Annie Woods: The Richest Life
Dark Wood Farm is a woman-owned farm located in Boone County, Kentucky. With help from long time friend and fellow farmer Chris Pyper, they are going into their fifth successful year selling produce to restaurants and individuals, direct and through the Ohio Valley Food Connection. They also have a 45-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that produces vegetables, herbs, and fruits.
It was 6 degrees above zero when we started the 30 minute drive from Cincinnati to Dark Wood Farm. It was 3 degrees by the time we arrived. We knocked on the door of the small cabin set back along the treeline, hoping for a quick reply and shelter from the cold. The door swung open immediately, and we were greeted with the ready smile of Annie Woods, along with the much appreciated sound of soup bubbling on the stove.
On this clear, brittle day, we had traveled to meet a woman known for her ready laugh, principled business sense, and beautiful vegetables. But at first sight, the only question that popped into my mind was, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
Disclaimer: This post contains some strong language.
Did you grow up in a farming family?
No, and my parents laugh now because I hated picking beans when I was growing up. I lived 5 miles from here on the typical 5 acres and a house with a big yard. My parents weren’t farmers, but we did have a backyard garden. I really didn’t like working in the garden. Mom made us help every year – we had to pick beans, string beans, and snap beans. But that’s the extent of my history in agriculture. If you had asked me when I was a teenager if I would grow up to be a farmer… [Laughs.]
You received your undergraduate in biology from the University of Kentucky, went to New York State for your graduate degree in environmental science and forestry, and then you ended up in Seattle. What drew you there?
I had been hearing about the Pacific Northwest – the hiking, the outdoor lifestyle, the environmentally minded [culture]. So, I quit my job and signed up with AmeriCorps to work on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was a volunteer, but they fed and housed us. It was everything I needed. I could work, live, be happy, and I didn’t really need that much money. Everyone was so conscious of where their food came from. Here we are, camping on the trail and instead of using a can of soup, they were sourcing food locally and organically and teaching us how to cook. It was really an eye-opening experience.
Was it in Seattle that you started to think about farming?
Yeah, everywhere I looked I saw how I wanted to live, how I wanted to eat. That’s when I started putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. These systems were producing “good food that’s good for people,” and it was really integrated into the community. It felt genuine, and it was something that made sense for me. I thought, “Why am I messing with all this other stuff? I just need to go work on a farm.”
So where did you go and how did you learn how to be a farmer?
I started working on a farm outside of Seattle – Local Roots Farm, run by a husband and wife team. They grew beautiful vegetables and had a great business model. From them, I learned how to make a business plan, how to have a crop plan and stick to it, and how to know where the money was coming from and where it was going. They taught me how to have a profitable business. I was back to that situation where I wasn’t making much money, but I had everything I needed. I was living on a farm, and I was eating amazing food.
I also worked at Bob Cannard’s farm in California. Bob had been growing vegetables for Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Bob was really focused on training up new farmers. The interns lived in a big farmhouse together, and we ate what was on the farm. So, you would work on the farm [in the morning], and you had lessons with Bob in the afternoon. It was much more like a structured education. He had the best lectures. He is a farm genius.
Bob wanted to live as simply as possible, with as few bills as possible so that any money could go back into the farm. His interest was in the long-term health of the soil. His philosophy was: “We are building the soil for future generations. We are planting trees for the future generations.” He taught us about growing stuff that wouldn’t even be ready before you died. He said, “You’re not just growing for people, but you’re growing for nature, for the future.”
I took those two experiences I had on those farms and brought them together to create my plan.
You’re living in the beautiful Pacific Coast, eating healthy food, and loving life; why move back to Kentucky?
When I was working with Bob, he always said that we needed more farmers. He was very much like Wendell Barry, a Kentucky novelist and farmer, in that way, that “we need people back on the land.” And that was when it all started clicking in. I’m out here living where everyone is thinking about their food, and there was great, good food all around, but when I went home there weren’t many people farming or living like this. I never wanted to go back to Kentucky until I started working on those farms.
Because you wanted to bring those practices back here?
Yes, and I was also thinking, “Where can I be most helpful? Where would this have a bigger impact?”
I would have been just one of many farms out there. But here, it felt like there would be a lot of room to have a farm like this. That was part of it. And for me, no other place is home than right here. These are the forests that I am most familiar with; the land is familiar. I have a lot of family support here. My grandpa just turned 91, and I want to spend time with these people while I can.
Who are your customers?
We started the first year only going to farmer’s markets. It was a good way to meet customers and, as it turned out, a way to meet chefs. That first year we met Shoshannah Hafner, the chef at The Littlefield, and Ryan Santos, the chef at Please, and through them we met a lot of other chefs. In 2017, we dropped out of the farmer’s markets completely, upped the CSA [Community-Supported Agriculture] to 45 people, and focused on restaurant sells.
