the Ranch. He started in education, then switched to raising livestock. It was during his time at the Ranch that Sundell began to understand local food systems and develop the vision for what would become his business, The Root Café. “A year and a half spent on a working farm, seeing the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce vegetables used in the cafeteria, raising animals that were used in the cafeteria, gave me a new perspective on where my food was coming from and a chance to be a part of that process,” Sundell said.
It was from that experience that Jack Sundell and his wife, Corri Sundell, with the help of Rebecca Stover Roetzel and others he met at the Ranch, formed The Root Café. The Root is a bustling community fixture on Main Street in Little Rock, with a clientele of regulars that range from local hipsters to suited business executives. The food and culture at The Root earned national attention, including features in Garden & Gun Magazine and HLN channel’s Growing America series.
While many restaurants have begun incorporating local foods into their menus, local food is the core of what The Root is. On every level, the menu is built from what is available from local farms. “Over the course of a week, we purchase from around 25 producers, and over the course of a year it is over 60,” Sundell said.
This dedication to local food is what drives customer loyalty. “We have a great clientele,” Sundell said. “Because we are truly local, we often run out of things and people are so understanding.”
With grants from HLN and Mission Main Street, the restaurant is expanding its seating area using recycled shipping containers — an innovative design that will be the first of its kind in Arkansas. With the expanded space, The Root will also begin serving dinner (it is now only open for breakfast and lunch), but expansion won’t mean a change in commitment to local foods. The model of local agriculture Sundell first learned at the Ranch will continue to make The Root an example of just how delicious locally grown food can be.
Peacemeal Farm, LLC, Hadensville, Virginia
Betsy Trice grew up on a five-acre biointensive farm, but it was not until she volunteered at Heifer Ranch that she met other people her age who were interested in agriculture.
“I’d always known people who farmed from my parents’ generation, but it was encouraging to meet so many young people interested in farming,” she said.
Her parents were long-time Heifer donors, and Betsy volunteered at first as a summer intern but decided to stay, eventually joining the Ranch’s staff as a volunteer manager. When the opportunity to return to her native Virginia and farm on family land arose, Trice and her husband took it. They farm 12 acres using the same biointensive methods Trice teaches to her students at the local community college.
On the farm, the Trice family raises goats for meat, chickens for eggs and a large variety of vegetables that they sell through local markets. Their specialty, however, is growing and preserving seeds. Peacemeal Farm contracts with three different seed companies to grow seeds for home gardeners and organic farmers. From edamame soybeans to peanuts, tomatoes to sweet peppers, the Trices grow seeds that hundreds of gardeners and farmers will use to produce their crops.
Both Betsy and Chris Trice work outside jobs to help support their farm. Fortunately, both jobs involve agriculture. Betsy teaches sustainable agriculture courses at a community college, where her students remind her of the volunteers she managed at Heifer Ranch, “people with a thirst for knowledge to learn how to grow good food.”
Chris Trice works with inmates to raise beef sold at regional grocery stores. He also assists film and television crews that film on the prison’s pastures. Recently, he helped with the Steven Spielberg film Gettysburg, and he is now helping a crew with an HBO series.
Eventually the Trices hope to make a sustainable living from Peacemeal Farm. “Beef cattle is our next enterprise,” Betsy Trice said, adding, “We’d also like to expand our seed contracts. We think growing seeds will continue to be a core part of the farm.” With that, the Trices will literally be growing the future of sustainable agriculture.
Volunteer 2007, 2008
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, Columbia, Missouri
Billy Polansky was a geography major at James Madison University in Virginia when he learned about Heifer Ranch at a volunteer fair. In the summer of 2007, Polansky came for a one-month volunteer stint.
“I saw that the Ranch was a really special place and that one month wasn’t enough time to spend there,” Polansky said. When he graduated college, he bought a one-way ticket to Arkansas and headed to the Ranch for a longer stay. Volunteering over the summer and fall of that year, Polansky said he had no life plan, he just wanted to learn and gain new skills.
A life plan began to form when Polansky met Carrie Hargrove, another volunteer. The two fell in love, and Polansky followed her to Columbia, Missouri, where they married. Polansky joined up with a group of people working to turn a vacant urban lot into a garden space in cooperation with the University of Missouri. Using his skills from Heifer Ranch, he went to work building gardens, organizing composting and helping college students move into more sustainable lives.
“The garden was beautiful,” Polansky recounted. “Every square inch was in use.” That garden project grew into an independent nonprofit called the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. The group expanded into education outreach to local public schools. In 2010, they took over a large lot in the city center where they now have extensive gardens, chickens and compost piles that provide a place for people to learn about how to grow food for themselves.
“It was a bootstrapped project,” Polansky said. “We worked at it as a labor of love until 2011, when we could finally begin to pay ourselves a very modest salary.” With an Americorps grant, they eventually grew to six people working full time.
With the additional staff, their scope broadened. One of their central projects is the Opportunity Gardens program in which staff help low-income families start home gardens and then provide support for three years so the gardens are sustainable.
“Heifer’s whole essence is empowering people, and that is what the Opportunity Gardens are all about,” Polansky said. “We don’t want to grow food for people. We want to empower people to have their own gardens at home.”
Though his time at the Ranch lasted only a few seasons, it was “a total life changer” for Polansky that continues to bear fruit.
Heifer Ranch and its sister site, Heifer Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts, have openings for long-term volunteers to live and work on-site for three months or longer.