Give Now  »

Indiana Public Media | WFIU - NPR | WTIU - PBS

Have Sheep, Will Farm: One Family’s Search For A Farm Of Their Own

Read Transcript
Hide Transcript

Transcript

(Earth Eats theme plays) 

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: "It started with a wedding gift", I love that. That's like the beginning of our book. I like that. "It started with a wedding gift..."

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show we give a second listen to our story "Have Sheep, Will Farm", we'll hear parts one and three in our series about a young farming family with a flock of sheep on a quest for a farm of their own. And we hear the final installment in Harvest Public Media's series on food insecurity in the pandemic, a story on the federal government's free school lunch program for all students. That's all coming up in the next hour here on Earth Eats, so stay with us. 

(Transition music)

RENEE REED: Earth Eats comes to you from the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. We wish to acknowledge the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people on whose ancestral homeland and resources Indiana University was built.

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kayte Young, you're listening to Earth Eats. And Renee Reed is here with Earth Eats News. Hello Renee. 

RENEE REED: Hello Kayte. Our news today comes from Harvest Public Media and Chad Bouchard. Farmers in the south receive the highest amount of federal aid from the trade war with China according to a report by the government accountability office. Bart Fischer is the co-direct of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M. He says counties with certain crops got higher payments than others. 

BART FISCHER: If you have a lot of cotton in your county, you ended up with a really big rate. If you had a lot of soybeans in your county, you ended up with a really big rate. But if you have wheat, if you have a lot of wheat in your county or a lot of corn in your county the rate comes down considerably. 

RENEE REED: The USDA paid out about a half million dollars more in 2019 compared to 2018. Texas, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota received almost half of those payments. The Food and Environment Reporting Network, FERN has been tracking coronavirus infections since April in the sectors of meatpacking, food processing and farming. Reporter Leah Douglas gleans the data from local news reports, state and federal health offices, and sometimes companies, to piece together a picture of how COVID-19 has gripped workers across the food system. The numbers are grim. Currently more than 63,000 workers across three sectors have tested positive, and 267 have died. Out of that total, 213 were meatpacking workers representing almost 80% of deaths. More than 100 meat processing plants operated by companies such as Smithfield and Tyson have had outbreaks of COVID-19. As FERN reported in September, several states including Kansas and Arkansas have rolled back recent efforts to boost reporting on outbreaks, making health information less transparent and more difficult for public health officials to tackle. Labor advocates cite crowded working conditions, lack of protection, and lack of workers' legal status as factors for higher infection rates in that sector. In California a foster farm plant closed last month after nearly 400 workers tested positive and 8 people died. 

In April, a massive outbreak at a Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls South Dakota sparked fresh calls from lawmakers for the Labor Department to explain nearly 1,300 employees at one plant contracted coronavirus, killing four people. Workers from the Center for Disease Control had visited the plant and given instructions on how to protect employees and reduce transmission. But the lawmakers say those recommendations were later withdrawn or watered down. 

In late April, after intense lobbying from the meatpacking industry, President Trump signed an executive order naming meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure which stalled efforts to close plants with coronavirus outbreaks. A report in September by the watchdog groups Public Citizen, and American Oversight revealed a series of government email documents showing one week before the decision, the North American Meat Institute had drafted a document that was strikingly similar to the President's executive order. 

Thanks to Chad Bouchard and Harvest Public Media's Seth Bodine for those reports. For Earth Eats News, I'm Renee Reed.

(Earth Eats news theme plays out) 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Okay, so about 6:00 a.m. Brett gets up and he opens the back of the van and he said, "I'm gonna see how many sheep I can fit in the back of my van." (laughs) So that was the plan. And then Greg came out, and it turns out he got 17 sheep in his back of his van. Yes. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What kind of van are we talking about here? 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Chrysler Plymouth, like... just, he took all those seats out and put up a gate - like a dog gate in between the front two seats in the back. And they just keep jumping in, so he didn't need to take that many. He only put in like two mamas, but then all the babies were like, "Where are they going?! Where are they going?!" 

So they just jumped in as he was about the close the door, and two more like... just ran toward the van. So he was like, "Oh." and then let them in. So 17. 

(Sheep bays in the background) 

(Chuckles) I'm not making this up. And then the drive over was absurd, right? Because it was raining off and on that day. Finney the horse was in his trailer, and they're all following each other. It's just out of control. Everybody lived though. We didn’t have any losses. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Lauren McCallister and Bretty Volpp are sheep farmers. They tend a flock of sheep, a heritage breed known as Jacobs sheep. They're a smaller breed of sheep more like the size of goats. 

BRETT VOLPP: They're a more primitive breed, they don't need a lot. They just sort of move around. They're really good at taking care of themselves honestly. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: They have double horns. So... 

BRETT VOLPP: They usually have four, for us, but sometimes they can have six. Even the ewes will have horns. 

(Dog barks in the background)

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah and the wool's kind of like a mid-grade so it's not as plush as obviously some of the other ones that are longer, but it's a great blend. 

