I’ve always admired women who ran their own businesses. I’ve admired them because I come from a legacy of women who have done just that. My great-grandmother Dorothea ran a bakery that supported her, my mother, and her older brother, my Uncle Percy. My grandmother was a seamstress and domestic who still managed to sell her Scorpion and Scotch-Bonnet peppers to her neighbors, as well as her hens’ eggs in retirement while raising me. Even my mom has dipped her foot in the entrepreneurship game from time to time, most notoriously working two jobs seven days a week to help put me through college. So as a result of being raised by women who took their destinies into their hands in order to feed their children, I have developed a deep respect and admiration for women who dare to run their own businesses, which brings me to my old friend Rachel.
When I came up with this concept of interviewing amazing women with radical businesses, the first person who came to mind was my old friend Rachel Dorrell. Read on to find out more about her radical entrepreneurship journey on 21 acres of lush farmland in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.
(1) Could you tell us about your career and life trajectory?
I happily ignored all of the advice that I *must* study science to have viable career, and focused on English literature because reading novels and writing papers came much more naturally to me than studying for multiple choice tests. After undergad, where I majored in English (with Andrea!) at Lehigh University, I hopped over to England for a master’s degree in 19th Century Literature and Culture, where I realized I very much loved living abroad but did not enjoy academia. I then went straight to Columbia University for another master’s degree in something called Narrative Medicine, which basically offers doctors and other medical professionals a chance to study humanities and better learn how to connect with patients. The whole “patients are people, not just medical cases” sort of thing. Living in New York City was fun for a couple years, but I was really missing living life with a bit less stimulation. I read a book called Heat by Bill Buford about Mario Batali’s Italian culinary education (… before his predation became public), and realized how unhappy and burned out I felt. I found a sustainable farm in Tuscany, Italy, that hosted WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms) volunteers in a slightly more structured, three-month program. The deadline was the next week, my lease was up a few days before the program started, and it all felt like fate. I headed there, met my now husband, Vincent, who was from Virginia but ended up on this farm after feeling similarly tired of city life. We now live on 21 acres in Western New York. I work remotely full time as an editor, writing about nursing homes, Medicare, and practice management for doctors’ offices. We have a homestead/farm and all kinds of animals, a garden, wild apple trees and raspberries.
(2) What is your daily routine?
Living on the land means life and routine change a lot with each season. In the spring, I try to wake up before the sun and have some quiet me time, whether that’s writing or reading the news (though I try not to start my day with that anymore, as it usually makes me sad/terrified). I start a fire in our antique wood cook stove — we heat our home with wood — and make milky black tea. Once the sun is properly up, I let out the chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, and check on the other animals. I’ll give piglets breakfast, and, in the fall/winter/early spring, check on the hay situation for our horse, Jersey cow (for milk, eventually, once she’s old enough), four sheep, and goats. Sometimes I then go for a walk around the woods with our two livestock guardian dogs. In the summer, we raise meat birds (chickens, ducks, turkeys) on pasture, so I’ll make sure they all have fresh grass, food, and water.
I then try to get some work done, if it’s a weekday. I’m currently responsible for approximately 10,000 words a month. I’ve learned a lot about nursing homes, Medicare, and all kinds of fun regulations, but writing for work doesn’t come as easily or quickly as writing about other things like food.
If my husband is home (he works full time at a local museum-owned nature center), we’ll probably tackle some bigger farm projects. Making a new enclosure for pigs or ruminants, cleaning the coop, etc. A big day may include slaughtering a pig or 30 chickens. In the cooler half of the year, someone is keeping an eye on the fire, and probably splitting wood.
We try to grow or raise as much of our own food as possible. We’ve only been doing this for two years, so we are still getting our farm legs, but we both take a lot of pleasure in cooking. So making dinner takes priority.
Right now I’m working on a congressional campaign, too, so I often have an hour or couple hours of writing work I do for that throughout the day.
Photo Credit: John Pierce
(3) How do you balance having a remote full-time job with working on a farm?
It’s mostly really great and easy to balance. When you’re responsible for lives other than your own, you really have to have to be in tune with your intuition, because something frequently goes wrong. I’m so grateful to be able to work full time but also be at home and set my own schedule. I really appreciate that my job is creating a product — I like collaborating, and such, but I really love being able to set my own schedule. I think the juggling of the two makes me way more productive in both my job and the farm — I can sort of go back and forth between tasks for each, which is great for motivation.
