How many acres is your farm and what are the interesting geographical features of it?
Plowshares Farm is 79 acres of hills and hollows, what most would consider marginal farmland, but the challenging topography is in large part what makes the land most appealing. Much of the acreage is wooded. Two small streams running through steep wooded hollows bound the farm on either side and flow together at the backside of the property at a lovely spot in the woods we call The Point. Exposed rocky outcrops along the hollows give the creek-walker a dramatic view of the subterranean geology and provide perches from which to view the hollow from above. Our farming is done along the ridge, tucked in amidst the wildness.
What animals/vegetables/fruits do you produce?
We keep a small herd of Jersey cattle for milk and beef, a small flock of Cheviot sheep for lamb, 30-50 Golden Comet layers for eggs and stew birds, and we raise two batches of 100-200 broiler chickens a year. We also raise a wide variety of vegetables and tend a small orchard. The Ernst family eats of this bounty and we sell lamb, eggs, and chicken directly to customers in the region and at the local farmers’ market.
How did your farm come to be?
We were living in Delaware, Bob working as a state park naturalist and Sharon as a nurse, when we decided it was time to fulfill a lifelong dream. We wanted to settle on some land closer to family in the Cincinnati area, so when we found an ad in the back of a Mother Earth News magazine offering properties for sale in Kentucky, we made a trip to back home to investigate. Our original contact didn’t work out, but while we were in the area we stumbled on a realtor who offered to send us listings while we worked out the move from Delaware. In less than a year, we bought the farm which has been our home now for 28 years.
Who does your farm programming serve?
Our programming is run through a non-profit tax-exempt organization, Plowshares Farm Center for Education and Spirituality, which we established to allow us to seek financial support through grants and donations. In addition, we have the benefit of a board of directors who have lent their creativity to our efforts. We offer programming for pre-school children through adults that includes not only educational opportunities, but also inspirational experiences that call junior high through adult audiences to consider their role as human beings in the web of life.
What is the most unique thing you offer to visitors at your farm?
The chance to integrate hands-on engagement in the everyday life of the farm with opportunities to reflect on the sacredness of Earth and the life it supports as well as their role as human beings in the ecological web of life. As part of that experience, they may enjoy hearty farm-to-table meals, close encounters with cows and sheep and chickens, or the magic of the woods on a clear, star-studded night.
Why not just farm, why also host groups?
Farming is such a gift to us we felt the need, really the deep desire, to share that gift with others. Plus we are painfully aware of the growing disconnection most people have today from the realities of our food and the rightness of a life lived in deep communion with Earth and with wildness in all its forms.
What is your teaching philosophy? What is your farming philosophy?
In teaching, we wish to engage people in ways that intrigue and challenge them beyond their everyday routine. We want them to engage all their senses, as well as their minds and their hearts, in ways that will change how they think, how they act, even how they pray, as they consider their role as human beings on Earth and in the ongoing evolution of the universe.
In farming, we try to live out our place in the web of life while honoring the role other beings play in that ecological reality. We recognize the sacredness and the necessity of both life and death. We take our role in that intimate dance very seriously, allowing for life without human interference as much as we can, and approaching death, when called for, with a deep sense of reverence. We live on this land and we farm it with a profound sense of belonging here as equal participants in its life with all other beings who claim this place as their home.
What piece of farm-based education advice would you most want to give yourself 10, 20, 30 years ago?
The same advice I give myself today. It’s OK to live in ambiguity as you try to make something happen that seems beyond the scope of your current time, resources, or abilities. Hold on to the vision and make the path by walking it. Don’t spend time in useless fretting about “getting there.” Just live it out, one doable step at a time, and recognize the value of what you do no matter how small the effort may be. And be flexible. The vision you begin with may not be what takes flesh in the end. Evolution is constant. Plant the seed and let it grow.
When participants in your program look back on their time at your farm, what do you think sticks out them most? What do people remember?
People remember most those things that challenge them or offer them a deeper connection, often things they have rarely or never done. Such things as hand-milking a cow, walking in the woods on a pitch black night, pitching in on a human-scaled effort to accomplish a seemingly impossible task come to mind.
Are there any farming or teaching resources you’d recommend? (e.g., programs, websites, books, etc.).
Wendell Berry’s essays and poetry have been a big influence on our thinking and our farming practices.
What do you think is needed to create a healthier food system for your community?
A growing connection to local foods through personal relationships between farmers and the people who eat the food they produce.
When you’re not hard at work, how do you enjoy your time?
We like to share time, and good food, together as a family.