Marley is pushing at my heels, trying to herd me like one of her sheep. I’m in her pasture, after all. The sun bathes the whole place in a warm and buttery late-September light, and as the farm dogs romp through the pasture, distractions waltz away on the breeze. They drift along with the concerned murmurings of the chickens and the slow and steady sound of Nelle the Jersey cow grazing under the shade of a stoic old oak. It all strikes a familiar chord, one reminiscent of the carefree wholeness of childhood, and it becomes clear why the Murphy family started Dreamfarm — for this, the richness of a simpler life.
It’s a pull strong enough to bring sisters Rosalyn, 24, and Alicia, 27, back to the farm after living in foreign countries and major metropolitan cities. For the sisters, Marley’s good-natured herding efforts were far more appealing than society’s often merciless nipping at the heels of young people, pushing them to perform more, earn more. A return to the land and a less complex existence is a move they hope more and more young people will begin to make. In doing so themselves, the sisters have joined the ranks of a new generation of farmers — young people working the land on smaller, organic farms to meet the ever-growing demand for locally-sourced, pure and fresh food.
A Wednesday morning at the small, organic-certified Murphy farm finds Rosalyn, Alicia and their mom Diana, 56, in the cheeserie — a facility dedicated to the production and packaging of the various goat and cow cheeses the farm sells locally. The interior is white and sterile, and windows along the back wall let in the late fall light, which bounces off the various stainless steel bowls, utensils and molds, brightening the space even more. An iPod plays music quietly in the corner, and there’s a French press full of warm coffee and a saucer of full cream from Nelle to accompany it. It’s cheery and comfortable despite the sterility, and conversation and laughter amongst the Murphy women floats around with the light.
The ease with which the Murphys work shouldn’t come as a surprise. The family has been at this for a number of years, working together and building what is now Dreamfarm — an organic and sustainable farm with products sold in the Madison area. What started as a hobby farm is now a functioning business, which pumps out artisan cheeses for their customer base.
As she scrubs cheese molds, Diana explains that her goal when she first started was just to be home with her kids, but at the same time be able to help support the family and have a small career for herself. She quickly realized that to keep the farm alive she would need to turn it into a money-maker, and by that time, her children were a little older, other responsibilities had quieted and the transition from hobby farm to for-profit business ensued. This transition, though integral to the farm’s success, wasn’t an easy one for anyone in the Murphy clan.
“There were times when I felt like I didn’t give the kids what they needed from me as a mother,” Diana says. “And they were older when we started this … but there were days when I felt I wasn’t being a full mother or a full wife. I think it’s hard as a woman to be a farmer, [be]cause when it’s the man, they can do their thing, then come in and sit down and the wife makes the meal, and all is good. But for me it’s running the farm and the business and trying to be a wife and a mother at the same time, so you get stretched pretty thin.”
For the Murphy family’s four daughters, the business required a lot of help around the farm — not an optional activity, but one that both Rosalyn and Alicia say has played an essential role in molding their lives to this day.
“It was tough, I think,” Alicia says. “When I was in high school and middle school, it was definitely something I wasn’t really interested in. It was just my chore that I had to do and I never did it begrudgingly … but it was just there, I had to do it.”
“We always had a hobby farm, but when we started actually farming as a business, our lives changed a lot,” Rosalyn says. “I mean, we had a lot less time to spend together, we don’t really go on vacation anymore. So in that sense, like actually getting our family together for family time was pretty difficult, but my parents were always very big about having dinner together and spending time together.”
Yet here the sisters stand in the Dreamfarm cheeserie, with learned hands and laughter on their lips, crafting and packaging the custom product they’ve worked so hard to create. They chose this life and this job over others, but why?
Despite its demand for precious time and a work ethic that doesn’t quit, the sisters both express a deep gratitude for the rich blessings their upbringing has reaped to this point in their lives.
“I had a lot of things most people don’t have access to, like fresh food and relationships with farmers and an understanding of where your food comes from,” Rosalyn says.
Their life is one lived “less with money and more with relationships” — something Rosalyn doesn’t think a lot of people could say.
Working with the cheese she’s made from Nelle’s milk, Alicia talks about what she’s gained from a childhood spent on the farm — sentiments that exude appreciation above all. Along with a work ethic that shines bright and has been noticed by many employers, Alicia talks about the sweetness of the pure childhood Dreamfarm provided her.
“I think growing up on a farm … you appreciate the simple things in life. I couldn’t always just go out and do and have whatever I wanted, so you know, playing make-up games with my sisters and stuff, that was the beauty of our life, you know?” she says.
The family takes a break from their Wednesday cheese-packing routine to sample a product that will eventually find its way to Willy Street Co-op. Whether they realize it or not, the women mirror one another in the taste test process — a sniff, a small bite, a moment of silent chewing and, finally, a nod of approval that seems to say, “this will do.” Maybe it’s the years of living and working together showing its face.
A bond amongst family is another benefit Alicia says came from their lives on the farm, and one that’s apparent as the sisters work their stall at the Westside Community Market one Saturday morning.
Smiling as they work, the Murphy sisters trade friendly banter and their conversation is sprinkled with laughter. Laughter abounds with this family — maybe it’s a good way to break up the hard work.
Bundled to perfection, the girls are a bright spot at the market as they chat with customers and share a laugh in the lulls. The plastic hen that signals the status of their free-range egg supply is under the table — they’ve sold out by 10 a.m. A spread of goat cheese remains, as well as Alicia’s cheese from Nelle and some yarn the family had spun from their sheep’s wool.