(Sheep bays)

The length of it, texture, color...

BRETT VOLPP: There's like three colors really in this breed. Sometimes they have the white, turns a little purplish, like I think it's called lavender. And it's really interesting. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] So you might be asking yourself, "Why are they moving sheep in a Chrysler Plymouth minivan?" Well, it's complicated. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Cause how we got the sheep, they were a wedding present when we got married. So that's how it all started. 

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, we got some farm animals and plants for our wedding. If anybody choose to and a few did. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] When Brett and Lauren got married in 2013, they asked for farm animals - half joking and half hoping someone would be crazy enough to give them some. And well, they're friend Maryann was game. At the time they were renting. 

BRETT VOLPP: We were living in Brown County on... 

(Sheep bays)

The old Needmore community, and then we got married there. And had the sheep, the beginning of our flock there for two years and then we came here. And we've been here three (years), and we're just about to move again. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] The "here" they're talking about is a rental property near Unionville Indiana with some land. And the owner was open to them having the sheep and their horse on the property, so they moved them. At the time they only had a handful of sheep, now the flock is up to 25. Brett and Lauren have a dream of farming, of raising a flock of sheep for wool and for meat. And that's not all. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: And then expand to three flocks. So we'll have chickens, geese and then the sheep. 

KAYTE YOUNG: But Lauren and Brett don't have land, and they don't really have the money to purchase land. They aren't inheriting any land from relatives; they've already started their farm. They just don't have the farmland... yet. So they decided to pursue an FSA loan and to find out if it was possible for them to purchase their own land. 

(Transition music)

In a three-part series we're calling "Have Sheep, Will Farm" Earth Eats follows Lauren and Brett and their family on a journey. As young farmers with animals, looking to secure some land of their own. 

BRETT VOLPP: This property is 400 acres, it's beautiful. It's mostly woods so there's a hayfield over there that you may have passed when you came. That's still this property but not where I keep the animals. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So the part where you pasture is much smaller than that. 

BRETT VOLPP: It is probably four or five acres - each paddock, and then this area back here when those get eaten down, I move them randomly through this field. 

(Sheeps bay in the background)

The land has been sold here and so we need to find another place, and which in some ways pushed us forward into thinking more about marketing our farm, not just for ourselves and friends and trade or anything like that, but just actually trying to find a place where we could finally do farming as at least adding to our... income (laughs). 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Because I work full time now, so...

BRETT VOLPP: I've many pursuits and some of them pay more than others. I'm an artist and I'm learning massage therapy also. So farming and she's a yoga instructor now too, and personal trainer, we're trying to sort of make our homespace pay off in a way to keep us there. We spoke with Bobbi Boos who is a local amazing...

LAUREN MCALLISTER: She's a legend and she suggested that we reconsider what we've been doing and think about being a beginning farm. And that was really beautiful for her to see us that way. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What was your long-term goal when you first started? 

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, we're doing it for ourselves really. My dad is a veterinarian so I've grown up with animals and a little bit of farming interest and just... you know, wanting to take care of ourselves better, wanting to learn more. Like if I was going to continue to eat meat, I wanted to eat meat that I knew about, that I actually raised and took care of and knew how it was treated and slaughtered. And just learn more about things that I feel like we're losing as a culture to technology and the way things run, everybody's gotta be very specialized. And I just don't wanna do that I wanna learn a lot of things and be able to help myself and others be more independent. 

KAYTE YOUNG: What about your family's background, do they have farming? 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Well I'm from Knoxville Tennessee. And so when I was a kid, my grandmother's cousin had a chicken farm. And I remember distinctly a lot of the things that we got was because we were trading that chicken for the other things, milk. I remember going in the grocery store once and we had a tab, I didn't know what that was, but it was because we were selling the chickens to the grocery store, and so we could go in and buy the things that we wanted. 

When I was growing up my grandmother's garden was huge and it was not about the food, it was about her relationship with the land and her community. You know we can all agree we like food, but (inaudible).

KAYTE YOUNG: So you really don't think it was about the food, like it she didn't have special dishes that she made, or she didn't love the fresh sun ripened tomato or anything?

LAUREN MCALLISTER: No. (laughs) No that was not it. She liked...

BRETT VOLPP: (inaudible) 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, she cooked three meals a day for 12 people. But it wasn't about if this tomato was organic, or local. It was more yeah...

BRETT VOLPP: A specific variety

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, and her bringing that food to the church, or bringing that food to feed the hungry.

KAYTE YOUNG: Or bringing people to her garden. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: Like as a social space, that's really interesting. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, it was cool. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So one thing... one sense I'm getting just talking to you guys out here with the sheep in the background and everything, is that you seem to take a lot of joy in this endeavor. It's a passion. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, definitely.

