Story by Caroline Spurgin, photography by Alycia Lang.
Full Belly is a farm of divine splendor. As the name suggests, it is a wholesome place, pregnant with happiness, abundance and good health. Walking down the long rows of bright produce bursting from well cultivated soil, the iniquity of our world seems to dissipate and is replaced with a feeling of general goodness.
We explore Full Belly’s 400 certified organic acres with Dru Rivers, who founded the farm with her husband, Paul. We are there to investigate the farm’s flock of eighty sheep, however, they are so integrated into the ecosystem of this farm that it is impossible to illustrate these animals in a vacuum. That being said, it would be equally impossible to explain the farm without shedding some light on it’s creators—Dru and Paul Rivers.
Dru and Paul can only be described as radiant. They live on the farm with their four kids, all of whom have moved back to the farm after graduating from university. “It is so incredibly dreamlike that they would all choose to be here!” Dru (above, left) laughs through a luminous smile. Their daughter Hannah (above, right) has recently begun a project creating floral arrangements from Full Belly’s eight acres of home-grown flowers.
Another daughter, Hallie, studied agriculture and education and ran the farm’s education program—comprised of field trips all spring and camp all summer—until she recently had her first baby. Their son Amon and his wife Jenna are now partners in the management of the farm and are on the brink of finishing their beautiful new home on the property, which includes one floor of event space. Rye went to culinary school and is now a chef at the farm, preparing farm dinners and catering weddings and other events.
Dru acknowledges a central theme in the farm’s pull for her family: “It’s hard work,” she says, “but the physical beauty of the farm and the satisfaction of working for something we believe in is enough to keep us all inspired and happy.” She reflects on the questions I pose with the demeanor of someone who is simply stupefied by their own good fortune—a grateful and wonder-full attitude that may or may not be a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.
And it’s easy to sympathize with the Rivers clan. Here, vast swaths of land are organized into chocolate-hued rows by vintage farm equipment, pieced together by Paul and manned by the farm’s dedicated staff. Many of these rows are currently planted with spring crops like cabbage, lettuce, beets and spinach. “We’re always planting something,” Dru laughs. Others are planted with cover crops like oats and vetch, which feed the soil in preparation for summer crop plantings—tomatoes, peppers and melons, etc.
Between the cover crops and the true crops to come stands the thing we came for—Full Belly’s flock. These transition periods are the sheep’s time to shine; they go into mature rows of cover crops and when they leave a few days later, all that’s left is some grassy stubble and little piles of lovely, organic manure. The sheep here spend 80% of their time on cover crops or spent crop rows, and the rest on organic pasture.
Once the sheep evacuate a row, what’s left of the cover crop and the recently deposited manure, plus a layer of compost, are tilled into the soil. The plant matter decays over a period of several days, adding organic matter back to the soil. The alternative to this two-part, mowing/tilling process is to simply till in all the plant matter and let it decompose there in the soil. This is a common practice and is a very effective way of adding nutrients to soil; however, it takes soil much longer to digest all that material than it does sheep—approximately 2 weeks longer.
The sheep are also very useful for weed control, says Dru, which is particularly handy considering that every inch of the 400-acre farm is certified organic. The soil, the flowers, the fruit, the nuts, even the weeds, are completely chemical-free. Even the animals are certified organic, and Full Belly’s wool is processed at a certified organic spinnery—Green Mountain Spinnery, where even the oil on the machines is certified! Their yarn is some of the only certified organic yarn produced in the country. Thats right—certified organic yarn. Full Belly sells it on their web site, along with organic roving and natural sheepskins.
Dru’s ovine program is unorthodox. She applies the reigning theory of the farm to her breeding program as well—“keep trying new things, all the time!”—aiming for good meat and good fiber qualities; imprecisely, beautifully, getting to where they need to go. Serendipity seems to be on her side, because this strategy has brought her abundant success in cultivating produce as well as meat and fiber. This spring her 80 ewes gave birth to 30 sets of triplets—an almost unprecedented bounty—and the lambing season isn’t over yet. “The whole month of February was crazy,” she laughs. “It was fun.”
Triplets are often a sign of good health in the mother, and I can hardly imagine a better testament to the quality of these animals’ lives, or of the produce that makes up so much of their diets! If you need more proof of this farm’s awesome glory, come to Full Belly’s annual Hoes Down Festival on October 3rd, 2015. You won’t regret it!
Many thanks to Dru and Paul for hosting us in their little patch of Heaven!