My name is Gabriel Francisco, and I am from a small town called Paw Paw in Southwestern Michigan. I grew up on a small farm which is now in the process of being handed down to me by my parents. I am a member of the first cohort of the Wendell Berry Farming Program and am enrolled with my team of oxen (North and Star).  My future plans for my farm include transferring it into a draft powered farm, and to pasture raised sheep, goats, and rabbits for direct market sales. 

What experiences brought you to Sterling and the Wendell Berry Farming Program? I grew up on a small sheep farm in Paw Paw, Michigan. Growing up, I was heavily involved with 4-H and won numerous state level awards and represented Michigan in the National 4-H expo in the sheep category. After graduating from high school, I studied theater and circus performance in Lansing, Michigan, then joined a small circus in Florida. After I left the circus, I moved to Montana, where I studied geology and snow science at Montana State University. After a few years of working in Montana, I moved back home to Michigan to take over my parents’ farm. When I returned, what was once a green and vibrant farmstead was instead hurting due to a monoculture of Christmas trees from another farm which leased out the back portion of my family’s land. Vowing to fix and return the land to its once former glory, I decided I needed to not only farm the land, but to farm it restoratively. Seeking out a school that would help teach me these values and skills, instead of the conventional “big ag” school, I found Sterling College and its Draft Animal Coordinator Mr. Rickey Glen Thomas. Once Rick announced he was moving on to Kentucky and the Wendell Berry Farming Program, I applied to join him so that I could continue to study with him. I am beyond fortunate to be here today learning from such a great mentor.

How have you gotten involved with the Wendell Berry Farming Program or Sterling College? How have these experiences benefited you?

Being part of the Wendell Berry Farming Program has been an amazing experience for me. I am fortunate to be here and to learn from this community as we have been welcomed with open arms by so many great farmers, stockmen and stockwomen, business owners, writers, NRCS representatives, and chefs in the area. I will remember and cherish the skills I have gotten to learn alongside my fellow cohort members. From tobacco harvesting in the heat of the late summer, exploring the waterways and forests, and heeling in baby trees to mucking out sheep barns, each experience has been fulfilling and rewarding to do together as a cohort. 

What connections to faculty, fellow students, and neighbors has this program provided?

Besides the opportunity to work and grow my skills of farming and draft animal handling, I would say the best connections that I have been able to gather in Henry County, Kentucky, at the Wendell Berry Farming Program are the connections that I have built with my fellow students. Each student brings a completely different background knowledge of farming to the program, and our class conversations are wonderfully mixed with experiences. I am enamored and enriched everyday with my classmates’ abilities in animal husbandry, cooking, garden and crop management, dairy business, agritourism, pasture grazing, horse(wo)manship, homestead crafts, art, livestock conservancy, and on and on and on. The community of students is a community that I am grateful for in that I will be able to call and be called on for the rest of my life. 

What skills and opportunities has your involvement with Work Program provided?

The Work Program has allowed me to hone my craft in the woodlot working with draft animals, something I hope to be doing for a long time after I complete the program. I have either been a Community Advisor or involved with the draft animal work crews during all of my time with Sterling and the Wendell Berry Farming Program. The ability to work alongside such wonderful people and animals and in a form of the forestry industry that I respect most has been a very rewarding experience for me. 

What does being an agrarian mean to you? Why is an agrarian outlook important? 

Being an agrarian for me means to constantly work to be better for the land, your community, and yourself. I think true agrarians do their best to constantly be putting those thoughts at the forefront of what they are doing, and to never stop learning and expect they know everything already. New skills and abilities in farming are being rediscovered, used, and improved everyday. Agrarians keep an open mind and always ask why. 

What’s next for you?

My next step is to join a fellow classmate and help run a market garden for her family’s farmers market business in Glencoe, Kentucky. After this summer, we will see where life takes me and my team of oxen–either staying on at the farm in Kentucky or off to work on one of the many historical farms around the country teaching about draft animal power, calmly working alongside my oxen from sun-up to sundown. Ahh, what a perfect life that would be.

Filed Under: Blog Wendell Berry Farming Program