BRETT VOLPP: It's really enjoyable, it really is. You think like, "Oh god I gotta shear the sheep." You know, its weighs on you for a minute. And it's really hard, I mean I wrangle them by myself and hold them to shear them. I have to... I mean it's intense. But at the end of that day, whether you did two or five or so, was the most I did in a day, because it's hard work. But you really like the smell of the animal, you help them out by trimming their nails, making sure they're healthy, look at their teeth, all these things that you don’t do for a lot of the year. You don't corral them and really get real one-on-one with them. It's just satisfying. There's something about it that's... getting sweaty and a really... an intimate connection with them even if they don't necessarily like that. Yeah, you just learn a lot. You just like, hands-on anything, actually you know using your intellect and your body is fun at the end of the day. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, and I think there's something interesting about having a relationship with something that's not human. You know? You have to interact in a new way. When they get out, and Brett has me come out and help him, I have to like get really primal and think, "Okay, if I was a sheep, I would not want to be ran at, or I wouldn't want to have this experience." And so you can't just talk them into going the way that you want. You have to step lightly, you have to keep contact, you have to be really aware of how they're feeling. 

Sometimes when it's really hot they just shake. You know? You have to be still enough to watch them do it, and notice. And humans aren't... we really don’t take that time a lot of the time, I think. 

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, they're really interesting creatures, just sitting here listening to them tear grass and chew it, it's like a meditation, you can... you just... it's just really nice. It's just something going on that you wouldn’t' realize unless you spent at least five to twenty minutes out here being quiet, paying attention. They do have different personalities and watching how a flock interacts with their young ones and their... the way their pecking order is and all that is really... it's just interesting, that's all. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: I mean I'm hardcore about local stuff. I think 75 miles is far enough, I think you should be able to get everything you need to eat close by from people that you know. 

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah lots of people used to have small farms that used to you know, not these giant monocrop farms that took over... ten family farms. You know? 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: We're aren't looking to have 300 heads, that's not... you know that's not the goal. It's really a sustainable...

BRETT VOLPP: Give more to the land too, is one of the things we want to do. We want to diversify the possibilities on a small piece of land. The place we're trying to move to if it all works out is 25 acres and it used to be a cattle farm, a small one though. So there's sort of a diversity of pasture and wooded pasture even. 

It's very hard to get started in homesteading without land, without a place to live, and yeah somebody investing in you. It's not easy. So...

LAUREN MCALLISTER: That's the best part about this new opportunity, because we'd be able to do all the things we've been talking about and really settle down - putting in an orchard, putting in a pond. All the things that would create this ecosystem, that we can't do when we rent ultimately. So it's a big step but I think that... especially after talking to the FSA loan manager she was like, "You're ready for this" and we're like, "Oh yeah, I guess we're ready." So that was nice. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay so I don't know much about FSA loans, could either of you walk me through that a little bit? Tell me what it is? 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: It's a lot like FHA loans where they're reaching out to help people get home ownership, but this is just more focused on agriculture. So we're submitting a business plan, and talking about profit, and how we're gonna sustain - not just paying their loan but also how we're going to contribute to the community. I think it's a great opportunity for beginning farmers and that's kind who they're targeting, but also minorities and women, I think that's something they're interested in. And Indiana doesn't have a lot of participation in that way, beginning farmers, most people are already established. So I think we're kind of coming into a scenario that is attractive because there aren't a lot of applicants, there aren't a lot people seeking out this really specific loan. 

BRETT VOLPP: Wonderful details too, but like not having a... needing to have a down payment for what you're doing, and the way you pay it back is once a year, instead of a monthly situation. So there's a lot of benefit to people getting started farming. They really work with you, I think. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, and our loan officer ran a farm, so she's not a banker. Right? She's coming from the perspective of "I understand what you're going through, I started off the same way that you did." And hoping to support us throughout the whole process, which I love. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] When we had this conversation it was almost 2 years ago now; their lease was up and they needed to move. But they were still in the process of securing the loan for the land they hoped to purchase. 

BRETT VOLPP: We still have an appraisal to do there and the title and insurance stuff, and the actual closing. We're working with the government so that takes a little bit longer. They do things very precisely. Yeah but we're right at the point where our application is almost completely finished as of tomorrow and then they'll review it and give us an answer. I think this week, by this week. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: But the first step that we had to do was get a purchase agreement, so a lot of it... that's the big part of it. So even if you get all of this together and you're so excited and you got this great plan, you have to find the property first, and then you have to secure the purchase agreement from the owner. Kind of a barrier that you have to find the land first, and I mean that... that's difficult. And Brett was brilliant, he found this online at like 9:15am, and... (laughs)

BRETT VOLPP: It came on that day, because we had been searching hard for rentals for... you know to accommodate a farm which is you know ridiculous, or trying to buy a place after we found out that we could buy a place if we got a loan. So I was like really really moving on that, and you know things just cost so much. A house, a decent house to live in which we certainly need, and then land - five acres, was our budget. And then we found this place that needed work, although it's got good bones, really. And 25 acres! We'd like to eventually try to grow hemp if our state allows that, and they're close to that. So having 25 or more acres around you is really important to be able to do something like that for yourself and the community. 

