The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with farmer-artist McKenzie Ditter

If you haven’t stopped by WTH since before last Thursday, don’t worry—you are in the right place. Things just got a whole lot prettier. A reminder that if you purchase an ad between now and the end of March, you can get 20% off the regular price with the promo code “REDESIGN.” (Etsy shop owners, you get 25% off—email me your shop link and I’ll email you back your own promo code.)

More special redesign-related posts are coming your way soon, but right now, here’s an interview that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Meet my good friend McKenzie… and her adorable farmy animals.

McKenzie

If you know McKenzie Goetz (and I do!), then chances are you’ve been welcomed to her home countless times and were treated to whatever home-cooked meal was in season. (And it was freaking amazing.) Then, you probably not-so-casually asked if you could go hang out with her eight sheep, 24 chickens, and two aplacas—the latter of whom are aptly named Oliver and Abraham.

McKenzie and her husband Jamie are not your typical 20-somethings. Though they consider themselves new to farming, these homesteaders have dedicated their lives to building a foundation that they hope will allow them to support themselves completely off their land. And it’s been hard work. Car troubles, living without heat, and Jamie’s nearly life-threatening wrist break and subsequent infection have been true tests of their will. But they’ve also had a lot of success to keep them motivated. The satisfaction of self-sufficiency is the greatest reward, and McKenzie’s art and blog (named after Oliver and Abraham) have helped them support their endeavor. Another fun fact—their wedding photos from last June went viral on the Internet and landed on Rock ‘n’ Roll Bride, the Etsy blog, and the Free People blog to name a few.

Now say hello to my wonderful friend, McKenzie!

Maintaining a farm and growing a business on top of a day job must make for a busy schedule. What does your daily routine look like?

My alarm goes off at 6:40am on weekdays, and I’m up by 7. I get dressed, go outside to feed and water the sheep, let the chickens out, and breathe some fresh air. By the time I come back inside I’m much more awake and prepare myself some breakfast. Right now I’m on a plain yogurt-maple syrup-muesli kick, but I switch it up with oatmeal sometimes. For having eggs out the wazoo, I certainly don’t eat them enough… they make me queasy in the morning. Then I’m off to work at 7:45, usually eating said breakfast in the car. I work at a Montessori preschool from 8-1, and when I come home I feed the animals again. When the grass is dormant I leave them in their barnyard and we feed grain and hay. During the rest of the year, we use a portable electric fence that’s powered by solar energy. For those who are curious,  a good deer fence will be 6-10 ft tall. It needs to be that tall cause they can jump so high! You don’t want to be feeding the wild animals right?We mow the pasture that way, and don’t feed hay anymore. We only feed them grain when we move them from one spot to the other, or if we have nursing mamas. Anyway, after feeding (or moving the fence) I come in and take about an hour break to eat lunch and waste time on the interwebz. Then I get down to business. I divide my time between spinning yarn, drawing, filling custom orders for my shop, and blogging. Somewhere in there I clean the house, make food, and tend to the garden. I think the turning point for me was when I decided to treat my time at home as a disciplined “second job.” I’m still guilty of checking my email way too much though. Working on that part…

Why did you decide to become farmers and raise animals?

It was a leap of faith. I’d just graduated from high school, moved out, dropped out of my second semester of college, and my new roommate (now husband) moved in. Once we realized we had the hots for each other, we took one look at our 2.5 acre backyard and decided to grow our own vegetables to “beat the system!” Back then we were on the cusp of the 2008 market crash and things looked pretty grim. Our thought was that if we could provide our own food when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, we’d survive. We still have that idea in the back of our minds, but it’s turned into much more than that. We got alpacas and sheep and chickens and honeybees, we moved several times, we faced hardship that we never imagined possible. But it’s all been worth it because there’s a resurgence of young farmers in America, and we’re proud to be a part of that. Preserving biodiversity and caring for soil is something I never thought about before having a garden. Back when we only had a garden, I watched so many documentaries. The World According to Monsanto and Food Inc. are the most memorable and life altering. So many people are starting to wake up to these issues and are buying local or organic these days. It’s all about community and ethical eating. The future is much more promising than it was just five years ago!

babies!

What are the biggest challenges of being a farmer? Has there been a lot of trial and error as you gain more experience?

Land acquisition is a big issue for young farmers. Pretty much you either get lucky or you rent. Balancing time is also hard. It’s not easy to work at your day job and still have energy for working at home. We both work part time jobs and we struggle to pay the bills. I have faith that this will get easier as we become more firmly rooted, but we’ve had a rough start and I know we’re not alone. We’ve really come to learn a lot about wants vs. needs since making the conscious choice to be farmers, and yes, there has been a lot of trial and error. Thank GOD for the internet, but nothing comes close to befriending real-life farming mentors.

In those tough moments—emotional or physical—do you ever question whether the hard labor is worth it?

Over a year ago, my husband Jamie broke his wrist, had surgery, got an infection, and was on IV antibiotics for months. He’s still not 100% and it’s a challenge seeing him not have the same physical or emotional strength as I know he wants. The workload on the farm became my sole responsibility for a long time. There were moments when we questioned if we should just give up, but imagining a life without our alpacas and sheep was just heart-wrenching. We asked the question, “why us?!” more times than I can count. Yes, we’ve made some stupid choices in life and we’re not perfect, but on a whole we’ve always tried really hard to live with morals. It’s been a tumultuous year in ways I can’t even explain, but we’re at the point now where we would like to think that Karma balances herself out in the end. I guess it’s the only way to feel less distraught about hardship.

Oliver & Abraham

You’re often told that you lead a very “different” or alternative lifestyle—what’s your reaction to that? Is it accurate?

