I now challenge you to compare farming and the performing arts for a moment. Large-scale farming plays the role of TV and film, taking focus off of smaller farms. But the small farms are where it begins. It’s where the love is cultivated in a different way, much like being on an actual stage. They’re also both struggling arts. A big question in farming these days is who of the younger generation will continue? When there are cities to be conquered, who would want to live in a small town? Right? Sometimes though, you make a connection that’s too strong to pull apart. Contribution to the community becomes your priority, and doing so by honest means.
Meet the Goodrich’s of Laughing Water Farm. I sat down with Antoinette and her son, Alfie, for a delicious meal and a tour of their farm just outside of Marion, VA. I know I say I learn on each farm visit, but seriously. Y’all. I learn so much on each farm visit.
Alfie and Antoinette raise goats, sheep, Ossabaw pigs, and Black Angus cows, as well as grow tomatoes and autumn olives, which were completely new to me. Like olives, you collect them by beating a tree as they fall to a tarp or the like. Packed with lycopene and anti-oxidants, these babies are tart and tasty.
After they trusted me to help them move a group of cows from one field to another, Antoinette and I talked while overlooking the mountains in all their glory. We watched over the cows enjoying the fresh grasses, as a calf found its way back to its mother after wandering too far. She showed me the well water system where the cows push down on a blue ball to not only retrieve water, but keep the water cool and from evaporating or freezing. They’ve got it made in the sun and the shade.
Devotion and respect towards the land stood out above anything else. As we enjoyed a gorgeous lunch spread, we discussed Laughing Water’s beginnings and what it means to come back home…
“Sarah: I was wondering how you guys got started? You moved here when you were 5?
Alfie: Yeah, yeah. I was 5. I mean, was born in Indiana. Don’t remember that. Moved to Chilhowie when I was about 2 and moved here when I was about 5. And at first we just had this part of the farm, basically these fields that you can see from the porch. Especially during the winter, when it’s not so grown up, you can see the fields. And then 2007, the rest of the farm went up for auction and we got that.
Sarah: So you guys have pigs, lambs…
Alfie: Lambs, goats, beef, chicken. One chicken.
Sarah: One chicken. For eggs?
Antoinette: We used to have a lot more.
Alfie: Yeah, we had quite a few but it was, like, predator pressure.
Sarah: I was about to say, especially out here. These woods are incredible. What’s down in the field currently?
Alfie: We take care of the field and try to cultivate certain grasses to be grown. For example, one thing we have a big problem with in this area in general is fescue. And the thing about that is, it has a little. What is it called?
Alfie: Yeah, like a little endophyte and it’s not part of the plant itself. It’s something symbiotic or parasitic that lives on the plant and it creates in the cow, specifically, in the cow’s gut it has a reaction with their stomach or something that produces a lot of heat. So it can actually make them, especially if they’re out with no shade and stuff in a field…normally they’d be fine, with clover and timothy and stuff, but if they get a whole lot of fescue all day they can overheat.
Sarah: Woah. So it elevates their body temperature?
Alfie: We’ve experimented with even putting them in a fescue heavy field during the winter, and that kind of thing. And the cows haven’t told us it helps, but maybe it does. [Note: only dangerous when eaten in excess during the summer]
Sarah: So it’s not actually bad for their stomachs or anything. It just happens to, like, raise their body temperature.
Antoinette: Yeah, and in horses it can cause a miscarriage. But that isn’t a problem with the cattle.
Alfie: Yeah, and it’s also very…
Alfie: It’s hard to get rid of. Tenacious. A lot of the stuff like clover. I mean, if you wanted to get rid of clover it would be gone in a couple days. So we’re trying to encourage clover. One thing we do with that is graze the grass down really low and then that lets low growing things, like clover, have a chance. And of course clover is really good because it fixes nitrogen and it’s super tasty and nutritious.
Sarah: For all the different animals?
Alfie: Yeah. Goats are interesting. You know they have this reputation for eating anything, right? But the funny thing is, they’re very picky and they will actually only go for tree type things that are dangling. They don’t like to eat off the ground. And that’s one reason why they’re so disease resistant is actually that they don’t…and like cows, they don’t really have a bathroom mentality. They just go. And so they know that on some levels, and don’t wanna eat where they’re defecating. So they go to, like, autumn olive and thistle. Especially thistle blooms. It’s funny, because you put them in a field with clover and, you know, a month later there’s still almost as much clover as there was before. Then you put the cows in there and they [chomp chomp].
Sarah: They’ll eat anything. Nature is so interesting the way it will always find a way to curb overpopulation.
Antoinette: There’s that balance, yeah.
Sarah: We try to control everything, and we can’t.
Alfie: Yeah, treating the fields like they’re a chemistry set. That’s one thing that we’ve had to figure out how to do too, is how to approach it from a scientific approach of, you know, like this works this way on this field and so we need to introduce these grasses to raise the levels of these nutrients.
Sarah: So, like, the checks and balances system?