Really the perfect place for us, for our, for this fantasy or dream that we're creating. It was the right everything... as long as all the little pieces fit, you know? The loan, and the moving. Yeah, we're crossing our fingers. We are so, so hopeful and so close that we can taste it. 

(Gentle transition music featuring bells)

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Okay so what about that part where they move all those sheep in a minivan? We'll get to that... eventually. In the second part of our series, "Have Sheep, Will Farm", we spoke with loan officer Kathleen Walters to learn more about the FSA loans and what they could mean for Lauren and Brett's farming dreams. You can find that story on our website at EarthEats.org. After a short break we'll hear part three in our series as we follow Lauren and Brett on their quest for a farm of their own. 

(Harmonic electric guitar plays) 

RENEE REED: Stay connected. Subscribe to the Earth Eats Digest, it's a weekly note with previews, food stories and recipes directly in your inbox. Go to EarthEats.org to sign up. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Earth Eats is a show about food and farming. When we talk about farming, there's so much to explore behind the scenes. In our series, "Have Sheep, Will Farm", we're taking a look at what it takes to start a farm from scratch. Farms are often handed down through families, but not always. This is a story about one couple without an inheritance, and their path to farming their own land in southern Indiana. In the first episode of "Have Sheep, Will Farm" which you heard in the first part of our show today, we met Lauren McAllister and Brett Volpp. For those of you just tuning in, they're beginning farmers with two kids, Ramona and Jasper. They started their farming practice before they had land of their own. It started with a wedding gift. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Oh! "It started with a wedding gift." I love that! That's like the beginning of our book. I like that. "It started with a wedding gift, two mamas and a ewe." 

KAYTE YOUNG: Remember the Jacobs sheep? 

(Sheep bays) 

They're a smaller breed with at least two sets of horns, and unusual colors of wool. 

BRETT VOLPP: They're a more primitive breed, they don't need a lot. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah and the wool's kind of like a midgrade

(Sheep bays)

BRETT VOLPP: There's like three colors really in this breed. Sometimes they have the white, turns a little purplish. Like, I think it's called lavender. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Lauren and Brett are raising them for wool and for meat. They were living and farming on rented land outside of Unionville and had grown the flock to over 20 sheep; when the landowner sold the property, it threw them into a crisis. Their friend Bobbi Boos, an experienced farmer, suggested they were ready to start seeing themselves as beginning farmers. And she recommended they seek out an FSA land to purchase some land of their own. On part two of our series, I spoke with Lauren and Brett's loan officer Kathleen Walters. 

KATHLEEN WALTERS: I'm Kathleen Walters and I work with the Farm Service Agency, and I'm a farm loan officer. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Kathleen works with the Farm Services Office that serves Monroe County. She walked us through the in's and out's of FSA loans, and it looked like Lauren and Brett were well positioned for this type of loan. They already had a few years of farming experience under their belts, enough to know what they were getting into. The FSA loan requires a farm business plan. They call their business Three Flock Farm. And their plan includes six elements; sheep, geese, and chickens - those are the three flocks, and then ginger, mushrooms, and herbs. The sheep will provide meat and wool. 

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Mostly we'll be using the geese and the chicken for eggs. I'm not sure we'll be slaughtering them at all really. And then the herbs are medicinal. 

KAYTE YOUNG: The mushrooms in a sense are medicinal too. Lauren and Brett are particularly interested in cultivating Lion's Mane Mushrooms. This type of mushroom is currently being explored for its potential and improving neuronal health. Early studies look promising for those experiencing signs of dementia. And the mushroom's wellness potential is what excites Brett and Lauren.

Business planning isn't entirely new territory for them, Lauren has an undergraduate degree in business.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: I think part of why I'm so excited is because... you know, I went to undergrad, and I did that thing with the 4 years, and I know what I want to do, and I went into business. And then I kind of didn’t... and everything changed, and my priorities shifted to growing my own food, and sharing the resources I have.

And so to create a business plan was almost like the culmination of all the training I had done, but for what I actually wanted. And so I feel like when we put that business plan together, it was easy to do in that sense, because I had the tools, and I had the why. 

And so when Kathleen said to me you know, "This is a really great plan" I thought, "Of course", that's because it’s not coming from a task, it’s not someone else's goals, it's ours. It’s an objective that we feel passionate about. (It) really gave us some more confidence. Cause we were like, "Oh we have -", we were like, "Oh, we're farmers! Oh!" Cause it was just a normal thing, that was our regular life. And then this program is telling us, not only does it have value, we want you to do more of it? Sure. Yes.

KAYTE YOUNG: But finding land and securing a loan takes time. Where would they live? And where would they keep the animals in the meantime? They found a house to rent in town for their family and the two dogs, but what about the sheep? And the horse?

LAUREN MCALLISTER: With the help of our friend Greg - who's incredible, we found a place that our sheep could stay, along with Tinny the horse, until we can close our new house. 

