When you talk to the recent graduates of the Wendell Berry Farming Program, you hear the word “community.” A lot. And when you talk to recent graduate Lizzie Camfield, it’s clear why. 

“These past two years have been a dream,” she says. “The community has been the most amazing part.”

Without the Wendell Berry Farming Program, Lizzie says, it would have taken “years and years” to make the friendships and connections, and to build the networks that she now has, within the Henry County farming community. This is important because Lizzie, along with her fiancé, Chris, have taken over part of Chris’ family’s Campbellsburg, Kentucky, farm. And they plan to stay.

Lizzie, 31, came to the program, as did most members of her cohort, through a circuitous route. A native Kentuckian, she was born in Louisville and raised in Oldham County by parents who worked hard (her mom has a G.E.D. and worked as a corrections officer, her dad works for the water company and earned an associate’s degree well into his career) and supported her desire to further her education.  She studied hard, taking A.P. classes in high school and earning high grades in college, graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Louisville. Her field of interest was “mindfulness, memory and attention.” Her plan was to go to graduate school, earn a Ph.D. and pursue a research career. She assumed she would eventually leave Kentucky.

“Growing up, I loved Kentucky, but I wanted to get away. I didn’t consider it a place I could make a life,” she says. “Especially not farming. We saw our friends farming. We were going to get out.”

But the academic life had its downside for Lizzie. Even with a small cohort of grad students, she found that “everyone was just working on their own thing, trying to get ahead. No one was working to help each other.”

Eventually, she realized, she “just couldn’t do it.” One course she had taken as an undergrad, “Food and the Body Politic,” had really grabbed her. It introduced her to the writings of Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin. The professor who taught the course invited the students to visit her farm; “It was the first time I had seen a working farm up close,” Lizzie says. Taking a break from academia, she moved to Colorado and got a job on a friend’s farm. That move prompted another friend to flag a Facebook post for her, a post for the Wendell Berry Farming Program. 

And now the young woman who had envisioned herself as an academic researcher with a Ph.D. now finds herself “100 percent grounded” in a farming life in Kentucky. As it turned out, the program was “the most important academic experience of my life.”

“I couldn’t have fathomed that education could be like this,” she says. 

Aside from “community,” the word that crops up most often when Lizzie discusses the program is “empowerment.” She credits the teachers with empowering her to grow and learn.

“Leah (Bayens) has been the greatest advisor I’ve ever had,” she says, adding that she’s had some “really good’ advisors in her past academic career. “I’ve never had an advisor who I thought of as a friend, and who really cared about me and my future.” She credits Ed Fredrickson with “being one of my biggest cheerleaders” and helping her professional development. Rick Thomas, she says, is “special” when it comes to “growth and empowerment.”  

“Rick lets us mess up and figure it out the hard way,” she says. “This has been the most empowering two years of my life because of those three people.” 

As did several other students, Lizzie mentioned her participation in a local tobacco harvest as a moment that embodied her feelings for the program. “It was outside of school, none of us had to be there,” she recalls. “But every student just showed up.”  The grower and his wife –– the  wife working with a baby strapped into a carrier –– labored alongside the students and made them a huge dinner. The sense of community and camaraderie Lizzie felt was “enormous.”

When the Wendell Berry Farming Program began, Lizzie and Chris had already moved back to the family farm in Kentucky; they began growing (and, yearly, enlarging) a garden and keeping chickens.  They named it “Pickle Creek Farm” to honor her fiancé’s late brother and his dog, Pickle, and the propensity both dog and owner had for “getting into a pickle.”  

She described the farm in a Sterling blog post: “55 acres of karst land, half forested…The ridge forms an L shape covered in pasture, with wooded flanks and slopes that lead to a creek cutting a valley through the back of the farm.”  

The name “Pickle Creek” is an apt name in other ways, reflecting as it does Lizzie’s interest in fermentation, which has led her to experimenting with sourdough loaves, with sauerkraut, and  with making hot sauce from ingredients she and Chris grow on their land. Developing a business plan for the hot sauce, sold under the Pickle Creek Pepper Co. label, became her capstone project for the Wendell Berry Farming Program, and through the help of faculty she was able to consult with the county extension agent and research the permits and commercial space she needs to continue her business. On the farm, she grows the heirloom peppers organically from seeds ––aji charapita (a pea-sized, round orange pepper known Peru as “the mother of all chilis”), Brazilian starfish and Sugar Rush Peach peppers. She blends them with other vegetables that she grows, and with spring water and Himalayan sea salt. Currently, she is only using direct sales to sell her hot sauce, but she hopes eventually to be able to ship them.

Looking back at her first days at the program, Lizzie says it is “amazing how we all clicked.”  

“We all became instant fast friends,” she said, describing  the time spent hanging out around bonfires, before Covid hit. “We were in a lot of ways very different, but we all had a lot in common.”

Having graduated in what she describes as a “perfect” ceremony – “it was in a fairground arena, with a dirt floor, which seemed so fitting, and so personal and Wendell spoke. I wish we could do it again” – Lizzie is continuing with her farming, experimenting with growing different varieties of peppers and other vegetables. She is keeping her Wendell Berry Farming Program connections through a work-swapping group; fellow former students gathered recently to help one of their number get her cows vaccinated, and helped another plant a garden. “It’s a way of helping us feel like it’s not over,” she says.

And she and Chris keep planning for their life on the farm.

“In the summer, the full trees muffle the sound of the nearby interstate, and in the winter, we have an unparalleled view of the rolling valleys and hills that surround us,” she wrote in the blog post. “The great blue heron often greets us from the creek that runs through the culvert as you come up the steep driveway; a stoic hawk often standing watch from the power lines at the entrance to our gate. The creek that winds through the back valley of the farm is deep in the forest canopy. It’s cool in the summer, lush with wild ramps in the spring, and flanked with wingstem, milkweed, and ironweed all summer-long. The creek bed is littered with limestone fossils from millions of years ago, embedded with countless crinoids and brachiopods. The pastures are alive with butterflies of all colors, fluttering from bloom to bloom. This place has our hearts, and every day I am captivated and impassioned by its beauty.”

Filed Under: Blog Wendell Berry Farming Program

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