Cultivating Change – An Afternoon on Whippoorwill Farms
On a dusty drive, tucked back in the reaches of rural Ridgeland, SC, sits a local treasure by the name of Whippoorwill Farms. Most locals already know of it very well from making the rounds at local Farmers’ Markets, but to visit in person is a whole different vibe.
While perusing online recently, I learned about an event simply coined ‘Lunch on the Farm.’ This gathering welcomes visitors to spend an afternoon on the Farm, learn about the happenings there and enjoy a lovingly prepared, farm-to-table meal. I immediately knew this was something I wanted to experience.
I absolutely love being out in nature. Hearing the soothing sounds of the birds and wind whipping through the trees…feeling the sun beam down on my face. It is the closest a human can come to plugging in and recharging.
A Mental Shift
I have followed Whippoorwill Farms for several years now through their Instagram page, back when the farm was somewhat in its infant years. I leapfrogged from a local news article and stumbled across the page inadvertently one day. I was incredibly drawn to the narrative. Marissa Paykos, who owns the Farm along with her husband and professed soulmate James, reminisced about how she had gotten to where she was by transitioning from corporate cube-dweller to small business owner and farmer. She described in detail her long and difficult battle with anxiety and depression and the role it played in her autobiography.
At the time that I read this, back around 2018, I felt genuinely connected to her story. I recall that Marissa elaborated on how she had been working in a job that no longer fulfilled her and was working towards goals that were not her own and unproductive for her well being. She went on about the anxiety of living in a fast society that (from what I gleaned from the text) takes more from us than it gives. She was speaking my language.
Concurrently, I was going through my own struggle. I had been a server at an incredibly busy restaurant for several years pushing 1,000+ covers per night. It was a job that I loved in a place that I adored, but the fast pace, endless hours and constant demands to be “on” most of the time for the endless deluge of customers, left my introverted heart with overwhelming anxiety that eventually left me sinking. I felt stuck and increasingly frustrated.
In my view, there is symmetry in our tales, with the common thread being a nagging feeling of needing a more meaningful purpose and a feeling of being meant for more. Ultimately, it comes down to living on simpler terms.
When I first learned of Whippoorwill Farms and read the aforementioned story, Marissa was contributing to an upcoming event in conjunction with NAMI of the Lowcountry (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to bring awareness to anxiety and depression and to eradicate the stigma around these feelings. There was something tangible in my brain that switched. It felt like a gasp of fresh air to see the dialogue of mental struggles brought to light in such an open and honest manner. Every human faces these struggles in some capacity, so why wouldn’t we talk about it freely? The stigma lives on, but knocking down those barriers is so crucial.
Years later, it finally dawned on me why this story resonated so strongly and stuck with me. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a farmer, though the thought of living far off in the woods is ideal. It is because Marissa was an inspiration. She had actually jumped into what I had always dreamed of doing with both feet, but never had the courage to achieve. She left society’s imposed idea of success behind and followed her own dreams. That takes courage and strength, and I was envious in my bones of living a similar tale. It sparked a flame within my soul that has been flickering for years since.
From the start of my move to the Lowcountry, I have been on a slow journey of finding joy on my own terms and rediscovering my passion for writing. I truly feel that it is my calling, whether anyone reads my words or not. It has always lingered there in the background, tapping on my shoulder, but I just wasn’t ready to use it yet. I am a firm believer that when you have these internal feelings that stir you at night, or while you are waiting in line at the grocery store, or sitting in traffic; this is your intuition awakening. It is your true calling developing in your soul, marinating like a good pot of chili that takes time to develop the right flavors before it’s ready to eat.
I have realized that the dream within me all along, without a shadow of a doubt, was to write this blog once again. To scrap it and start again from scratch. I started it back in 2009 as a culinary blog in Washington, DC. I experienced some decent success, but somewhere along the road, I outgrew it, or it outgrew me. I have always held onto the domain name, but have never been able to pinpoint what it would become if I started it again and when it would happen. It just had to make sense first.
It has since become clear that what intrigues me most is my interest in people. Real, authentic, original people…doing real, authentic, original things, just like Marissa. The Lowcountry is chock full of the sort, igniting super positive change through humble beginnings. I am also fulfilled by the undeniable beauty of the nature and ecology that surrounds us in this region of the country, and the role that it plays in the culture. It is so deeply ingrained in all that we do here and has become a part of my own identity. I think that when I first read about Marissa’s story, in true farmer fashion, it planted a seed deep in the recesses of my brain that finally germinated.
The Farm Tour
I was thrilled to finally see the farm first-hand after hearing and reading so much about it for years. The tour was both educational and rejuvenating. There is something methodical and relaxing about the vibrant rows of vegetables and flowers, perfectly spaced and labeled, one after another. It is a beautiful sight. Getting to see the piglets surrounding the mama sow and playing free in the mud was so special. We got to hear about the good and the bad of it all, as Marissa doesn’t appear to sugar coat anything. She is as real as they come.