Our friend Dwight is thinking about becoming a sheep farmer, and so he said, "Can I kinda have like a practice round with your sheep?" And he had all this land that needed to like... have mowed down. You know this is what animals are for, that's why husbandry is so beautiful, because they're doing the things... taking down some locusts. I think he had a lot of invasives that he wanted to get rid of, and they took them down in days. I mean we should have taken before and after photos, because the sheep were so vicious. Like they just took all... everything down to the ground. So he's thrilled, he's gonna turn over that land and make more beds for his farm.

KAYTE YOUNG: So having a transition place for the animals was crucial to the process. And so was finding a place to set their sights on.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Securing the land so quickly allowed us to feel comfortable even getting this transition space, and even considering continuing to farm. Because frankly if this program hadn't come up at the time that it did, we would've stripped back, we probably would have butchered a lot of them and only kept a few of them and tried to rent out in Gosport or something. Because we didn’t want to shut down, but renting is not conducive to animals of any kind.

KAYTE YOUNG: They found a place near Ellettsville, which is just outside of Bloomington.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: It's 25 acres.

BRETT VOLPP: And you know, it’s a nice limestone veneered home from the... built in 58'. It has a full basement, it has... it had good bones.

KAYTE YOUNG: They secured a purchase agreement with the owner - that's required for a FSA loan application, and filled out all of the paperwork for the loan. When we heard from their loan officer Kathleen in the last episode, they were approved but they hadn't closed yet.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: This kind of like turned the corner, when she said to us "You got your loan approved." That was the biggest moment because it said to us... one, we can move forward. We don't have to butcher more than a couple this year. Two, that the expansion can happen. Right? That we can keep breeding, and we can continue to grow, and the third thing is really is that we're feeling supported. The research that Kathleen has to do, to kind of justify the loan demonstrated what our business plan put out there. So Kathleen really solidified those future plans...

KAYTE YOUNG: And spoiler alert... it all worked out. They got the land. Lauren and Brett have a farm of their own. I met up with Brett out at Dwight's place a few days after closing. It was sheep moving day again.

If you recall they had already done this, in the back of a Chrysler minivan. This would hopefully be the last time. When I arrived, Brett was corralling the flock using his movable fencing system. He hoped to make two trips with roughly 12 sheep for each trip.

He backed the van up and secured the fencing close to the back of the van, doors flung open. He encouraged them to head towards the van, and he opened a small tub of minerals to entice them into the van. Apparently, they crave these minerals, and they can be a strong motivator. These sheep weren't having it, they were reluctant to hope up into the van. Brett knew he only needed to convince one to get into the van, and more would follow. But they were being stubborn.

Eventually one hopped in, and a few more, but then one would jump out... and then another. And then they'd jump back in. It was comical if not slightly frustrating. Brett displayed saintly level of patience with the creatures, but at one point he grabbed a particularly fickle ram, and lifted him quite awkwardly into the van, and slammed the door shut behind him. That was 12. We were ready to roll. He secured the fencing for the remaining sheep, and we headed out to the road.

BRETT VOLPP: I try to just coax them you know? You just want... make it easy, don't spook them. But every once in a while, you have to catch one.

KAYTE YOUNG: What'd you call that one?

BRETT VOLPP: He's a bit of a clown, yeah. He's a little goofy, I think.

KAYTE YOUNG: The last one to go in?

BRETT VOLPP: Yup, the... the - what was he? He was probably the 10th one, and then the... then he was the 12th one, and then the 13th, and then he got out again, gets back in, in and out. Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: Once we got going it was remarkably quiet considering there were 12 sheep and two humans in a Chrysler minivan. The new place is only six minutes from Dwight's where the sheep had been staying. The trip was uneventful and brief, especially compared to the day when Brett brought his horse to the new place.

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, I ended up walking him from Dwight's here, it's like six miles. But it was... it’s along the old railroad tracks that are gonna be a trail to Ellettsville. So he lived right off of that. And I was like, "Oh that'd be fun to just walk my horse down." It's like a coming home thing with my horse, and like seeing this place and being... Yeah, just having more of a connection with the land around, as well as giving my horse like an exercise. Like, "Hey, we're going somewhere, and this is where were gonna end up."

KAYTE YOUNG: Once we arrived and Brett opens the back of the van, the sheep tumble out onto the grass with no hesitation at all.

BRETT VOLPP: That's it.

KAYTE YOUNG: [To Brett] Yeah, that's it. Getting them out was rather uneventful, they just kinda leapt out, and that was that.

[Narrating] He's starting them in a patch of land close to the house. It doesn't take them long to start grazing.

KAYTE YOUNG: It must feel good to be...

BRETT VOLPP: That feels really great, yeah. That was a lot stress, but yeah it worked really well. Now we can put all our energy into making this a home. It's gonna take a while.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] The house needs some work before move-in, but it won't be long now. After a short break we'll join Lauren and Brett once they've moved into their new place, to hear more about dreams come true.