(4) Has living the life of a farmer deepened your feminist beliefs and way of life?
These are great questions! I feel so empowered knowing I can handle and excel at tasks that require ingenuity and physical strength. Vincent and I truly see each other as partners, and we’re always trying to support each other and help each other grow, while we grow this little dream we’re cultivating.
When I lived in the city, I was mostly in touch with my intuition for situations like “Don’t walk down this street right now” or “time to leave the bar” or “I have a feeling my train is going to be super late …” but in this lifestyle, living close to the land, I am so much more reliant on my intuition in daily life and feel like it’s a really powerful and uniquely female ability (at least in my relationship). I love being so much more connected to nature, to the life cycle, to food.
I think women were traditionally in charge of feeding their families (and, really, what responsibilities are bigger than birthing, feeding, clothing, caring?), and with capitalism and Western society’s expectations and stylizations of gender, that has become a lowly, given obligation, instead of celebration of resilience and badassery. Women never used to have time to discuss their ideas and observations about life because they were doing the tough, dirty jobs no man wanted to do. Living this lifestyle lets me take pride in the drudgery and also gives me the experience I need as I try to build the teensiest bit of a platform for talking about our terrible our food system is and how powerful women are.
(5) How would you compare the farming industry in Italy to the farming industry in the US? What are the differences between the two from your viewpoint?
Italy has lost a lot of its agricultural heritage, and the U.S. has as well. But I think Italians still appreciate and champion small-scale agriculture, whereas the U.S. pours millions (billions? Trillions?) of dollars into industrial, conventional ag. Industrial agriculture is terrible for soil health, water health, wildlife, farmers, income equality, our country … basically all entities who aren’t shareholders in big ag companies. We’re lucky now that many people in our local community hold these same beliefs, so there’s lots of local food (and wine and beer) and support for small-scale farmers.
I’m sure Italy has some version of conventional agriculture, but my experience there was on a 1,100-acre sustainable farm. We had our own vegetables, wine, olive oil, meat, eggs; our cheese came from a sheep dairy down the road. That’s a food system that works — people were all paid a wage they could live on, they weren’t endangered by their job requirements, the food and wine was so fresh and delicious.
(6) What are some of the triumphs that you’ve enjoyed since you began living on the farm?
I love being dialed into the natural world and my intuition, and every time I have a hunch that is proved correct — this sow is going to have piglets tomorrow! The ewe is going to lamb! The fire is about to go out and needs tending! — I feel pretty excited. The first time I milked a goat, I was terrible, but I soon gained enough skill that she would take a break from munching grass to stand and let me milk her untethered while out in the pasture. I try to tune into and appreciate the simple joys — having carved the kind of life where I can take a break from work and go out and get a bit of a workout splitting wood or going out to just be with some of the animals.
Photo Credit: John Pierce
(7) Could you tell me some of the struggles of your life on a farm that people are not often aware of?
Personally and selfishly, sleep is a huge struggle. The whole “new parents and no sleep” thing gets a lot of traction in our culture because so many people have kids, but really, being wholly responsible for anyone beyond yourself is bound to cost you some sleep and worry, and so much else. We have two livestock guardian dogs, and when we first got them, they were pretty insecure while they learned our property and what was normal and us. The second night we had them, when they were still pretty young, one got her head stuck in a random piece of metal. I was dead asleep and heard or imagined whimpering and was instantly wide awake and ran out to the barn (which is 100 yards from our house). It took me a few minutes but I got her unstuck and she was fine — today, two years later, she and her sister are out protecting our animals with confidence and vigor — but my husband slept through the whole thing!
I also struggle with migraines, and being outside with the many noises and scents and bright light feels 100-percent impossible a few days a month. I love that Joan Didion essay about headaches, and the “luxury” of succumbing to a headache has a new layer of resonance now (mostly because I usually can no longer just crawl into bed).
Predation is an issue because of where we live, and also because of how we raise our animals (outside, and with as much freedom as possible … where farm animals belong). We’ve had a couple losses from wildlife, and those have been hard.
It’s also pretty hard to have a life outside the farm. We were both quite lucky to have had the privilege to do a bit of traveling before we met. Now, we’re tied to these 21 acres and our animals. It’s hard to get away. We have to be home by dark to put the chickens away, so it’s even hard to do things locally, sometimes!
(8) What would you say to someone who said that living on a farm seems idyllic?
