When I asked to visit my friend’s farm a short while ago, here was his response:
“Come Sunday. It’s a great time to be here. We’ll make you tasty farm food: bacon, fresh whole wheat bread (we grind the flour), tea with cream from our cows, eggs from our chickens and more.”
While this would have sold me on a Sunday visit, no matter what, this response also happened to come from a fella I’d become friends with over the past coupla years. We’d originally met at a fancy function at the Greenbrier Sporting Club. He happened to be performing as part of The Dueling Fiddlers – a fun and talented rock violin duo that made me fall in love with violins all over again.
Out of all of the fun and interesting friends I have, Adam DeGraff (and his family) has possibly one of the most encouraging and inspiring, real-life stories about following your bliss.
If you’ve been training for a large portion of your life to become a professional violinist, and then “make it” by landing a first chair job in a professional symphony orchestra, yet something about it doesn’t feel like the right “fit,” should you walk away? Adam did.
Adam and Lisa DeGraff were both in different stages of their pursuit of master’s degrees (and both accomplished musicians in their own right) when they moved to Virginia. Adam, having begun performing with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, encouraged Lisa to utilize the eight months she’d have before her master’s career began to follow the creative projects she’d begun to deeply explore. These were mainly fiber arts and growing food. Her projects became passions, and in turn, became more a part of her life than the master’s in Sociology she’d originally believed to be her life’s focus. And because Lisa’s passions were important to her, they also were important to Adam.
While Lisa was the one who “lead the way” for the DeGraff family’s farming and gardening pursuits, both Adam and Lisa fell deeply in love with many aspects of farm living during their research and application. Adam, a self-proclaimed fan of good food; and Lisa, a fan of the handmade, found themselves researching topics such as sustainability, composting, growing food and raising animals. Then they decided to seek a farm of their own.
“In school, we have lots of concepts, but the farm was hands on,” Lisa said.
The DeGraffs come from a “long line of non-farmers,” Adam said. But armed with the help of some wonderfully supportive online (and in-person) sustainable farming communities (as well as the amazing resources of the public library), they felt ready to buy their first farm house in West Virginia in 2002. As a matter of fact, they went to see the farm, and bought it the same day. The home was barely accessible – they had to build their own road and a bridge over a river – and it was simple in design. They had a dairy cow, and the beginnings of their first farm.
“In the country, when something was broke, you fixed it,” Adam said, and that appealed to them both, wanting to get away from the fast-paced, buzzing life of the city.
Their move to the country also pulled Adam away from the orchestra, which he didn’t seem to mind. He instead chose to explore different outlets for his violin, and became part of the touring musical duo, called Pianafiddle (part piano, part fiddle). The DeGraff family grew, with the addition of their daughter Alex, and the simple farm/home they fell in love with was soon to be traded in for a home closer to town, according to Lisa. They began to look for a farm and home in the Lewisburg area, a town which they’d enjoyed visiting on their travels through the area.
As Pianafiddle continued to gain success, and the family grew to four with the birth of their son Andrew, farming temporarily took a backseat, and the DeGraffs took to the road to tour as a family. They loaded up in a tour bus and travelled with Adam while he played 200 shows in nine months.
Life on tour felt like the repeated question of “What can we fill ourselves with?” Lisa said. “What can we buy? What can we get?” With no home base to settle them, she remembers thinking “It doesn’t have to be this.”
“Plus, have you ever tasted the difference between a restaurant or “grocery store tomato” and a home grown tomato? It’s a huge difference. And once you’ve tasted a home grown one – it’s really hard to go back,” Adam said.
Adam began to explore other ways to perform (such as a solo exploration in rock violin). His cover of Sweet Child of Mine led him to opportunities in the rock violin world, and to a new performing duo called The Dueling Fiddlers as well as a band called The Weight. But something in the past few years had been gently tugging at him to simplify.