(Transition music)

I checked back in with Lauren and Brett once the whole family has moved in. It's a few months later and it's lambing season. Standing on the edge of a pasture with their young son Jasper, I spot a few of the babies.

JASPER: The one that was just looking at us... he has been bottle feeding. My dad because he keeps kicking her away.

KAYTE YOUNG: Wow, interesting. Does that just happen sometimes?

JASPER: Yes. It happens all the time, until she's older she's gonna start to eat grass.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so you just have to bottle feed her until she's ready for grass?

JASPER: Yeah. We call her Finder.

KAYTE YOUNG: Why "Finder"?

JASPER: Because she's good at finding things, and she sometimes nibbles on our hands.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Brett comes out of the house with a bottle. It's time for Finder's feeding.

BRETT VOLPP: Come on little one.

This is my baby, she thinks she's... she thinks I'm her mom, definitely. 

(Sound of Finder bottle feeding)

First couple of weeks, I was feeding her every 4 hours through the night too. That was my first time doing that.... not the most fun. But I got out to see the night sky a lot.

KAYTE YOUNG: You didn't just keep her in the house with you?

BRETT VOLPP: I did after the first couple days, but at first, I wanted her to just... I wanted to see if I could get the mother to take her back, and it’s important to get the colostrum from the mother the first couple days. So I just left her out, and the mother pinned up with her, and would actually hold the mother for her to suckle. For two days... it was kinda fun it gave me an excuse to camp out.

Luckily, I was a carpenter for many years before we took this project on. So you...

KAYTE YOUNG: [To Lauren] Hello! Hello!

[Narrating] Inside the house I sit down with Lauren and Brett to reflect on all that's happened.

[Interviewing] I would love to hear from you how you're feeling now.

BRETT VOLPP: It's been difficult, the whole process. Very thankful for it, thankful for the opportunity of the FSA loan, and all of that. But it's... I don't know, because I was in school and just finally took my state qualifying exam, but the amount of work we had to do on the house and pay for two places while we rented and lived here. The opportunity was great, but it was really hard, and still is, to keep our head above water financially, especially.

It's like... it's just... I guess it’s like this everywhere, it was really hard. And I think hopefully we can come out of this and have a little more breathing room. I don't... I don't know if I can foresee that honestly. I don't know how long it'll take to feel... solved or whatever, but it's... yeah. I mean I really... I think everybody goes through this anyway, renting or buying, just buying a house. But we're glad for the opportunity to have more than just a house and to continue farming and all that. And do more farming than we ever have as well so.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: I think it's growing pains honestly. It feels really awkward to think like is how adolescence is, where we got a lot of responsibility all of the sudden and realize how much it took to take care of it, and like the focus and the energy that needed to be there so that we were supporting it and thinking longevity, not just like how we're gonna pay the taxes this year. But maybe thinking like 5 years from now, or even how we'll label the food and who we'll work with, and our experience with the sheep, making sure that that's really sound; we're not just getting involved in breeding, but like maintaining their health and their happiness.

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, I think they struggled more this year than ever with the move, and just the lack of fencing, the lack of good graze here. It'll take a few years to establish that.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] When I spoke with them, Lauren had just secured a grant from SARE, which stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Her grant is to research a method using spent grains - which is a byproduct of the beer brewing process, as a substrate for growing mushrooms. I couldn't imagine when she would find the time for this project.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Well, my husband says I'm gonna do it on Sundays, because I'm gonna be home more on Sundays. So Kayte, the short answer is Sundays.

KAYTE YOUNG: [To Lauren] Sunday is SARE grant day?

LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] And it's not like Lauren and Brett are home on the farm every day. Their kids have school and activities in town and they're both working jobs off-farm, especially Lauren.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: So I work full time at IU. I'm there 40 hours a week, and then I work at the SRSC teaching yoga. And then I teach yoga at the Monroe County Public Library, which I love. It's prenatal on Monday nights. And then I teach at Vibe, and... yeah. I'm doing a lot to kind of support the long-term bills that we have outside of what we're putting in. So when we're talking about investing in the house, not just like finishing things, but finding solutions to problems that we discovered, as we move through like... oh surprise, that pipe needs to be replaced, all of it.... now.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] Yeah I mean you've been talking about the investment of money, and I get how real and immediate that is, but to me the time... when I think about working full-time, raising a kid, going to school, having other stuff... any one of these projects that I could see in this room, feels overwhelming. So... (laughs)

BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, yeah definitely. There's.... (laughs)

LAUREN MCALLISTER: (inaudible) That's what blowing my mind, cause it's like... you asked for a house? Did ya? With a big farm? Did ya? Oh-Ho! There you go.

And it's like... well, crap... I did ask specifically for this, and here I have it, and now I have to put even more energy and focus than when I was dreaming of it, to like make it real. And like translate all that time into like finished walls, but more importantly... a home. And I think that there's a lot of imposter syndrome at the beginning, because we're thinking like, "We aren't really farmers! Who got this loan?! What are you talking about? Like, who are these people? Like are we these people?" and we've been it the whole time, honestly.

