What will sustainability look like for future generations? Will local food be a natural part of a community’s infrastructure? Will recycling be the normal thing to do, like throwing garbage away is today? Will consumers be more aware of how their spending habits affect the rest of the world?
We can only hope so, and if it is up to Geoff and Lindsey McPherson of Casey County, the young people of today will definitely view sustainability in a different light tomorrow. On the rolling hills of their farm, Good Life Ranch, they plan to change the world one young person at a time.
Geoff and Lindsey are teachers by trade, well-educated with stable incomes and no agricultural backgrounds. What would prompt them to leave their home in Texas and start a completely new life in rural Kentucky?
Geoff explains their transition like this: “The school we worked at is an international school. We developed, with the principal, a unit for social studies, English, and biology, which was what I taught, about the problems facing the earth due to the rapid increase of our population and the resources it’s going to take to sustain that. The more I learned, the more I decided I would rather try to do something—actually build something that would help educate people—than stay there and just try to change my own life to help. I think I can make more impact this way. We looked at farmland, but in Texas anything with water is millions of dollars. We started looking [further away], and this had the best combination of the land that we needed and the price that we needed. We liked the area and the neighbors.”
The McPhersons have a fully functional and diverse farm. Their land is home to some beautiful grass-fed cattle, pigs, and goats. When I visited, one of their outbuildings was housing a slew of naked neck chicks getting ready to move out to pasture. There were turkeys and meat rabbits and a few garden plots. There is, also, a faint hope of a small aquaponics operation.
There are struggles—pests, predators (in the case of Good Life Ranch, a wicked mink and weasel population), and heaps of marketing woes. (There was much interest in a CSA, but all the potential customers were so far away, in larger cities, that it would have cut too deep into the profit margins and workability of the farm.) There is the contrast, too, of raising food sustainably. Foregoing the cheap labor, chemical inputs, and breeding for rapid growth of conventional ag changes the game. It’s a slower venture, particularly when it comes to things like grass-fed beef. But is it still doable? Geoff believes that it is on a small scale. “I’m not trying to feed the world. I’m just trying to find 10 or 15 or 20 families who want to buy meat from us and supply them. I think we can feed everybody and produce enough beef this way if we are willing to have more small and middle-sized farmers and less huge conglomerations.”
Both Geoff and Lindsey are realists. They recognize that this kind of farming will probably not replace the income from their day jobs. It’s not really their goal anyway. All the animals, the gardening, and the collective farm presence are meant to show others how it can be done. This will be a teaching farm, where students can see that there is an alternative to the practices of major agribusinesses that exploit the land and the labor force.
Geoff reveals their future plans with pride. “Our primary activity will be a poverty simulation. We are building structures that will be representative of how other people live around the world in different environments and different income levels. Right now, we have some kids from a high school from Texas doing an internship out here. This morning, we are working on building a Haitian dwelling.”
The poverty simulation is a pretty unique idea. There are others doing similar things, such as Heifer International in Arkansas, but not with the emphasis on sustainability as the McPhersons envision their own operation. The curriculum, created with their unique teaching backgrounds, will be a strong educational experience.
“Students will come and learn what it’s like to live in a different country. They’ll learn why people in those countries make different decisions than people from more affluent countries, and most importantly, what actions we can take to alleviate some of the poverty and what solutions can have both positive effects on both the economy and the environment.”
The simulation will consist of 12-15 dwellings from countries like China, South Africa, Bosnia, and Maldova. Students will be randomly assigned their countries via a lottery when they arrive, just like the randomness of where we are born. Their stay might find them living in an urban ghetto, or looking out at a rice paddy from a thatched-roof shack. A refugee area will change based on current events.
Students from school and church groups will not just learn how poverty feels. Geoff tells us that they will learn “how the choices we make here in this country can impose poverty in other places of the world and how we can help alleviate that.” Seeing the working farm and a backyard garden that will be built using permaculture principles will be a big part of showing kids what change looks like practically.
Good Life Ranch will be doing trial runs in the Fall of 2012, with hopes of being fully operational for smaller groups by the end of 2013. Long term, the ranch will accommodate about 120 students for each simulation. To keep up with the latest from the McPhersons, visit the Good Life Ranch website and like them on Facebook.
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(Thanks to my awesome teenage nephew Darrell for tagging along on this interview and snapping some photos for me!)