Alfie: Yeah. And treating it kind of like a petri dish. So there’s that approach, which is valid in a lot of ways, but then it’s also a hugely complex system. It’s as complicated, I’d say, as prescribing medicines for someone’s brain. It’s that complex of a system because it’s made up of so many of those living organisms. So we almost see it as an art form. You’re going out there day to day and listening to the cows, and walking through the field, and not just thinking, “Ok, I put this here so we have higher nutrients”, and now we’ll take a soil sample and such and such. But you walk through the field and see, “oh my gosh, there’s so much more ironweed”. Now maybe we scour the field and plant a whole lot of stuff with the seed drill, but in the process that might end up with a whole lot of ironweed coming up. So that needs to be addressed, too. So, a lot of times it’s really about…you know, you try something because you have good reason to believe it’ll have a good affect. But you’re just monitoring it the whole time and make no assumptions that it will. Just keep trying, and if something works well one year, you can’t count on the same thing next year. Just keep working at it and try to make things better.
Sarah: It’s like a constant experiment.
Alfie: It is.
Sarah: I’ve been thinking lately about how farmers and artists are so similar because there is no end product. You’re always constantly working, constantly trying new stuff. And you kind of have to fall completely into it knowing that, like, monetarily there’s not going to be the biggest gain. That’s not why you do it. Those things are always nice, but you do it…
Alfie: For the love of the craft.
Sarah: Yeah, for the love of the craft. So, what were the first things you raised?
Alfie: Oh, chickens pretty much exclusively. I can remember running around with my friends in middle school and putting up chickens. Things like that. And those were for eggs. And then we would sell those at the church and stuff, and gave them away.
Antoinette: So, a lot of what we do is wildlife habitat. Plantings. Because when we came here, it was cleared field. You could count the trees on one hand.
Alfie: I feel like we’re working more and more towards treating the whole farm from a permaculture approach. Everything eventually [planted and raised] will have a purpose. We’ll have fruit trees anywhere where there won’t be animals constantly grazing. Getting everything really healthy, a solo pasture kind of idea with trees and animals in the same lot. I mean, animals love it when they have trees around for shade.
Sarah: Where did the name “Laughing Water Farm” come from?
Alfie: My Mom and Dad were looking for different places to get in the area. So they found this farm and they wanted to move here because he got a directorship position at the Smyth Bland Regional Library in town. So they came here and were looking for a place to settle down, build a house and stuff. And went down to the river and it was bubbling rapids, the rapids were laughing. So.
Sarah: That’s lovely. And for you, you went to college and then came back here. And a lot of people wouldn’t do that.
Alfie: I didn’t think I would.
Sarah: Why did you end up coming back and staying? That’s a weighted question.
Alfie: Yeah, well, it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. When I left and would come back, I found out, oh there’s more to this area than just school. For one, there’s a great farming community around here, and throughout my whole life I’ve always loved the farm. I had a real connection to this specific place. And I definitely feel useful here. Like, I’ve grown up working this piece of land and there’s a quote by Wendell Berry that says it takes about 6 years for a farmer to learn how to work a new piece of land…or how to farm on a new piece of land. So even a farmer who’s been farming their whole life, you put them on a new piece of land and there’s something about the land that has specific needs and, you know, things like which fields do we harvest which hay from? And what rotation? Basically what we’re trying to do with the farm is we’re trying to be stewards of the farm instead of just harvesting resources from it at all times. We’re trying to actively improve the land, so if we find a practice is really good for the land, it’s not because we’re gonna then harvest all of that crop.
Sarah: It’s more process-based than result-based?
Alfie: Yeah, exactly. That process and knowing about that is something I’ve developed over all my life living here. I’ve kind of invested in this land, specifically. So that definitely is encouraging for me to come back here and work on it.
Sarah: I’ve noticed that too. You see things differently when you’re younger. You can be in a big city and make the smallest impact, and then you can be in a place that’s so tiny and have a much wider reach. It may not feel as glamorous, but that’s something I’ve been dealing a lot with, too.
Alfie: I think that’s a big thing for our generation. In order to really make a big difference, do I need to go, you know, lobby politicians about certain issues and make phone calls to households asking them to vote certain ways? And the political, kind of, trying to change the whole institution on a large scale. Certainly that’s important and it has its place, but I think that what I’ve found personally is…I can make a lot more meaningful difference, meaningful in my own life and a lot more discernable impact on what I’m working on here, just trying to improve 250 acres. 250 acres out of the United States is nothing, you know, it’s tiny. Just the fact that I can actually know that I’m making some kind of positive impact over a large amount of time feels really good.
Sarah: It gives the proof. We actually have physical examples out here. Not just saying, but doing it.
Alfie: That’s another huge thing. And having the examples, like what Neal’s [Reid] doing, is amazing working with. He’s taking a lot of these things that people are theorizing about and applying them to actually making annual crops of vegetables in a better way than it’s been done. You know, how many years has agriculture been around and we still think that spraying the chemicals and tilling is the best way to do it. Even though it’s scientifically proven to cause so many detriments…10 years later your field is going to be so much worse than it was before. Obviously, if we know anything, we know that that’s not sustainable. I think that kind of thing is really valuable, showing a case study for what actually works and what doesn’t.”