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] And the home of their own isn't their only dream. They're hoping for community involvement and have already had a group out on the land planting fruit and nut trees. They want the farm to become a healing retreat space. Remember Brett is a massage therapist and Lauren is a yoga instructor, and they have a passion for medicinal foods and herbs. Lauren is also thinking about what it means to be a black woman owning farmland, in light of the history of racial discrimination that has pushed so many black families off the land.

LAUREN MCALLISTER: And the way that Jasper is gonna grow up as a black boy, his interaction with land and nature and farm is also important to me. So it's all wrapped together because we are an interracial couple, we're in a mixed family.

KAYTE YOUNG: They're looking into what it means to commit the land to a trust of some kind, to preserve their long-term vision for generations to come.

Since this series first aired, Three Flock Market has joined the People's Cooperative Market in Bloomington, and Lauren has partnered with the Plant Trust Project: a black indigenous and people of color lead food initiative in Bloomington and Ellettsville. They're cultivating produce herbs and flowers on Three Flock Farm's land with a mission rooted in food justice and access for people who have historically been denied land and food sovereignty. Check the website for a photo of Lauren, Brett and Jasper and of Finder, the baby lamb. Find that at EarthEats.org. 

(Drum and piano music) 

KAYTE YOUNG: Over the summer schools and other community sites that offer children free meals, saw soaring demand. Now schools in session and this term at least, meals remain free for all kids. Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer reports that's because with tens of millions of children relying on school meals, the federal government is extending pandemic support... for now. 

AMY MAYER: School meals contribute significantly to alleviating childhood hunger, but normally a family has to apply for their children to get a free or reduced-price meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture relaxed rules in March including making meals free for all children. It recently announced those pandemic provisions will stay in place. Kim Belstene is the food service director for the Belmond-Klemme Community School District in north Iowa. She said on a call with others about the extension, one caveat loomed large. 

KIM BELSTENE: They'll be free until December 31st or until funds run out. So what if you continue to feed and then find out that oh, they ran out of money in October and you fed through November? 

AMY MAYER: Districts and families could be caught with a debt they were expecting to owe. Belmond-Klemme is in a county where recently more than 50% of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Belstene says the district is committed to feeding every child, regardless of ability to pay. Not all districts can afford that. 

(Sound of a busy lunchroom)

Lunchroom at the elementary school looks different this fall, everyone is wearing a mask or face shield, children enter the lunchroom but don't stay long. 

KIM BELSTENE: They walk down, grab their milk and then come through line and we hand everything in a bag at that point to them. 

AMY MAYER: The hot entree is wrapped in foil and added to a paper bag that today has cantaloupe slices, baby carrots, chips and a granola bar. There's no salad bar or any self-serve. Other than type of milk, the kids have no choices. And they take their milk and sack lunch back to the classroom to eat. Ongoing free meals is a victory for the school nutrition association which lobbied hard for the extension. 

DIANE PRATT-HEAVNER: In this economy we're seeing a dramatic increase in food insecure families, we know millions more kids will depend on school meals this year. 

AMY MAYER: Spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner said whether in the building or at home, kids can't learn when they're hungry. 

DIANE PRATT-HEAVNER: And this year we're asking so much more of our students, they have to figure out distance learning, a modified school day schedules. We should not allow them to worry about whether they'll get a healthy meal. 

AMY MAYER: And so many families need help. In June Illinois served almost 11 million meals, more than seven times the 2019 figure. Iowa served more than 4 times as many meals. Lunchtime Solutions is a private food service company that contracts with schools in several Midwest states. Even as they provided meals during the summer, Heather Wahl says the company prepares a base menu for fall with extreme flexibility. 

HEATHER WAHL: It could be adapted very easily depending on what the district's mitigation efforts were and changed almost instantaneously. 

AMY MAYER: Meals have to work in the lunchroom, the classroom, or the to go bag. 

HEATHER WAHL: Menus are designed to have one homestyle, one hot kind of convenience type of food that is really kid friendly, like chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers that kind of thing, and one deli sandwich. 

AMY MAYER: Or some other cold option, plus always milk, fruit and vegetables. At Belmond-Klemme Jr Senior High, Kim Belstene sends a few meals each day for students learning online. The rest are delivered to students in their classrooms to avoid congestion in the halls and cafeteria. She says if a COVID-19 exposure quarantines kids at home, as has already happened to the football team, her staff will provide pickup meals for families that want them. Despite the changes and challenges she says her mission remains crystal clear. 

KIM BELSTENE: This is what we do, no matter how you get them fed you just feed them. 

AMY MAYER: She's confident no one is going hungry. Oh and she says the kids are actually happier with fresh raw vegetables than a cup of steamed peas. Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media. 

KAYTE YOUNG: That was the final installment in Harvest Public Media's series on food insecurity in the pandemic. Find more from this reporting collective at HarvestPublicMedia.org. 