I was floored at the amount of labor and detailed strategy that goes into organic farming and shifting livestock to clear the land in an orderly fashion. It left me with an even healthier respect for what Marissa does (and what all truly organic farmers go through) to maintain the integrity of their products, holding the utmost respect for the land and animals that roam the grounds.
As we set out on our hour-long walking tour around the expansive 40-acre fields, we were quickly joined by Ellie, Marissa’s eight year old daughter. She ran across a wide open field to catch up with the group and quietly, yet boldly, announced her presence. She was barefoot and sauntered across the rocky dirt path without an ounce of flinch inflicted by the gravely texture beneath her feet. Her hair was wild from being out and about in the elements and she had this light and breezy confidence about her. It hinted at an innate maturity that generally comes with life experience, something you don’t often see in girls her age.
As her Mom described the dynamics of the farm in detail to her guests, Ellie tasseled with Bolt (her loyal dog and sidekick), stooped down in the dirt to wrangle lizards and danced circles around her Mom with an energy I was envious of and remember well from being that age a long time ago. It brought a smile to my soul to see this level of honest freedom in a child.
It had me thinking about how we all get so caught up in having things and being perceived a certain way to our peers…a sort of keeping up with the Joneses mentality. When we are young, the world is a playground filled with infinite possibilities. To hear her Mom speak, she will tell you that Ellie has birthed piglets and calves. She has harvested eggs from the hens, and even climbed into the chicken coops to retrieve dead birds when required. She fiercely rides her four wheeler and runs the wooded property, catching snakes and all the other creatures that share the land. She appears to have the seasoned wisdom of a person who has seen the start and end of life in full circle and has a healthy understanding of it, while also maintaining the innocence and wonder of a child. It is quite an amazing sight to behold. It leaves you with the feeling that less is so much more in the grand scheme of things. That life holds greater meaning through rich, natural experiences, rather than through material things.
Like a Boss
The apple doesn’t fall far from her Mom’s tree. I don’t mind saying that Marissa is a fearless trailblazer herself.
To better explain what I mean, let me first start by sharing a little info I found while researching a bit about farming, and about women farmers in particular. They are both rare and vitally important . According to a recent BBC article that states the following:
“There’s a huge gender gap in access to land around the world. As many as 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger and poverty if women farmers had the same access to agricultural resources as men,” according to the World Food Programme. However, less than 15% of the world’s landowners are women, which means they are removed from making decisions about which crops to grow and whether to buy or sell land.”
And according to data from the International Labor Organization, the percentage of people worldwide who work in agriculture has dropped from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020.
These industry numbers are sparse and provide evidence that yields an even greater respect for the work that is being done on this farm in terms of labor, entrepreneurship and gender equality. I will be the first to tell you, even after just a limited peek at this world through my afternoon tour, this work is not for the weary or squeamish. While it is no doubt therapeutic, it is also dirty, gritty, hands in the mud, backbreaking work.
Listening to Marissa speak, you get the undeniable sense of how much she is tethered to the land and the process. It is an intertwined part of her. There is a evident respect that she holds for each of the animals on her farm. They have names and she speaks of them as you would your dearest friends, regaling the group with their daily antics and shenanigans about cows playing hide and seek, or which pigs are friendly and which are grumpy. She provides a life for these animals during their time on Earth that is as nature intended. She creates a space that is free from stress and filled with love, while also utilizing the animals to do a good bit of the heavy lifting in turning the land for her. It is a symbiotic give and take that is at the heart of regenerative farming.
Regenerative farming, for those new to it, is based on the practice of reviving natural ecosystems. This operation actively restores soil health, increases water retention and promotes biodiversity to help create a carbon negative environment and almost invisible footprint. I find it to be the most responsible fashion of farming imaginable. Most impressively, it includes shifting livestock through the farm in a calculated fashion, in order to tear down overgrowth and rebuild natural ecosystems in a responsible way. It is all in keeping with nature’s processes and doesn’t involve any heavy machinery. Sounds simple, but it is far from it.
And then there is the business of pouring your heart into your livestock and separating with them when the time comes. She honors the animals in every way possible during their natural life span, but with farming comes inevitable loss and the ability to compartmentalize when that time arrives. Again, easier said than done. It is viewed as a circle of life. I must note that she gives her livestock a much healthier, happier lifestyle than most conventional farm animals ever have the pleasure of experiencing, with plenty of room to move, graze, breathe and be free.
Throughout the tour I had one question repeating itself over and over in my head as she shared her extensive knowledge about natural farming. How in the heck did you learn to do all of this?! Marissa explained that she is originally from a less rural area New Jersey and is upfront in telling you that she did not know much at all about farming. So how did she develop this deep-rooted understanding of the land?
