On Losing A Farmer

“As Gill says, ‘every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist.’ The small family farm is one of the last places – they are getting rarer every day – where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker – and some farmers still do talk about ‘making the crops’ – is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

On Tuesday evening, Cincinnati’s small farming community lost a good man: Scott Richardson. He was rear-ended by a car on a snowy road. His buggy was decimated. His horse had to be put down. He was air-lifted to a hospital in Dayton, Ohio, and he passed away a few hours later.

Scott was my farmer.
(“Only a farmer,” he would say.)

I’m not going to pretend to be a family-farm slow-food “local only” hero here.

To be honest, trying to keep up with the locavore movement has always exhausted me. BUT. I have tried, in small ways, to support the local food economy and to give my city kids the privilege of fresh, local food when possible.

Our first foray into local food was membership in a nearby urban micro-farm co-op. When I started having kids and it got too hard to volunteer at the co-op, I joined a bougie produce delivery service. That (quickly) got too expensive and I relegated myself to the very pedestrian farmers’ market scene, when I had the time and energy.

We decided on raw milk when my son was aging into drinking cow’s milk.

I found our first dairy farmer, Vernon Yoder, through his weekly presence at a local farmer’s market. A friend and I joined his herdshare together and took turns doing the pickup. But, after a few years, Vernon closed his farm. He’d gone through a mental health struggle and moved with his family to a different Amish community up north.

That’s when I found Scott.

A friend and neighbor across the street was switching to Scott’s herdshare from a different, more modern local diary farm.

Scott was an Old Order Mennonite, a lot like the Amish but not quite. He had been an engineer in the Peace Corps as a young man, met his wife overseas, and they had converted to the Mennonite lifestyle as adults. They were raising their brood of children on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio.

As an Old Order Mennonite, Scott didn’t use technology. And, without a telephone or computer, he was hard to get ahold of. He had no online ordering system, no email address. USPS mail was the most reliable way to contact him, which meant communication moved slowly and lines were sometimes crossed in the process.

What he offered changed throughout the year. There was always milk (both cow and goat milk) and eggs, yogurt, raw milk cheese, sourdough bread, noodles, honey, maple syrup, and seasonal vegetables, Throughout the year, he offered limited butchered meats and sausage, as well as roaster chickens. There was salsa, tomato sauce, and some fermented foods.

Around the first of the month, Scott sent an order form that we were to fill out and send back. And included in the envelope was a bill for our previous month’s order and a letter from Scott.

I’m really going to miss his letters.

Scott’s letters were photocopied from his typed originals. They were winsome and informative. He talked about life on the farm, explained variations in our foods (why the milk changes color throughout the year, for example), and gave us a small window into the Mennonite lifestyle.

He invited us to the farm to learn about our food. He sent us articles about how raw dairy consumption affects wellness. He offered new paradigms for understanding diet and illness.

Having lived life on both sides of simplicity, Scott had a unique window into the frenetic lives of his customers. It gave him a somewhat prophetic voice. His letters were full of observations about values, health, community, and faith. They were a challenge to me and, from what I’ve heard, his other customers as well.

He was never condescending about his decision to take the difficult road of being a simple Mennonite farmer. Instead, he welcomed his customers into its beauty.

I know that my grief upon hearing of his death is mostly selfish–The modern world stole my beautiful Old World farmer from me.

But there is so much more to grieve.

Scott was a husband and father. He was a neighbor and a friend. My small amount of grief for my personal loss is nothing compared to the loss for those near to him. They were robbed of a future of working alongside Scott and learning from his wisdom and insight.

I was only a customer.

But beyond my personal, purely selfish grief at losing my farmer and possibly losing my herdshare, Scott’s death is breaking open a deeper longing in me for the community and connection that old world traditions like family farms and homemade goods and artisan craft provide and my modern, urban life lacks.

Maybe it’s the pandemic.
Maybe it’s my own stubborn introversion.
Maybe it’s just February.
But I feel disconnected from everything.

And now I’m wondering what it would be like to have a deep connection to all of our things and to the people who provide them. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. I should care about the people who grow my food. I should mourn when their livelihoods are threatened.

A quick story about Scott before I wrap this up–

A few years back, we became the hosts of one of Scott’s drop-op locations for his herdshare, which means we parked a few ragged, empty milk coolers out in front of our house once a week for the delivery driver, Jesse, to trade out the new week’s delivery. Then the herdshare members nearest to us picked up their new goods and dropped off empty jars and boxes, etc.

We live in an urban area with significant foot traffic. And, one day, things started disappearing. Over the course of a few weeks, milk and eggs and produce were stolen by, I’m assuming, a passerby.

We notified the other herdshare owners to make sure they picked up their deliveries quickly after the drop-off so it was less likely to disappear. And I sent Scott a letter letting him know that I couldn’t confirm how much was being stolen, but that some of the members may be writing him to say they never received their order.

Well, Scott never made any of us pay for items we didn’t receive.
And, more than that, for a few weeks, he wrote me back saying he would be sending extra eggs and milk every week, labeled with the name “friend,” just in case the thief was hungry and needed the food.

That’s just one example of the man Scott Richardson was.
I wish I’d known him better.

I should mourn for the passing of my farmer because no farmer is “only a farmer.” His family and his community are experiencing a great loss right now and I am desperately wishing I had kept every one of his letters that I’ve received over the years.

*If you feel compelled to support the Richardson family as they grieve Scott’s passing, another herdshare member has set up a GoFundMe account (with permission from Scott’s family) to help. You can find it here.