Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brackens]
Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brackens]
September 14, 2016

September, 2016
by Sarah Laughland

Sarah Laughland is a lifestyle & portrait photographer serving the DMV & Southwest Virginia. She’s a performer & creator who adores connecting with people through the art of visuals. She lives for supporting local, strong lattes, and good light. <3

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Have you ever felt like something was calling you, despite the life built around you? Or that you felt a strong inclination to act beyond what your head and heart may have to say? Meet the Brackens of My Shepherd’s Farm in Rural Retreat, Virginia. A little over 2 years ago they were living outside of Los Angeles, California. Linda and Philip, along with daughters Michelle and Kelley, traveled across the country until they found what they were looking for.

This gorgeous 53-acre farm is a dream as you enter the driveway. Dairy cows, bulls, Berkshire pigs, chickens, a turkey, corn and tomatoes a-plenty fill this land. Philip offered me cinnamon apple kombucha as I walked up onto the porch. Family friends had been visiting for a month or so, helping out and living the dream of summer on a farm. Isaac took to the animals, as Rocko took to machinery. With their enthusiasm, I would of thought they owned the farm themselves.


The Brackens learned much of what they know from Joel Salatin, while training on his farm, as well as from neighbors and friends who offer constant support and guidance on matters as they arise. When you sign on to farm, you sign on for anything and everything. There is no denial about what you put into your body anymore. There is simply seeing life from beginning to end, from soil to plate; through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Brackens exhibit something I search for everyday in my life, and that is bravery. They gave up what they knew to start over in search of a more truthful and natural existence. We always try to do, do, do. More, more, more. Come up with the answers and force our lives into some sort of mold. But what if we listened more? What could happen?

You can find the Brackens at both the Abingdon and Wytheville Farmer’s Markets, as well as contact them through their website. Below is a bit of our conversation while riding in the back of their red pick-up to visit animals, eat fresh corn, and overlook the mountains from high, high on a hill. I was in need of fresh air and a fresh perspective that particular day, and both presented themselves.



♦ Sarah: How many different breeds of chicken do you have?

Linda: We had a whole big package of them, backyard breed and heritage chicks. So they’re all different, so we’ve got like, Clarions, Buff Orpingtons, Dominiques…

Philip: Rhode Island Red.

Linda: What else? Oh, Americana, Leghorns. I think we’ve got white Leghorns and black ones.

Philip: And a lot of stuff mixed up. You see all the little babies?

Sarah: Oh man, that one got into some dirt.

Philip: Well they dust themselves for mites.

Isaac: Which one’s the one that’s really nice?

Linda: She’s a big one. That’s her coming down there. That one there, Isaac, she’s really friendly. You can pick her up. She’s nice.

Sarah: So, you moved from California?

Kelley: Yes.

Sarah: When did you move here?

Michelle: It was about 2 years ago.

Kelley: Been about 2 years. We lived right outside L.A.

Philip: Well Sarah, do you believe that God speaks to men sometimes? Not everybody believes that, but I think God wants us here. I got it wrong at first, as I often do.

Sarah: Don’t we all though?

Philip: Yep. The scripture says “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts”. So, went to Idaho and did a big ol’ circle of the United States.

Sarah: You just knew that you were being called to go someplace else? Had you farmed before this?

Philip: No. But my family back in Ireland, they farm. So we’d go and visit in the summer.

Sarah: What part of Ireland?

Philip: Limerick.

Sarah: So you did a circle around Idaho and then came back here?

Philip: Made a U-turn and came back.

Kelley: We had kind of been reading books and wanted to eat more naturally.


{while passing by corn to grab a snack}


Sarah: I didn’t know you guys had corn, too. What kind of vegetables do you have?

Kelley: Right now we have tons of tomatoes. We canned 150 jars yesterday. And then we do everything for ourselves…

Sarah: So you have almost like a homestead here, too?

Kelley: Yes. We’re kind of trying to do that old farm family homestead. Everyone comes over and they’re like, I used to do that with my grandpa!

Sarah: Do you make cheese as well?

Kelley: Yeah, we don’t buy any dairy. So, cheese and yogurt, milk and cream.

Sarah: Wow. How long does it take to make cheese?

Kelley: You can make really simple ones in about an hour. Or you can do really complicated ones. But there’s farmer’s cheese where you just heat it up, add vinegar, and then you have cheese.


Isaac: Careful. There’s 2 worms in here.

