A few weeks ago I did a portrait session with Lora and Joe of Big Switch Farm. Lora describes their farm as an “Organic family farm in East KY. Working to preserve Appalachian food heritage while supporting a sustainable food & fiber future. Hemp+Produce+Honey“
On Veteran’s Day 2015, an American flag made out of Kentucky hemp and grown by veterans was flown over the U.S. capitol. Big Switch Farm, Growing Warriors, and Fibershed were all involved in the creation of the hemp flag. You can see pictures of the flag if you follow Lora on twitter.
I asked Lora some questions about family, farming in Kentucky, and hemp. Here are her answers.
Meg: Lora, did you always want to farm? Did you grow up on a farm?
Lora: I knew I wanted to at least homestead. Joe says he always felt the same way. It’s one of the things that drew us together.
He was very influenced by his uncle who lives in a kind of “back to the land” intentional community. One set of his grandparents came from Ohio River Valley farming families and he’s worked as a farm advocate for most of his adult life with Community Farm Alliance in Kentucky and then the Rural Advancement Foundation International in North Carolina. Now he’s a full-time farmer and social entrepreneur with a hemp business. I’ve been influenced by my family’s Appalachian heritage mixed with my values around social justice. I have a lifelong interest in looking at where the traditional meets the radical.
In Appalachia, you see that intersection very clearly in many parts of traditional culture. I did not grow up on a farm but my grandparents’ generation did and those stories stuck with me. I grew up eating out of my grandparent’s garden in the Summer. They grew pole beans that they dried to make shucky beans. They foraged for mushrooms. My grandmother talked about the medicinal herbal teas her mother made. I heard stories about hog killings and marathon canning sessions over open fires. Many of the things that are very popular now in cities including a farm to table ethos and a focus on small-batch handmade products are just the way things were done here out of necessity. My interest in the Appalachian heirlooms we are growing comes from a sense of place. It’s an exploration of my family’s history, my interest in traditional Appalachian foodways and my politics. Words like “organic”, “seasonal” and “local” aren’t just trendy buzzwords to slap on a label or put on a menu. They mean something and have integrity. We have to protect and honor that, because I see it co-opted quite a bit. Growing organic heirlooms and eating seasonally can be a form of resistance against the homogenization of culture and corporate control over natural resources and the commons. It can also be a proactive strategy to counter critical issues like the climate crisis and a loss of biodiversity.
Meg: Where is the revival of hemp in Kentucky coming from?
Lora: There’s been many years of hard work put in by farmers and organizations in Kentucky to bring hemp back. I think part of the revival has to do with transition and a critical need to look toward a future of diversified place-based economies. We’ve been through a tobacco transition and now we’re going through a very painful transition away from a coal-based economy in Appalachia. Jackson County is an interesting place because it sits in a kind of borderland between those two economies. We are less than a mile from Clay County, a county that has historically been heavily dependent on coal mining, and have neighbors who have coal jobs. However, while there’s been some surface mining in Jackson County it’s mostly been agrarian. All around our farm you’ll see tobacco fields pop up in the Spring. Hemp offers an alternative and a potential way for small family farms to make extra revenue growing a crop with lots of practical uses including food and fiber.
Meg: Where do you see hemp farming in Kentucky going?
Lora: It’s hard to tell right now as there are still important policies that need to be passed and infrastructure that needs to be built. There’s going to be a real struggle in this state to keep the development of a hemp industry equitable and accessible to the small farmer. Large multinational companies are pumping a lot of money into the hemp industry right now and they don’t always have values aligned with the small Kentucky farmer. What we are most interested in is building up opportunities for family farmers and local producers. One of the things I am most excited about in terms of the future of hemp in Kentucky is the potential for us to join the slow cloth movement and develop artisan Kentucky-grown textiles. I never in my life dreamed I’d be living on a hemp farm. And I never much thought about textiles before. But there is a huge opportunity to build complimentary fibersheds alongside regional foodsheds.
Meg: Tell me about your experience farming and raising small children at the same time. How do you see growing up on a small farm impacting their lives?
Lora: Well, we have just been through our first year of production so maybe I can better answer that in a couple years! It’s hard to manage everything because I also have an off-farm job. I work as a program officer for a foundation that funds in Central Appalachia to support economic development and transition efforts in our region. I have to cover a lot of territory. It’s rewarding but challenging work. Joe also works “off farm” as a social entrepreneur running a startup hemp company, but that’s much more directly tied to our farming operation so the two kind of flow seamlessly together. We are both fortunate in that we are able to work from home. That helps tremendously. I think no matter if you are a stay-at-home parent or work outside the home it can be hard to balance everything.
But we take one day at a time and because we both do work that we care deeply about it’s not like our family and work lives are compartmentalized. I love that my kids get to grow up around communities and people that are doing amazing transformative work. And I love that they get to grow up on a farm and have the fields and the woods as their learning lab. So far both of our kids love nature. They love being outside. And our daughter loves helping. We planted our heirloom cider orchard over the weekend and she was out with a shovel “helping” plant trees. I hope that growing up on the farm will teach our children lessons about hard work and perseverance.
I also hope that growing up surrounded by nature will influence how they see the world and think about the interdependence of life. And I fully expect that at some point- say around 15- they’ll hate it and want to run off to a city! I did that. But I bet they will have a similar experience to what I had. Leaving and experiencing other places was critical to my development and wonderful, but it also helped me distill what was so special about the people and place I come from. That path led me to Big Switch.
Meg: Do you anticipate changes in the practice of farming in Kentucky by the time your children are young adults?
Lora: I hope so! There is tremendous room for growth in local foods in Eastern Kentucky and throughout Central Appalachia. I hope that sustainable agriculture and local foods continue to expand here
and that if they choose our kids will have options to farm here when they get older. We see our land as a gift. We don’t really own it. We’re just tending to it for the next generation.