What is your biggest challenge?
The difficult part for me is that I really can’t afford to buy land here. I lease land, and there is always some tediousness in that. We’ve already had to move once in four years; I might need to move again.
The bigger economy dynamic going on here is that the land is more valuable for development in this county.
Farms are being sold for subdivisions, manufacturing, or an Amazon warehouse. If you look at surveys of young farmers, the number one issue is access to land. There is land out there, but we can’t get it with our dollars unless the system is changed to work in our favor. I think there is a real threat in this country of rural land disappearing to other land uses.
Does that ever lead you to get involved politically?
I don’t know – I feel compelled to participate and drop out all at the same time.
I know people are entering the political game, and I believe in and support that, but I also believe in the power of “Fuck you; I’m not going to participate in your system.” To me, living my life the way I do is an action. In many ways, learning how to farm, and doing it in this way means I don’t have to be a part of an economic system that I think is unfair. Or be a part of a patriarchal system that I think is unfair.
Some people are really good at protesting and lobbying, but that is just not my forte.
Do you think women bring something different to farming?
I do think so, obviously not 100 percent, but the people that I’ve met are interested in farming and in the good it can do. I think that the feminine side of care is reflective of this, and it’s how a lot of organic farming women are going about it. It’s a care perspective, in a way. Trying to be good by mother nature. Trying to produce food that is good for people, rather than being an extractive endeavor, rather than “What can I get from this?”
Do you think farming attracts women because they can create their own work culture?
I think so.
A lot of the people that I’ve met are returning to the land and returning to farming as a way to get out of the patriarchal, capitalist structure that they don’t believe in. They’re not really at the whim of a structure they don’t believe in. With farming you’re not driving to work, not dressing a certain way, making your boss happy, answering to the board, or all of those things. You can just go out and do the work, and you have a lot of time and space to think.
You’re tired and hungry at the end of the day, and you eat good food, read your book, and sleep!
Does farming afford you the life you want?
Yeah, it does. Every year that we’ve done the farm, we’ve actually made money. It’s not a lot, but we’ve never lost money. But I think that if I quit this to do a job that made much more money, I wouldn’t be living the life that I wanted.
By all government standards, I’m living in poverty. But I do not feel in any way impoverished. In many ways, I feel that I am living a much richer life than I would otherwise.
I also am very lucky that I don’t have student debt. I went to public institutions that had affordable tuitions. I know a lot of people who have student debt who can’t get out of their high paying jobs because they can’t afford their loan payments. I think it’s a real shame that people get stuck in that system.
Farming is a 24/7, 365 days a year kind of job. So what do you do for fun when you can get off the farm?
I feel like a lot of it is centered around eating [laughs.] The main things I like are going out to restaurants and hearing live music. And I love going to the Cincinnati Ballet; it’s one of my favorite things to do.
So, you started this small 1 acre farm four years ago and it’s doing well. What are your plans for the future?
Yes, it’s 1 acre and we produce a lot of vegetables on 1 acre. Everyone is always asking, “Don’t you want more land?” I do want to be able to do more. But the more is “How do we get more vegetables to more people?”
Improving what we do so we can get better vegetables off this 1 acre is what I want to do. I would rather have another farm, with another farmer, come in to serve more people rather than me having to get bigger. I would like to have a team of three people at the peak of the season, but I don’t want to be a manager.
I don’t want to watch others farm; I want to farm.
Who are the influential women in your life?
Well, of course my mom, aunts, and grandma. They didn’t influence me to become a farmer, but they’ve always been very supportive. They always wanted to visit and be a part of whatever I was doing. Now that I’m home, they show up to help out, and if mom can’t, my aunt will. Grandma even delivers doughnuts now and then. [Laughs.]
But the woman who had the biggest influence on me with farming is Siri Erickson Brown, the co-owner of Local Roots Farm, where I worked in Seattle. When I first started wondering if I could even start my own farm, she came and spoke at the college where I was working. After hearing her, I thought, “Damn, she’s only two years older than me, and she’s running this farm.” Her talk was the turning point for me. From there I quit my desk job, started working for her, and here I am.
Do you think you made a good decision to come home and start this business?
I just finished my sixth year of farming, my fourth in Kentucky. It’s the longest I’ve ever stuck with one kind of work. I can’t envision what it would be like to go back to work for someone else, in the rat race.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it doesn’t feel like a job. It’s my life. This is the way I’m living my life. This is what I’m doing with my time on earth.