Kelley: Au natural.

Sarah: This is a silly question, but do you just eat it raw?

Kelley: You can, it’s actually really good.

Sarah: I’ve never actually eaten corn without cooking it.

Kelley: We had it raw in a salad the other day. It’s really good.

Sarah: Wow. That’s incredible. Oh my gosh. That’s the best corn I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding.

Philip: That’s because it’s F-R-E-S-H.

Michelle: We actually had 2 boys stay with us for a month, and 1 of them planted all this corn. He really enjoyed it, and he was so excited when it started coming up. He’s going to college in Tennessee, so we told him he needs to come visit us and try it now.


Sarah: So, for you, I mean coming here and not knowing anybody and stuff, how has this community…how do you like it?

Kelley: The community is really, really cool. Cause we were right outside Los Angeles, like 45 minutes from downtown. It was crazy. But here, like the community, the neighbors…

Isaac: This is buddy! This is buddy!

Sarah: Oh hi Buddy, you’re so pretty.

Kelley: But we have a neighbor that comes over every day and we’re just learning and he’d give us seeds that he saved that are, like, a 100 years old. He’d say, today’s the day to plant your potatoes. We’re planting potatoes today! He’d stop what he was doing and come plant with us all day long. They come over all the time. So, so nice.

Sarah: Has it been in this area, or Abingdon?

Kelley: A bunch of both. Vendors like the Bullens in Abingdon are really, really cool. At some markets it’s like, oh you’re selling similar products, I don’t want to talk to you. But over there, they’ll help us with what we’re doing. That’s really nice.

Sarah: How about you?

Philip: We have the best neighbors you could ever imagine. And I think they’re actually God-sent. One couple, they’re dairy farmers. They help us wherever they can. They’re older, so they aren’t working anymore, but they heard about us having trouble with a calf and they sent down workers to help. We’ve got another neighbor, he was just here this morning helping me with a baler [for hay], and he just loves it.

Sarah: You find family wherever you go.


{with the dairy cows}


Linda: These are the a2a2 girls.

Philip: She carries the a2a2 gene.

Sarah: What is that?

Philip: So in the 40’s and 50’s, it was at that point in America where all the dairy cattle, their genetics was a2a2.

Linda: So, the industrialized cows they genetically mutated and then it changed to a1a1, and that’s what they’re linking to the lactose intolerance, diabetes, heart disease, obesity.

Philip: A high percentage of people who are lactose intolerant can drink her milk. So what is the intolerance from?

Linda: Those are the meat birds. They get clean grass and get pulled twice a day. So they get moved in the morning and they’re all excited, and then they get moved in the evening and they’re all excited.

Sarah: And how do you move them?

Michelle: Right now we’re doing it with a tractor. There’s just a little piece of rope up in the front and we just hook that on and drag it. And they know and they’re excited.

Sarah: And they walk with it?

Linda: They used to have more free range than that, but they were too open to predators. She lost 12 in 2 nights.

Michelle: But we’re trying this A-frame and it’s working really well with humidity and ventilation. There’s quite a few in each one because we’re in the process of building them, so hopefully we’ll have a lot. We don’t lose too many, so we’re really good out here.


{visiting dairy cows in another pasture}


Kelley: Sadie’s in heat, so you better watch. She’ll jump on the others’ backs.

Sarah: Yeah, I saw that! How long does that usually last when they’re in heat?

Kelley: It’ll last about 2 days.

Sarah: Is it like a monthly thing for them as well?

Kelley: Yeah. Every 21 days. It’s pretty exact. Some of them are pretty calm, and some of them are obnoxious when they’re in heat. They’re just bellowing all day…just running up and down the fence line.

Sarah: How weird is that, it’s in humans too. It’s just so fascinating.

Kelley: Yup. They’re just like their mommas, too. Like her momma will just be obnoxious and playful that way, spunky. She’s that way, too.

Sarah: And what cows do you breed them with?

Kelley: I A-I them. Artificially inseminate. And that way you can get top-dollar a2a2 bulls. And you’re 90% certain to get a female. So for me, if I’m doing dairy, that works out really well. And then I don’t have to pay for feeding a bull all year.

Sarah: How long does the artificial insemination process usually take?

Kelley: The guy, he’s really good, who comes here…usually done within 30 seconds or so.

Sarah: Wow. Okay.

Kelley: That’s an interesting job, that’s for sure. ♦


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