That's all we have time for today. I'm Kayte Young, thank you for listening to Earth Eats. 

(Earth Eats theme music)

Have you found us on Twitter? Follow @EarthEats to stay up to date on food and farming news, seasonal recipes, food justice stories, and so much more. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram @EarthEats. We even have a YouTube channel with new recipe video for savory hand pies. Just search for Earth Eats. 

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, the IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Lauren McAllister, Brett Volpp, Kathleen Walters and Jasper.

RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

Lauren McAllister, Brett Volpp and young son Jasper in front of old red tractor with house and dogs in the background.

The house on the land the Lauren and Brett purchased needs some work. Luckily, Brett worked for years as a carpenter, and can do some of the work himself. (Kayte Youn/WFIU)

This week on our show, we give a second listen to our story Have Sheep, Will Farm. We’ll hear parts one and three in our series about a young farming family with a flock of sheep, on a quest for farmland of their own. We’ll learn about their dreams for Three Flock Farm and the opportunities and obstacles along the way.

And we hear the final installment in Harvest Public Media’s series on food insecurity in the pandemic--a story on  the federal government’s free school lunch program for all students.

Brett Volp holding black and white lamb, with sheep grazing on pasture in the background.
Brett holds Finder, the lamb he's been bottle feeding since her mama rejected her. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

Earth Eats is a show about Food and Farming. When we talk about farming, there’s so much to explore, behind the scenes.

In our series, Have Sheep, Will Farm, we’re taking a look at what it takes to start a farm from scratch.

Farms are often handed down through families. But not always. And this is a story about one couple, without an inheritance, and their path to farming their own land, in Southern Indiana.

In the first episode of Have Sheep, Will Farm, we met Lauren McCalister and Brett Volpp.

They’re beginning farmers, with two kids-Ramona and Jasper. They started their farming practice before they had land of their own. It started with a wedding gift. They asked for plants and farm animals, half joking, and one friend took them up on it, and gave them three Jacob sheep. 

Jacob Sheep are a smaller breed with at least two sets of horns, and unusual colors of wool. Lauren and Brett are raising them for wool and for meat.

They were living and farming on rented land outside of Unionville, Indiana, and had grown the flock to over twenty sheep. When the landowner sold the property, it threw them into a crisis.

Their friend Bobbi Boos, an experienced farmer, suggested they were ready to start seeing themselves as beginning farmers, and recommended they seek out an FSA loan, to purchase some land of their own.

In part two of our series, I spoke with Lauren and Brett’s Loan officer, Kathleen Walters.

Kathleen works with the Farm Services Agency that serves Monroe County.

She walked us through the ins-and-outs of FSA loans, and it looked like Lauren and Brett were well-positioned for this type of loan. They already had a few years of farming experience under their belts, enough to know what they were getting into.

The FSA loan requires a farm business plan. Their business is called Three Flock Farm, and their plan includes 6 elements for their farm: Sheep, geese and chickens (those are the three flocks) plus ginger, mushrooms and herbs. The sheep will provide meat and wool, the geese and the chickens will be for eggs, the herbs will be medicinal.

The mushrooms, in a sense, are medicinal too. Lauren and Brett are particularly interested in cultivating Lion’s Mane mushrooms. This type of mushroom is currently being explored for its potential in improving neuronal health. Early studies look promising for those experiencing signs of dementia, and the mushroom’s wellness potential is what excites Brett and Lauren.

Business planning isn’t entirely new territory for them. Lauren has an undergraduate degree in Business and found this plan easy to formulate because it incorporated her business training with her own personal passions and dreams.

But finding land and securing a loan takes time. Where would they live, and where would they keep the animals in the meantime. They found a house to rent in town for their family and the two dogs, but what about the sheep. And the horse?

Hear all about it, on Earth Eats this week.

Music on this Episode from Daniel Birch, from the Free Music Archive

Additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

The Earth Eats’ theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Stories On This Episode

In An Autumn Of Uncertainties, More Kids Can Rely On Free School Lunches

A girl in a bright pink shirt with a black face mask unpacks a sack lunch at a desk in a classroom. Other students are in the background

Over During the summer, schools and other community sites that offer children free meals saw soaring demand. Now school’s in session, and this term, at least, meals remain free for all kids. the summer, schools and other community sites that offer children free meals saw soaring demand. Now school’s in session, and this term, at least, meals remain free for all kids.

Outbreak Tracker Reveals Infections In Meatpacking Sector Continue To Soar

Workers in white coats, blue gloves, yellow and blue hard hats work at a large stainless steel machine with a hopper, a pipe and a chute, in a large room with white walls.

Several interactive maps and charts using Covid-19 outbreak data in the food system show the devastating effect of high infection rates at meatpacking plants compared to other sectors.

Farmers in South Paid More From Market Facilitation Program

A field of green corn.

Farmers in the South received the highest amount of federal aid from the trade war with China according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Earth Eats

Harvest Public Media