When I was a kid, my family moved every few years from Arizona to Chicago, Florida, West Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Indiana. Fortunately I was homeschooled and didn’t need to adjust to a new school in every new town. I also got to spend most of my days outside playing, hiking, and exploring. My grandparents owned land in Western Kentucky and I spent a lot of time there growing up, fishing and hunting deer, turkey, squirrel, quail, and coon on reclaimed strip mine land in Green River valley (formerly Paradise).
I was raised in a conservative evangelical setting where daily life revolved around reading the Bible and Rush Limbaugh on the radio. The only time I’d ever heard the word “environment” or any derivative concept was from Rush Limbaugh – as in “Those liberal commie environmental extremists that are destroying our country!” I was a young republican enrolled in the business school when I showed up to Indiana University as a freshman in 2001. After five tumultuous transitional years, I graduated as a long-haired vegetarian ecologist with a BS in Environmental and Ecosystem Science.
After some time conducting field ecology in remote locations , I went back to school for an interdisciplinary graduate degree in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I studied with Tim Allen researching how complex systems theory applies to ecosystem resilience and resource development. After getting a masters degree, I started a Ph.D. program studying the ecological history and restoration of Midwestern oak savannas. Through this research I realized that the only way to restore the functional ecosystems necessary to maintain a habitable planet, was to do so in an economically viable way that produced lots and lots of food and other necessary products. I came up with a model for a farm modeled on our native oak savannas that integrated perennial fruit and nut crops with rotational multi-species grazing. One day I was sharing the concept with a friend over beers and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s like what Mark Shepard does.” I hadn’t heard of this guy, but a quick google search and I came across his website that said he’d started a farm 20 years ago, in Wisconsin, modeled after the native savannas. I was thrilled. There was someone actually doing this and they had 20 years of experience!
I decided to make New Forest Farm a case study for the Ph.D. so it was no longer some abstract esoteric theory in my head. I called up Mark and came out for a couple weeks in May of 2012 to collect data on farm yields, biodiversity, and other ecological factors. Long story short, I didn’t ever go back to Madison. I convinced my then girlfriend (now wife!) to move into a shack at the farm with me, and we started buying cattle, pigs, and poultry and building up a meat csa. We are both fully recovered from our former vegetarianism. I dropped out of the Ph.D. program, a year prior to graduating mostly because I couldn’t afford to pay tuition if I was going to be farming! I also didn’t feel comfortable writing a dissertation about how a farm should be operated, without any experience actually doing it! I am currently working on a book integrating all my graduate research on savannas with my practical on-the-ground experience. I think it’ll be better than the dissertation :).
We ended up staying at New Forest Farm there for almost two years and even got married there.We fell in love with the hills and valleys of the Driftless, and after a long long search, finally found our dream property. We now own and operate Mastodon Valley Farm where we’re planting tons of fruit and nut trees and shrubs and grazing cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chicken, and turkeys. We run a meat csa locally and in Madison, Minneapolis, and LaCrosse. We just built a tiny cabin from pine trees we felled and milled. I never have to move again! I don’t have a Ph.D. and I don’t have much money, but I eat the best food on the planet and wake up in the most beautiful spot on the planet, everyday. I’ve never been happier.