By Elizabeth Joseph, garden and education coordinator at Heifer Farm
In the spring of 2009, I packed a suitcase, straw hat and pair of rubber boots into the back of my parents’ Oldsmobile, and we drove from the suburbs of Rhode Island to rural Massachusetts. We were headed for a town called Rutland, to a place then called Overlook Farm.
I was 22 years old, a year out of college and signed up to be a live-in volunteer at the organic gardens for one year. Unbeknownst to me, I would stay for the next nine.
As a child, my parents would take my siblings and me on “mystery rides”—short trips to unknown destinations, my favorite of which led to a local farm. The sounds of cows munching and roosters crowing, the smell of silage in the barn, the feel of climbing on hay bales, the search for a pumpkin, the taste of a honey stick, the joy of petting barn kittens: I was enchanted. But I never expected that I would become a farmer myself.
After college, though, I sought to learn the skills of sustainability and self-reliance I felt were lost to my generation. I was drawn to Heifer Farm where agriculture was rooted in social and ecological justice and where the educational focus offered children a space to learn, explore and expand their horizons as I once had.
What I planned as a one-year farmer apprenticeship at the Farm spooled out to nine years, each filled with seasons that turned in every way imaginable—springs of planting and falls of harvest, food cooked and food preserved, animals born and animals that died, staff welcomed aboard and staff who said farewell, school groups and congregations who came every year, and those who came for the first time.
At Heifer Farm, I would learn to never overlook the things in life that really matter, to never take for granted the person working alongside you, the beautiful view, the trusting animal, the power of a seed.
Through those years, I would manage the organic gardens, honeybees and maple sugaring operation. And like everyone at the farm, I would do whatever else was needed to make it run smoothly. We all cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, stacked hay, dug potatoes, facilitated programs. Heifer’s mission combined with the demands of farming created an ethos that brought everyone together. I would learn to never take a team for granted and to always say thank you for everyone’s work at day’s end.
I would teach the young adults who flocked toward the residential volunteer program, raring to change the world lest broken food systems, depleted soil, polluted water and global inequity be their inheritance. And I would watch them become the teachers to the thousands of visitors that came to Heifer Farm each year. I learned volunteers are magic.
Countless seeds were planted in the ground, as well as in the visitors who came for educational programming— seeds that cultivated an enduring wonder and respect for the Earth, its resources and its diverse inhabitants. Seeds that sprouted the introspective work of asking how our own choices—how we live, buy, eat, consume, treat one another—infl uence not only our own backyards but those across borders.
I would learn that poverty is the root cause of hunger, and greed is the root cause of poverty. And that in addition to animals and passing gifts, a pivotal cornerstone of Heifer’s work is how communities come together to talk about and put into action their values—invisible threads of care and consciousness that weave a community together and create real change.
At Heifer Farm, I would learn to never overlook the things in life that really matter, to never take for granted the person working alongside you, the beautiful view, the trusting animal, the power of a seed. I learned gratitude, connection and joy amidst everything that happens in the world to the contrary.
Like so many, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this rich and meaningful place—from those who founded it to those who supported it to every person who ever pulled a weed, milked a goat, cooked a meal, answered a phone, trained a volunteer, painted a sign or mucked a stall. And for Heifer International, for bringing us all together to do this work.
As we have taught here, a single drop causes a ripple. My hope is that all the ripples begun at Heifer Farm spread far and wide. Thank you for everything, Heifer Farm.