As public opinion about the kind of food we put in our bodies has shifted from the glory days of TV dinners and quick, pre-packaged meals to the more recent push for local, organic food, the need for farmers growing this wholesome, slow food has grown as well. Every neighborhood seems to have its own farmers market, stocked by smaller-scale local farmers selling their goods, just like the Murphys. People care more, but for farmers trying to get into the business of meeting the growing demand for local food, things aren’t as easy as they seem.
“I think that this kind of small farm revolution that’s happening, even though it’s happening very slowly, is a really great thing for our country,” Rosalyn says. “But we need to be supporting other younger farmers who want to do this, because the problem is that it’s really difficult to obtain land, and it’s really difficult to pay off your loans if you want to be a farmer.”
The market is dotted with young, hip vendors — some tattooed, some pierced — it’s a new class of farmer that these sisters belong to, and one they hope will become more and more prevalent in the U.S. agriculture scene.
This generation of farmers wants to produce for their community, to know the people who are buying their food and to produce food that is meant to stay local, not be shipped across the country, says Alicia. For her, this kind of farming is demanding and laborous but rings in a profit that goes deeper than money.
“It is hard work, but like I said, it’s very fulfilling, and when you can take whatever you’ve produced and hand it off to somebody and they’re so thankful for it, it makes it worth it at the end of the day,” Alicia says. “I would like to think that young people will start to see that.”
The sisters are passionate and knowledgeable about their work, and both express interest in finding long-term careers in the agriculture field. For Rosalyn, starting a farm is on her radar, but financing and choosing a direction and niche to pursue are some major points she’ll need to work through first, she says. She studied plant-based organic agriculture, specifically food systems, at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and would like to continue in the plant realm. For the future, she talks about hopes to study under a master-forager, where she would learn what wild plants can be harvested and used as food and for natural healing and medicine.
Alicia will take the test to get her cheesemaker’s license soon, and while her future may or may not be with Dreamfarm when her parents decide to hand it off, this lifestyle is deeply-rooted and one she can’t live without, she says.
“I think when I was growing up I wanted to travel and speak German and see the world, see different cultures, I guess,” Alicia says. “But as I went away and I traveled and I saw things, I think I realized that farming is in my blood, there’s something about it. It’s not easy, but it’s fulfilling. And so today I think I see the value in that, and I wanna farm in some capacity … I would like to work in the capacity of farming with animals and taking their milk right from that farm and producing the cheese on the farm. I think knowing where your milk comes from and producing your product from them is a very important aspect of farming.”
Because of what the sisters call the “small farm revolution” happening in the U.S. today, moving back to the land actually provides a viable economic future. The driving factor in the sisters’ decision to pursue a life on the farm, however, lies far deeper than just a general interest in animals or plants or making food. It’s the magic of living simply, they say.
For Alicia, the value of simplicity came to her after living a paycheck-to-paycheck life in New York City for awhile. She was walking dogs for a living, and said while the city taught her a lot of lessons about herself and about the world, it also was a clear reminder of her identity as “a Midwest girl,” and she decided to come back.
“That season I really, I think that just put a lot of things together for me,” Alicia says. “I realized the simplicity in the farming life. It was fulfilling. I was tired at the end of the day, but I laid down in my bed and I was satisfied with life. So yeah, I think that’s why I came back. I think I needed to figure out what I didn’t want in order to figure out what I wanted.”
For Rosalyn, it’s a matter bigger than just fulfillment. It’s about how we as humans are meant to live.
“I mean, you’re not really supposed to live the fast-track, like living in the city,” Rosalyn says. “Where it’s like the grind, the daily grind of where everything you want to do requires money, and you have to work all the time … I always think about that when I lived in the city. Like I don’t want to be in my house anymore, but I don’t want to spend any money, where am I supposed to go? And I think it’s really the simplicity of this life — and that’s kind of a weird term for it because it’s not really a simple life — but at the end of the day it is a simple life.”
It’s things like being able to run outside barefoot or just hang out with the dogs that define the joys of this lifestyle, Rosalyn says. And despite the sometimes back-breaking work, “It’s a very peace of mind, peace of heart kind of place to be and it’s a really settling place to be. So I think that’s why a lot of people are returning to the land. You know, it’s like there was a big push to move into cities after our parents all grew up on farms and had this really hard life, but you realize that we’re humans, that’s where we’re supposed to be. We’re not meant to live like rats in a city. Like all together like that,” Rosalyn says.
When the time for evening chores comes and the family makes the rounds to feed each animal and gather what they have to offer, Rosalyn’s words come to fruition. It’s a lot of hauling and gathering and lifting and dirt — but for as much work as the Murphys put in, the farm gives back tenfold in the value of the simple and beautiful life it allows them to lead. Maybe this is the reason the Murphy sisters returned, the reason many young people like them are returning — to live not as rats in a city but rather with fresh air in their lungs, filled with the rich satisfaction of having produced something that brings others joy and health, and knits a community together.
As chores are winding down, the sun’s gold and fading light frames Nelle and Juniper, her calf, in the doorway of the barn. They’ve come sauntering in with the expectation of finding dinner, and they’re not disappointed. As they eat the barn is filled with their munching, the whirring of the goats’ milking machines, the clucks of a stray chicken and the faintest thread of an NPR broadcast making its way from the milking room. Everything in that moment feels as it should — it’s the physical rhythm of give and take, the process that makes this farm tick. I glance down and Marley is at my feet again, waiting for Alicia to finish her chores. In a little while the sun will slip behind the hills and all of Dreamfarm will be at rest, a well-earned reward for a hard day’s work.