At first, the people who told me that were being very understandably judgmental. My family disapproved and thought it wiser to continue with college. I didn’t want to get caught up in a load of debt though, and I knew my personality was not such that I’d squander away my talent. I’m strong-willed (or stubborn) and farming just felt right. I don’t regret it.

Do people have any other misconceptions about what you do? Why do you think people jump to such conclusions?

Sometimes people think I get way more done than I actually do. But the truth is, I just make choices about what gets done and what doesn’t. Sometimes the laundry goes unfolded until it’s ready to be washed again. Sometimes the dishes sit in the sink for days and my dirty oatmeal bowl gets forgotten in the car for a week. Sometimes my hair goes unwashed. Sometimes I cheat and buy boxed mac & cheese and cheesy poofs. I think people jump to these conclusions because they have insecurities about how they spend their own time. It’s really easy in the blog world to read about someone’s life and assume that they “do it all” and then the self-loathing starts… and then the outwardly reflected judgement. But the vast truth is that we’re all quite imperfect and that’s okay.

Do you hope/plan to always be a farmer? What do you envision for your farm and family in the coming years?

Yes. Jamie wants to start growing edible mushrooms this year and make a good portion of our income that way. I want to expand my shop to sell my handspun yarn, and I also want to start a fiber co-op for our local knitting community. We plan on getting a market booth for the first time this year, and eventually we want to have a couple dairy goats for milk. Someday we want to have a little tribe of children and homeschool them on our farm. It would be nice to own land, but we’re not heart-set on having that happen.

You’ve established your blog in a very distinct niche. How has documenting your life and finding like-minded bloggers inspired and motivated you?

It’s been wonderful feeling connected to other people who are going through the same hardships. I’ve met some amazing friends through my blog, one of whom I talk to on a daily basis now. It’s pretty awesome. I also organized a “Farmy Pen-Pals” group on my blog this year and connected 20 women all over the world. I like the idea of encouraging people to take a relationship off the internet and growing it at a slower, more deliberate pace.

MOAR BABIES

What are some of your favorite books?

What advice would you give to others seeking a more self-sustaining lifestyle?

Take the plunge. Yes, you will make mistakes and probably cry when it gets hard, but you can always go back if it’s not for you. On a lighter note, if you know that you don’t want to be a farmer but would like to grow food, get over the fact that you weren’t taught how growing up. (Neither was I.) Stop saying you don’t have a green thumb. That’s what the internet is for. And manure. You could also do a work-share at a local CSA and get food in return. If you’re still nervous, email me. 🙂

McKenzie's art

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over the past few years of farming?

My friend Meg who blogs at Brooklyn Homesteader recently wrote, “farming is heavy, beautiful and one of the few opportunities man has to witness the absolute truth of existence, which is to say, that we are totally entwined in everything and everything is totally entwined in us. It’s hard to feel alone in the world with that understanding.” That’s it in a nutshell.

Thanks, McKenzie, for your story and your friendship. If you enjoyed McKenzie’s interview, let her know in the comments! And an added bonus: get 25% off all prints, cards, and originals from McKenzie’s Etsy store with the code WTH25, and feel good knowing you are directly supporting her and Jamie’s farm. 

Would you or someone you know be a good fit for The “Lucky” Ones series? Email me at wittycassiehere [at] gmail [dot] com and introduce yourself!

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Comments

  1. I’m so glad you featured McKenzie on your blog! I remember when you wrote about her wedding and I thought she and her husband were so adorable. And the alpacas! I love that they live on a farm and followed their hearts in this. They are quite inspirational. 🙂

  2. Suzanne Supplee says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! My grandparents were farmers, and every year our freezer was filled with beef and pork, courtesy of my grandfather. There were lots of fresh vegetables in the summer, and I loved riding with my granddad on his tractor or pushing bales of hay off the back of his pickup. I’m glad to see this way of life continue, and I wish M&J rich blessings in the years to come.

  3. How timely for you to have posted this – just the other day I was thinking to myself how neat it would be to depend on completely self-sustained sources of food. I think this choice is a fascinating one and it’s one I’d like to learn more about (if nothing else because I so admired the Ingalls family from Little House on the Prairie growing up and how relatively self-sustaining they were!)

    • That really would be wonderful, and it’s definitely something I’d like to grow closer toward achieving. I may never grow a whole lot myself, but it’s really important to know where your food is coming from and to support local farmers like these two, rather than buy those pumped-up, sprayed & tasteless tomatoes most grocery stores sell.

  4. Deborah Peled Markowitz says:

    Love it – keep up the good work, Cassie and McKenzie!

  5. Awesome interview! And thanks for the reminder to start following her blog; I meant to awhile back but then totally forgot.

    I was suuuuuper caught up in local/organic/healthy food for a couple of years back in Minneapolis. Like…obsessed. I starting thinking about all of the various careers I could pursue, I volunteered at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and I completely changed the way I ate. Since moving to LA, land of year-round farmers markets and produce, my zest has faded slightly for no good reason at all…I think it might be mostly because I’m lazy and going to the farmers market and cooking take work and time. Thus why I would probably never make a good farmer. But I love the idea of it, and I come from a family of hardworking farmers, so I’d like to think I appreciate it more than some. I’ve been thinking lately about trying to get more involved in this kind of stuff again, so this post was timely. And McKenzie, I like your words and I like your attitude, girl. Good stuff.

    • That’s so cool that you volunteered at a farmers market! Definitely a good way to get into it… I’d be taking home food constantly. I would definitely think there’d be a ton more options in L.A… you should get back into it! It takes more work, but it’s so rewarding when you know you’ve cooked a good, healthy dinner.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Life As someone who was fascinated by the Little House on the Prairie series growing up and the idea of living off the farm, I really enjoyed reading Cassie’s interview with farmer/artist McKenzie Goetz. […]

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