This piece was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Loading my three children into the car to take the oldest to school in the early morning is usually a pretty somber and quiet routine. However, sometimes my kids have the craziest conversations.
Recently my daughter, who is five, asked, “What are we doing today?” This is a common question for her to ask, as lots of times she runs errands with me or visits friends. On this day, though, we were going to check out Marmilu Farms, a recently established farm in Jackson raising organic animals.
“We are going to a farm to see where food comes from,” I told her.
Without missing a beat she replied, “Food doesn’t come from farms. It comes from Kroger.”
I didn’t speak up and let her and her older brother discuss this for a minute, learning what they think about food from the way they have observed it.
“Food comes from stores—not just Kroger, though,” her brother pointed out. “And the place where you buy it outside with the doughnuts” (the farmers’ market).
My kids don’t understand some of the harsher truths about life that I have always assumed they knew. The cows they pet at their grandparents’ farm are soon the hamburgers we put on the grill there. I grew up a 4-H-er, raised sheep and goats and tons of chickens. I guess I never really thought about it; it was just the way life was.
It was good to talk about these things with my children before taking them to a farm. They need to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that happen with decisions we make about our food.
On a drive that took me just west of the airport, on a typical country back-road sits a barn near that road, and this is where my journey begins. I am meeting with Caleb Curlin—Jackson native, Army Ranger, and farmer (and much more, just to give you an idea). We jump on the back of an ATV, and off into the fields we head.
We don’t go but a hundred yards or so when we come upon a pen full of pigs. On first thought, this is what I expected, but then something becomes very clear. There is no smell. Anyone who has ever been around a pig farm expects a smel when it comes to raising these animals. Asking why the stench was absent, I get a very long and scientific explanation of how to use carbon and rotation of pasture. I won’t go into all that, but it becomes very clear that this farm is different.
As the tour of the farm goes on, I see a sea of sheep and goats in a field, kept in by a very small, moveable fence. Among them are working dogs, herders and protectors of the flock. They are dogs all the same, coming right up to me, asking to be pet and such, but they don’t follow me. They are working. These animals are moved frequently, getting new pasture when needed. No muddy fields or paths where they continually tread. Just grass, peaceful and serene.
Even though I was a farm kid, I have never seen this before. They don’t all come running because we don’t bring them food. These animals have never been fed by their owner; they have eaten grass their whole lives. The rotation of the fields allows animals to simulate things that would happen in nature. In the wild, after a herd of buffalo passes through a plain, other animals come in and “clean up,” if you will. Birds come and find insects revealed in the newly broken soil, and so on it goes.
This is exactly what Caleb is trying to simulate. Cattle or sheep graze, pigs root for a day or two in the woods, and then they are moved. Chickens come through after and devour all that is left over, just like it works in nature. Weather depending, Caleb’s animals aren’t kept in the muddy, dirty barns that you have probably encountered before. Marmilu Farms is independent, all-organic, hormone-free, and any other buzzword you might be looking for concerning raising animals. Most importantly, though, it is real and natural. These animals live as closely to their natural ways as they possibly could in West Tennessee. Caleb cares about what he raises just as much as he cares about what his customers eat.
Marmilu Farms got its start as an idea. While Caleb was deployed in Afghanistan, he discovered the documentary Food, Inc. One of the featured farmers in this film was Joel Salatin, who runs an organic farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Caleb became very interested in this subject and began reading Salatin’s books, following what was happening in the organic farm communities. Upon leaving the army he applied for a training position at the Salatin’s farm, Polyface. He was accepted and trained, sticking around for a while to learn as much as he could of raising livestock and improving soil through pasture feeding.
When the Curlins decided to leave the Shenandoah Valley, Caleb looked around for where to settle down and become a farmer. He didn’t have to look much further than where he had grown up.
“West Tennessee is probably one of the most ideal places to raise livestock in the country due to its temperate zone and above average annual rainfall—an environment where a diverse group of perennial and annual forage species can thrive,” claims Caleb. “Because of this, there is no reason that our region should not be positioned to be one of the national leaders in producing premium pastured, beyond-organic meat products. An added bonus: this is my hometown.”
Caleb has a great passion to improve the area that he is from. He hopes to renew the land that has been stripped of all its life by continuous crop productions and chemicals that have killed off most of the native grasses. He wants to change the food that we eat.
“Good food fosters community. It brings people together. It has the power to literally change lives,” he says. “We have an unhealthy relationship with food. . . . [O]ne of the first things we can do is change what we are eating. We vote three times a day by what we eat.”
So here he is, in Jackson, doing something he is incredibly passionate about. He knew there would be difficulties, one of the biggest obstacles being the pasturelands here. There aren’t a lot of options. As we all know, “Cotton is King,” or at least it used to be. Most of the usable land in the area has been used for a century or more to grow row crops. This region of the country isn’t one that anyone associates with livestock. He knows that in a city where there are more restaurant seats than residents, people are used to convenient and consistent food. There aren’t many farm-to-table options like in some other parts of the country where the organic movements have really taken off. Despite all of this, Caleb is taking on this challenge—for himself, for his family, and for the area in which he grew up.
Fast forward through all the details, and the farm is up and running here in Jackson. Most of the hurdles have been jumped, and there is livestock being produced right here on the outskirts of our city. Unlike some other farming endeavors, this is a process that must be built slowly—not in months but years. However, right now lambs and calves are being born on the farm. The pastureland has been dormant and unused for many years, but now it is working. Meat is starting to be processed, the farm store is beginning to come together, and the Curlins are getting ready to sell meat and eggs at the farmers’ market. They will be set up right next to Rosecreek Farms, who has sold their meat business to Marmilu and are still working closely with them. Perhaps Marmilu’s easiest and most convenient option is their buying club, where you order online for easy pick-up in your neighborhood.
My visit to the farm was a great look at farming for my daughter. She enjoyed seeing the animals—and somewhat in their natural environment, not penned up in a corner of a barn. As my family has been searching out ways to be healthier, I have come to realize that our diet was a huge component of our overall health. I am glad to have searched and found Marmilu Farms. Discovering where our food comes from is what led me to search out organic food. It is something so simple yet so beneficial, and I am going to greatly appreciate the convenience of having a truly local farm from which to get meat and eggs.
Although it seems strange to introduce my children to animals and how they are raised only to realize the harsh reality that they will soon be food, it is a good thing. It is how the human race has lived since our beginning, and it is a phenomenon of the last generation that you can be disconnected from your food supply. The idea of eating something that was shipped from another continent to be your food was not even conceivable until recently. I want my kids to know this, and I needed to be reminded. I encourage you to go see the work that Caleb is doing at his farm. I know he would love to show it off and bring you along on his journey to get back to discovering our food and improving the way we eat in West Tennessee.