There’s so much that I do find idyllic about raising and growing our own food, living in the countryside, heating with wood, hanging the laundry on the line and then taking 10 more steps to pet my favorite pig. But it’s often pretty messy. Lots of mud, a fair amount of excrement (from so many species, and it all looks and smells different!), and lots and lots of work. Regardless of the weather or how you’re feeling or what you want to be doing, your animals depend on you, so you have to prioritize them.
(9) You’ve said that “To save heritage animals, you have to eat heritage animals.” What would you say to those who disagree with your statement?
Heritage breed animals are useless, commercially. They grow slowly, prefer to eat a “natural” diet that’s more diversified than what most commodity farmers want to feed, and often end up all different sizes and shapes, even within a litter. These variations make it hard to build a business because most consumers have been taught to prioritize consistency and price above all else — and are terrified of fat. We raise our heritage breed pigs in the woods, where the get to nose around in the dirt, find and eat nuts that fall from the trees above, sleep in a pigpile on fresh straw in a shelter. They get to be pigs — enjoying all of the things pigs enjoy — for 18 months to 24 months before we slaughter them. Nearly all of the pork in grocery stores is from enormous, fast-growing pigs who live their whole six months of life in a factory facility with concrete floors. There’s no money in heritage breed animals — only flavor, love, and better nutrition — and our food system is designed around profit, speed, and consistency.
Our heritage breed chickens don’t lay 300 eggs a year — some manage about half of that — and we love that they weren’t bred to be machines. Our turkeys grow very slowly — they require about twice the time to get to “market size” as Butterball-esque turkeys, but they can walk comfortably and even fly! They have so much flavor and are so succulent — I only use salt and pepper when cooking, and people are blown away by actually liking turkey.
Also, in our climate, we could not manage to grow enough vegetables in our short growing season to be vegetarian and eat year round. And I’ll keep better track this year, but I’m almost positive we use less water for one pig’s worth of calories than the equivalent in garden plant calories, and the pig helps fertilize and aerate the soil (which is better at certain times of the year than others) and eats pests.
(10) Sustainability is a top priority on your farm. Could you let us know what initiatives you’ve taken to create and maintain this ethos?
We use products that are locally made, when possible, like On Hand Lotions products for personal hygiene, etc., and biodegradable stuff where possible. Between our pigs, chickens, and livestock guardian dogs, no food or scraps go to waste. We try to be really cognizant of packaging, like buying pantry items in bulk from a co-op or bulk foods store (we live in a Mennonite community, and have lots of local stores catering to their needs, which include a ton of bulk products). We don’t have a dryer, and dry all of our clothes either on a line or on a drying rack by the wood stove. We do have propane, but our propane stove/oven broke and we’ve been heating our house and cooking almost exclusively with wood for almost five months now. This past year we invested in better spray foam insulation for our house. We hope to set up some rain catchment systems for watering the garden and animals, and we’d love to move toward solar power, and a newer hot water heater that doesn’t use propane.
Photo Credit: Ash Carr.
(11) As a female entrepreneur, do you deal with any sexism in the farming industry? If so, how do you combat it?
I can barely qualify myself as a real farmer, but I definitely get funny looks from old White dudes if I walk into a farm supply store in skinny jeans and ankle boots. And people always try and carry stuff for me, when drives me a bit crazy, as I carry water and hay and grain all over every day, and split wood and drive a tractor and manage 1,000-pound animals. I can handle this 20-pound bag of wood shavings, even though I’m wearing street clothes, thank you, guy. I honestly spend so much of my time on the farm, where it’s just me and animals, that I experience sexism as a woman much more than sexism as a farmer. Though farmer guys who don’t know me do tend to ignore me and talk to my husband if we’re together.
(12) Finally, what is your must-have product while you’re working?
I’m trying to decide between On Hand Lotions Fix It (a sort of all-purpose healing balm that sinks in but isn’t greasy) or On Hand Lotions Thirsty Face serum (a spectacular blend of oils that quenches my very dry winter skin and provides lots of nutrients and very happy skin). I love them both, and use both every day, multiple times a day in winter. But when it’s -6 F or I’m trudging through a foot of snow to feed the pigs out in the woods, Arctic Sport Muck Boots are my must-have.
You can find out more about Rachel and Vincent’s work at: https://www.scrumblewoodfarm.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scrumblewoodfarm/
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/scrumblewoodfarm/?hl=en
Title Image Credit: Ash Carr