Gabe Francisco came to the Wendell Berry Farming Program with a lot of baggage: clothes, books, computer stuff, a hand-made, hardwood oxen yolk, and a pair of Swiss Brown oxen named North and Star. He also had, under his belt, a childhood spent on a sixth-generation family farm in a southwestern Michigan town with the Andy-of-Mayberry name of Paw Paw, an award-winning record showing sheep at 4-H competitions, and professional experience as Shakespearean actor and a circus performer. In other words, not your average college junior.
But Gabe, now 33, was not much interested in an “average” college experience. When he left his family’s Jehovah Jireh Farm (the name means “God Will Provide,” he explains, and comes from the Old Testament story of Isaac and Abraham), he studied theater arts at Lansing Community College and later joined a professional theater troupe. He picked up circus arts on his own (clowning, fire-breathing, rola bola) and traveled for a time with a small Florida circus company. He eventually found himself at Montana State in Bozeman, studying snow science and geology. He loved the course work, he says, but felt lost on a campus of 16,000-plus students: “I was just a number in the system.” He decided to take a break, return to Paw Paw, and recalibrate his life.
To his dismay, Gabe found that the farm he had loved as a child no longer really existed. His parents, who run a small wool-processing plant on the farm, had decided that buying wool made more sense than raising sheep, and thus sold their flock. They had leased 20 of their 25 acres to a Christmas tree operation, which, Gabe says, scraped off all the topsoil, planted trees and sprayed them heavily with herbicides and pesticides, turning what had been verdant acreage with good soil into what Gabe calls a “barren wasteland.” It was, he says, “desecrated.”
“I decided then that I wanted to learn how to farm right, to farm restoratively,” he says. His research led him to Sterling College, a year before the Wendell Berry Farming Program opened. As a prospective student, he toured the Craftsbury Common, Vermont, campus for a day, serendipitously sitting down to lunch with Rick Thomas, the man in charge of draft animals. Gabe told Rick about the travails of his family’s farm and Rick proceeded to preach the gospel of draft animal power. Gabe was sold –– on draft animals, and on Sterling. He applied to and was accepted, beginning classes in Vermont in the fall of 2018. Early on, in a Foundations of Ecology class, he found himself, with his fellow students, exploring a beaver pond, “and I thought, ‘I love this place, I’m so happy I’m here,’” he says. But then he was hit with a piece of what was, for him, bad news: Rick Thomas announced that he would be leaving the Vermont campus to help start Sterling’s new farming program in Kentucky. “I had spent three years getting my student financing in order,” Gabe says. “I was bummed.” But, he adds, “Rick told me they wanted farmers like me.” He applied to the Wendell Berry Farming Program.
Although Gabe had been happy in Vermont, he describes the switch from a campus of 125 students to one with 12 as “a great trade-off.”
“In Craftsbury I felt like part of a community,” he reflects, “but here it’s like being in a family.” For Gabe, the defining moment of his Wendell Berry Farming Program education was a day spent with his cohort helping a Henry County neighbor harvest tobacco. “It was a day in which everything came together,” he recalls. “All of the students on the ground, in a communal harvest, working on a crop that is important to the place, with a common goal, building community.” It made him think, he said, of Sterling’s historic motto “Working Hands, Working Minds.”
For Gabe, one of the biggest life lessons he is taking with him from his Sterling experience is the importance of neighbors and neighborliness. Back in Michigan, he says, his family were passionately liberal outliers in what seemed to be becoming a more and more conservative town. (His dad was a vocal proponent of Michigan’s medical marijuana legislation; his mom was an art and Home Ec teacher who taught sex-education classes in public schools at a time when those were being censored or banned). Henry County, Kentucky, can be characterized as politically conservative as well, but in working with community members Gabe says he is “learning how to not let that be a defining factor.”
“We all love our farms,” he says. “We can all agree that a tree is beautiful. We can all reach common ground.”
Another treasure he will take from the program is his team of oxen, North and Star, which he purchased in Michigan and brought with him to the Wendell Berry Farming Program. The pair are the main characters in a children’s book, “North and Star’s Journey,” which Gabe co-wrote with two other students, describing the path of two young steers as they become full-fledged oxen.
North and Star will travel with Gabe to his new job as assistant farm director and draft animal coordinator at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a 3000- acre National Historic Landmark with a working farm, historic center, and 2000-acre preserve of natural grasslands. There, he will put to work his new understanding of working with draft horses, garnered through the Wendell Berry Farming Program, along with his experience working with oxen. (Horses, he says, have more speed and are thus more suitable for cultivating fields, “mellow” oxen are best for woodlot management).
His philosophy of farming might be best summed up by an earlier Sterling blog post: “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.”
He hopes someday to take this experience back to Paw Paw, to run the family farm when his folks are ready to retire. That may be a while –– Gabe’s farm education inspired his dad to buy his own team of oxen (from the same breeder as North and Star) and to work with them to reclaim the farm. (The Christmas tree farm contract was allowed to expire). Among his other plans for the family farm is the introduction of draft horses, which his father thinks of as “hay-burners.”
“My folks aren’t ready yet to let go of the farm, and I get that,” says Gabe. But when they are, he plans to be there.