“It was a LOT of trial and error and learning from my mistakes,” she explained. “I am stubborn, really. When I am faced with something that I don’t know how to do, it drives me to figure it out even more,” she continued.
And further, she wants to show that women can do the tough work too. To show that these jobs, which are typically male driven, aren’t off limits. She explains that women are more than capable and it’s important for her to exemplify that to the outside world. She exemplifies this even closer to home too, with her own eight year old daughter Ellie, who is fearless and bold in her own right. Marissa has opened up this limitless environment for her to explore, make her own mistakes and learn her own boundaries, without having them set for her by way of societal norms. It’s quite admirable.
Keeping the Faith
At the close of our tour, we sat down to a beautifully prepared farm-to-table lunch prepared by Beth Donovan, a friend and employee of the farm, who Marissa explains, has been instrumental in the planning and execution of events such as these that open the farm up for the public to visit and enjoy. Beth, also the owner of the meditation-centric Sol Balance in Bluffton, graciously led us in a mindful meditation exercise at the close of our meal to help us all feel more rooted, grounded and present before departing. A Q&A session that was held as we dined gave us all a chance to field our many questions for Marissa about the farm. While explaining why she started this journey, she choked back a teary gaze.
She admitted that the previous week leading up to the luncheon had been one of her more difficult weeks to date on the farm and she was an inch away from posting a ‘For Sale’ sign at the foot of the drive. She went further to explain that it is events like the ‘Lunch on the Farm’ gathering that keep her going. She is a humble, open book and I really like that about her. You can tell that she takes immense joy in seeing the curiosity bubble up as people learn about and appreciate what she is doing there on the farm. It isn’t out of conceit, but appears to be a sense of realization that reminds her she is living her true purpose.
She explained that events such as these are a time when she can put aside the business end of things, like the financial worry and the growing to-do list, and focus on why she started doing this in the first place. She takes pride in bringing integrity to this industry and in sharing the land with like minded souls. And on the other end of the spectrum, she provides her passionate voice as a platform to educate the naysayers.
“Running the farm is not as much about earning as it is about doing,” she explains. If profit was the only goal, she admits she would have quit a long time ago. “The real wealth comes from the change you are making in society,” she went on. “It’s about providing healthy food that is free of pesticides and hormones and making it available to everyone.” That is what drives her when the going gets tough.
The cost alone of feeding her animals organic grains greatly skews her profit margins down to a sliver, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She explains that if they didn’t use organic feed, it would be doing a disservice to everyone’s health and negate the entire reason she started this venture. So, she soldiers on and continues to do the right thing.
This mentality carries over to all areas of the farm. Whippoorwill also runs a small ‘Pay What You Can’ farmstand at the head of the property alongside the road, the brainchild of her kind-hearted daughter Ellie. It is stocked with fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs. The premise is based on an honor system of taking what you need and paying what you are able. Marissa is adamant that fresh, healthy food should be made available to people of all economic backgrounds.
Her passion to provide for the community has not always been easy, as she has battled theft and pillaging from time-to-time, but she is steadfast and determined in her mission to not let the handful of bad eggs deter her from what she has set out to do. In my eyes, it is that sort of gumption and grit that creates real change in the world. To push through the defeat and not let it shove you off your unbeaten path.
Anyone who has read Marissa’s social media pages can also attest that she is a master storyteller and artist of words. Something else that I truly admire, from one writer to another. Hopefully one day she will pen a book that I think we would all like to read. She has a glorious story to tell of failure and triumph, courage and fear. Until then, I will follow along and cheer from the sidelines, as I hope anyone reading this will too.
Show Your Support
Please consider supporting this farm, whether it be through purchasing organic greens, eggs and meats, or by making a donation of any amount out of the goodness of your heart. We should all be encouraging the operation of farms such as Whippoorwill and help to keep them going however we can. They are true gems.
Marissa produces roughly 4,000 meat chickens each season, raises a limited stock of cattle for various cuts of beef, has pork products of all sorts from her 60+ pigs living on the farm, as well as select goat, duck and rabbit provisions. A subscription service is offered, but is currently at capacity. She will put you on a ‘first-come first-served’ waiting list, if requested.
Whippoorwill Farms hosts a number of events open to the public, from luncheons and tours, to volunteer farming, meditation, and art workshops. Visit their website to view events and get signed up! And don’t forget to seek her out at your local Farmers’ Markets in Bluffton and Savannah.
If you are feeling adventurous, Whippoorwill has lodging in their tiny house and a retro camper, as well as RV hookups, if you are interested in a relaxing stay on the farm to spend time in nature. Booking and information for lodging is available through their website.
Let’s not only support her business, but also spread the word about the change that she is forging in the world for healthy, natural food and to combat local food insecurity like a champion.
Please show your support by following their social media pages:
Beth Donovan – Sol Balance: