“Sick animals make sick food, and unhealthy animals make unhealthy food.”
That simple quote from Jessie Straight sums up everything he believes in and focuses on as a farmer, businessman and conservationist in Warrenton, Virginia.
Straight lives and works on an 82-acre farm called Whiffletree Farm about 60 miles south and west of one of the county’s most aggressive urban sprawls, known locally as NOVA, or Northern Virginia, in the shadow of the ever-expanding metropolis of Washington, D.C. You’d never guess it as you stroll across his farm where the animals, his workers and his family all seem happy as they go about their days living and working at Whiffletree.
It’s no accident, but the path Straight used to find his career where his hands stayed in soil wasn’t a direct one. You see, Straight didn’t plan to be a farmer when he was studying religion and pre-med at the University of Virginia (UVA). Like many young men and women his age at the time, he really didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do so he poked around a few jobs and places he felt drawn to including working for Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville, Va., home to UVA’s main campus. Despite graduating in 2005, Straight knew his education was far from over.
“I learned a lot working at Habitat,” said Straight. “I learned I enjoyed being outside working with my hands more than doing office work.” Straight was also introduced to legendary Southern writer, Wendell Berry, first by his book, “A World Lost,” and then more of his writing and his philosophies about agriculture. Berry’s influence on Straight was profound; especially his beliefs about the American family, which National Endowment for the Humanities writer David Skinner said “…arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment.”
Straight started farming in 2009 with pastured broiler chickens and turkeys, and within two years he added free-foraging pork, grass-finished beef, and pastured laying hens. Straight’s farming methods are simple and nutritionally based. “Land, animals, water, community, farmer – our model benefits all parties involved,” said Straight. “Intensive rotational grazing creates the best environment for our animals, improves the fertility of the land, and results in the most nutritious meat and eggs for our customers,” said Straight via his website, http://www.whiffletreefarmva.com. “Our beef cattle are 100 percent grass fed. We give our turkeys, broiler chickens, pigs, and laying hens feed without any genetically modified ingredients.”
Straight isn’t quite like most farmers in Fauquier County, where farming is the county’s top business. Straight believes the best kind of farming mimics what nature does and he has built his farm to duplicate that by enabling the animals he raises to live as closely to the way they normally would in the wild, which he says gives the animals a better sense of well-being and results in a much better product and relationship between the farmer and nature. “If you’re putting animals which would have died if they weren’t propped up on antibiotics, that can’t be the best model.” Straight said he takes great pride in seeing the land improve from the work he does and the cooperation he has between his farming, the animals, which live with him and the land. Straight is a firm believer in supporting local farms not just for his own profitability but also because of what it means to the sustainability of the natural resources around him. Straight thinks buying from local sustainable farms is the best thing for all parties involved. He’s pro-organic, for sure, and while his methods and beliefs are far different than his neighbors, he projects more of a live and let live attitude instead of bashing his fellow farmers. “I don’t think there’s some sort of conspiracy to explain why most farmers farm they way they do,’ said Straight. “I think it’s just slow development from what they’re taught – it’s cultural.”
Straight credits Joel Salatin for helping him bridge the gap between being a farmer who practiced his pro-organic methods and being a self-sustaining, profitable farmer. “He taught me how to do it, and that it wasn’t irresponsible to try,” said Straight. “He was a game changer.” Straight said Salatin’s teachings are widespread and available to anyone who is willing to try them. To familiarize yourself with how Salatin thinks, here are his guiding principles about his farm, Polyface Farm, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia”
TRANSPARENCY: Anyone is welcome to visit the farm anytime. No trade secrets, no locked doors, every corner is camera-accessible.
GRASS-BASED: Pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new “salad bars,” offer landscape healing and nutritional superiority.
INDIVIDUALITY: Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.
COMMUNITY: We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home, in our foodshed, our own bioregion. This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.
NATURE’S TEMPLATE: Mimicking natural patterns on a commercial domestic scale insures moral and ethical boundaries to human cleverness. Cows are herbivores, not omnivores; that is why we’ve never fed them dead cows like the United States Department of Agriculture encouraged (the alleged cause of mad cows).
EARTHWORMS: We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food.
Straight said he has talked to customers who are open to what he does at Whiffletree, but he admits he comes across some who disagree with what he does. The same holds true for farmers. At the end of the day however, Straight asks himself if he wants to be the kind of person who contributes to doing things right and helping local communities become healthier and more sustainable, or does he want to help contribute to more industrial forms of agriculture which can hurt the land, the animals, the farmer and its people. “It’s important that just the land or just the animals aren’t carrying the burden, and that we benefit all parties involved,” said Straight.”
*** A version of this story was published in 2014 in New Pioneer Magazine