When asked about the draw of farm life for the DeGraffs, the mention of “finding our place in the cycle” is discussed. In the traditional working world, “we work for money, go to the grocery store, hit the gym, then look for entertainment. With the farm, we have our exercise, our grocery store, our entertainment because our family and our friends come to visit. It, the farm, eliminates the need for a job. Any groceries they currently don’t make on their own, they try to buy from local sources (like sugar and chocolate chips – we had the best cookies while I was there).
And then comes the question of “What do I really want to do, then?” if simplification and home farming calls.
A realization of the thousands of dollars spent on lawn care for their multi-acre lot also helped them note that there were expenses going out that could be eliminated. Instead of using fuel (and money), they could “have a cow do it,” Adam said. They currently have a genius rotational system in place for their pigs, who do a great job at grazing. And in that vein, with these motivations, the direction of sustainability once again, grew strong.
Sustainability and low to zero waste are high priorities for the DeGraffs. “Everything not used goes back into the land in ways such as composting, slop food for the animals and construction,” he said.
One of my favorite parts of the farm is a shelter constructed out of repurposed metal, trees and other supplies. They also have a beautiful wood burning cook stove in the center of their home. On the day I visited their farm, there was cozy warmth coming from the stove, filling the whole main living space. As a bonus, the stove top was also used to cook our breakfast, as well as boil down bones for stock. I was humbled by the intelligence of this design that seemed to be executed so effortlessly.
While the goal at some point is to potentially make the DeGraff Family Farm even more sustainable and harmonious, they are aware that sometimes you still need money. In the simplification process, and in addition to maintaining the farm, Lisa has been creating her whimsical and beautiful portrait-esque, resourceful fiber art (tapestries), and Adam has reduced the number of violin performances he does per year. Many of the performances Adam does nowadays are corporate/large event “gigs,” that allow him to have more time with his family (by not touring, and having a few larger budget events he’s committed to, there’s more time able to spent at home, with his family and farm). Adam also teaches local and international violin students by using his home studio/practice room via Skype, “just for fun,” and a call to pay forward the skills he was given by his violin teachers. He laughed, mentioning he’s someone who has traveled the world, and now butchers a pig for his family, then hops a plane to perform a half time show in Arizona (or perform for the Governor’s Arts Awards at the W.Va. State Capitol). The dichotomy, and living and working on the farm in general, helps to ground him.
Lisa and Adam also feel farm life is good for their children. Andrew and Alex, interest-based schooled/homeschooled, have chosen the jobs they help with on the farm. Each of them play an important role in deciding how the farm operates, and how they can play a part in the success of the farm itself. They enjoy doing their work because they can see how they’re helping.
An area of special appreciation for the family is the food that is created, together. Cooking and farming (as well as playing music) are ways the family bonds together and entertains each other. The cellar houses racks of aging cheese and cured meats, which are shared readily, and eaten with gratitude. I loved when Lisa cut open a wheel of cheese to share with the family for dinner. Adam smiled and opened his eyes wide, asking if they could eat it – right now. It was like it was Christmas, and the family seemed so purposeful in their meal and the awareness of where their food came from.
The DeGraff family, while not quite yet considering themselves supreme experts in sustainability, say they’ve gone through a learning phase, and are now in a doing phase. They also suggest for those interested in sustainable living to “start small while you’re learning and read enough to get you started. Then, learn what you need to do next.”
One of Lisa’s favorite quotes (from Sandra Dodd) is “Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.”
Upcoming goals for the farm include on-farm, standing hay (they are currently buying their hay), growing their own wheat, learning to shear their sheep (Lisa makes her own yarn for knitting – a passion which also is incorporated into her fiber art) and grafting fruit trees for propagation. Adam says he’s enjoying performing corporate events, as well as teaching his students violin, and the freedom that his new, simplified schedule brings for him and his family. He’s still open to most performances, nowadays. He just enjoys that his priorities now allow him to choose which performances he says “yes” to.
If the idea(s) of farming and sustainable living interest you, there are great online communities that are very helpful in getting you started with your research. Adam’s favorite Facebook groups are Regrarians (for an overall beginner), Salt Cured Pig, Pastured Pigs and Keeping a Family Cow.