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Q&A with Farmer Elli Sparks

Q&A with Farmer Elli Sparks

Elli

Photo by Erica Flock

Ever wondered what it would be like to run
your own small farm, raise your family’s food, and subsist off the
land? Meet Elli Sparks, a small farm owner, climate activist and mother who has
devoted her life to sustainable farming and protecting the environment.

 

Describe your farm and the people and animals
that live there.

We have 30
acres in south central Virginia, about an hour and a half from Richmond.
 The land is gentle rolling hills with both woods and
pasture.  We moved here from Richmond exactly one year ago.  We are
in partnership with my aunt, who bought the land.  

We have 110
animals: five cows, 12 goats, a flock of laying hens, ducks for eggs and meat,
16 geese we plan to sell at Christmas to our friend in Richmond who is a
butcher, cats, dogs, and occasionally broilers (chickens raised just for meat).

 

When did you realize you wanted to be a
farmer?

I knew I
wanted to be a farmer when I was a teenager.  I remember driving to visit
my grandmother on her 2 acre farm in Harford County, Maryland.  I loved driving through the
countryside, looking at the farms.  I used to think about the artistry of
a farm and imagine the decisions being made by farmers.  I thought those
choices were as much aesthetic as they were scientific. I think a good farmer
looks at her animals and plants the way a painter looks at the world.
 What can I notice today that can help me improve things tomorrow?

 

What did you learn in your first year on the
farm?

A lot!
 I learned to let go of perfection.  I also work full time at
Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL).  Farming is done in between phone calls and
grant writing.  Farming and CCL and raising my family completely fill my
life.  If I were farming full time, I think I would have more projects
completed on the farm.  But, I actually enjoy the challenge of making
decisions that keep my load light and the animals fed and happy.

 

What have been your greatest challenges &
rewards?

Our first
round of births.  Four of our goats delivered their kids this spring.
 Two of them popped the kids right out.  Two of them needed our help.
 My own kids were with me both times we needed to help the does with their
delivery.  Staying calm, involving my kids, and ensuring a happy delivery
was a delicious challenge for me.

 

Farm2

Photo by Erica Flock

How do you manage the land sustainably?

We do
rotational grazing (which I like to call “Prairie Farming”).  This allows
us to rest the land in between grazing.  Prairie Farming will restore the
grasslands to their original glory.  Happy grasslands make deep topsoil,
which makes the grasslands more drought resistant and allows them to be carbon
and methane sinks.  Happy grasslands need herbivores to function.
 Herbivores need predators or herders to keep the herds healthy.  I
am delighted to be a herder of goats and cows and chickens and ducks and geese
on my farm.  Eating them heals and sustains me.  Them eating the
grass, pooping, and moving is what heals the land.  A healthy land heals
the planet and restores our climate.  Brilliant, don't you think?

 

What’s the best part of being a farmer?

I love
having visitors to the farm.  I love feeding them food I have grown and
processed.  

 

What changes would you like to see in the
U.S. agriculture system?

Number one:
Legalize raw milk. Do you remember the book Heidi?
 She lived in the mountains with her grandfather.  The doctor in town
sent a sickly girl to live with Heidi and her grandfather because he wanted her
to benefit from fresh air, sunshine, and the good clean raw milk from the goats
that Heidi and her grandfather milked each day.  

Number two:
I would like to see industrial hemp legalized.  It’s a great building
material, we could make paper with it, and it’s renewable and more quickly
grown than trees.  Save the trees for the forest.  Use hemp instead.
 It also heals the land.  Nice!

Number
three: Allow people to "regulate" small farms by visiting the farm
and deciding for themselves if they would like to buy food from the farm.
 Ditch the oppressive regulations on small farms.  Save regulations
for agribusinesses, who need help keeping food safe.

Number four:
Require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our foods.
 

 

What can people do to support small farmers
like you?

Buy our
food.  Advocate for the above changes.  Stand by our sides when the
USDA raids our farms, takes our computers, and dumps our milk on the ground.
 Visit the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and Weston A. Price to
learn more.

 

What advice do you have for someone thinking
of going into farming?

Jump in,
dream big and have fun!

 

A diverse group of farmers like Elli
are committed to environmental stewardship, healthy food and protecting
farms and farmland across the country. Read more of their stories on the American Farmland Trust website.


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