Molly Peterson: Heritage Hollow Farms

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

Heritage Hollow Farms, LLC

Editor’s Note: Molly Peterson of Heritage Hollow Farms showed up on our radar screen because of Forrest Pritchard. She shot the iconic cover of his book. We were pleasantly surprised when we learned that not only is she a most excellent photographer, but she and her husband, Mike are grass-fed ranchers in Virginia as well.

We’ve heard of farmer/rancher, farmer/cheese maker, and other farmer slash descriptions, but farmer/photographer is a new combination for us. Tell us what it’s like to be a farmer and a photographer. Talk about the challenges that arise from your pursuit of both passions.

Molly Peterson: I was fortunate to grow up in a rural area so being connected to the land–albeit I never thought I’d ‘be’ a farmer–was nothing new for me, and at an early age I had a camera in my hand. Photography, I was always certain would be a part of my life somehow. Farming wasn’t in my career vocabulary until my husband, Mike, decided to intern at the farm (the same farm we now lease just 5 years later). I grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn & soybeans. I ran barefoot on the lawn, caught tadpoles & snakes with my cousin, swam my pony in our pond, and didn’t care if I was dirty. I had a variety of animals as pets growing up, but I never grew a vegetable, never raised an animal for food: food came from the grocery store and the grass was for the horses and lawnmower.

To be honest, I still pinch myself that my life has evolved in such a way that I can wear both the farmer and photographer hats.

I’m content in a field of pigs or lettuce if I have my camera; I’m still in awe of life surrounding me. I love to connect with the natural world and my camera has always been that key for me. There are certainly times when I wish I had my camera during a moment in the field or can’t have it because I need to focus on our safety or the task at hand; that’s hard for me to miss something I know will be beautiful on film. Luckily, I also carry an iPhone everywhere–I express myself visually so Instagram was a gift from above as far as I’m concerned. 

 The only challenges in juggling both, I think, are self-inflicted–same as most people: “Am I good enough? Do I have enough time?” Fortunately the two often cross paths and being self-employed gives me a lot of freedom. Throughout the day I have to be able to swiftly jump from one request to the next for each business; sometimes I have late night/early morning catch-up sessions in the office and other days I get to tag along with my husband in the field with the animals; I don’t take it for granted that I’m very blessed to be able to do both.

One day a few years ago I was watching Mike move sheep with our border collie in the morning and in the afternoon I was photographing the chef in the White House kitchen; I think the moment I stop being grateful of opportunities like that is the moment I should call it quits. Hopefully that day never comes.

Why get into the food business if you don’t love to feed people?

Describe your farm for us. What is the intention at Heritage Hollow Farms? Talk about how you raise your animals. Describe your commitment to humane and holistic practices at Heritage Hollow.

MP: Heritage Hollow is a grass-based model. We raise beef, pork, and (soon) lamb on about 630 acres spread across two leased farms. On average we have about 350 animals to care for daily. Our intentions at the core of our business model are respect, integrity, transparency, and authenticity of life and nature. There’s always room for improvement and we’re always working toward ways to be better stewards of the land and the animals in our care. Life is given–taken–to give life to others; it is an energetic transfer from one being to the next.

We must absolutely have respect and gratitude for these animals; to not respect the value of life is sad. When you walk amongst them daily you find a much deeper appreciation for Life and the Earth all around. I think people are tired of feeling as though they’re being told a story and I think people are craving connection to real life–like how Oprah ends the column in her magazine, “What I know for sure.” What do people know for sure anymore? Smoke and mirrors and fear-based realities have clouded the beauty in this life–Mike and I want to open that door and to create a space where vulnerability is welcome.

We know you don’t do all this by yourself. Talk about the partnership between you and your husband, Mike. 

MP: No, I don’t! Mike does most of the manual labor; try as I might, I just can’t physically do what he can do. He still amazes me. I love helping, though, and often try to prove to him how capable I am–he humors me anyway and allows me to try when I want. We’re a great team and even after thirteen years together, we still enjoy spending most hours of the day together. We’ve figured out each other’s strengths and weaknesses to utilize the two of us as a married couple running two businesses. Neither of us could do this without the other and most decisions we discuss together.

It’s not just us, though, our family and friends have been there every step of the way; my Mom even moved to Virginia to run our farm store.

Mike was working on the line as an executive sous in Aspen and then as a butcher at Inn on Little Washington. Talk about how and why he made the leap from chef to farm intern and then full-time farming. 

MP: Mike’s intention during his internship on the farm was to go back to the kitchen; he felt an internship would give him a different perspective on food sourcing and would increase his value in the kitchen for those he was cooking for. Once he found the farm, however, it was quickly apparent to both of us that he had found home.

Recently he said, “When I jumped from kitchens to farming, my salary went down significantly. What I wasn’t able to place any type of a monetary value on was how happy I was. Everything seemed to make sense and for the first time in a long while, I was fulfilled and pleasant to be around again. After years of searching, I had finally come back to what truly made me happy. You can’t place a salary figure on that.”

After about a year interning he became the farm manager which rolled into our 5-year lease on the land this past October.

To us it seems you have come up with a brilliant distribution model. Tell us about your partnership with Crossfit Gyms. What’s going on there?

MP: The Crossfit boxes were really a matter of watching social media a couple of years ago and seeing what people were talking about. I kept seeing the words, “paleo, grassfed beef, and crossfit” all in similar conversations; it seemed a natural fit that some of these people in our backyard (DC, Northern Virginia) should get to know us. I reached out to a few people and a few reached out to us. It was a pretty natural progression and melding of minds at that point. We had a great customer who was very involved in Crossfit as a coach buying our meat at wholesale and running her own business dropping the orders in a freezer placed in the box. With that came loyal customers.

As time progressed we were approached to place one in the District Crossfit gym in DC, a stone’s throw from Nationals Stadium. The coaches there were our first strong advocates inside the gym; in fact, I was so touched to see many of them at a sustainable meat conference 2 hours southwest from our farm–nearly 4 hours for them–that was based upon supporting and advocating for small family farms. I felt so honored sitting at the table with them during the conference I was surrounded by loyal customers who believe in what we do and why we do it. This isn’t just about food for them. It is a lifestyle and we’re their farmers; we’re responsible for the food they choose to put in their bodies–that’s not a small load to carry and one that can quickly humble you.

Currently we have freezers in 3 area Crossfits and deliver once a month: they place an order for a set date, we pack and invoice, they pay online, we deliver, and then pick up when convenient.

Talk about your store at the Sperryville Schoolhouse. You sell your farm’s products there, but with a slight twist. Your store also offers products from other small-batch producers. Tell us why you’re doing that. 

MP: Oh, I love our little store. It has evolved on its own since we opened at the end of October 2013, but so far has been such a joy. We carry our meat but also carry other small-batch, artisan products. Each product has been carefully curated by myself, Mike, and my Mom. I’m admittedly a bit of a nerd about local–I absolutely love knowing that my penny, my dollar goes to someone’s dream. Why get into the food business if you don’t love to feed people? All of these small companies we work with do it because they love to feed people, they love to create, and we love to eat!

When someone walks in to our store I want them to feel like they’ve found something unique and I want them to find it just as exciting that most of the products are produced right in Virginia or DC–right our in our backyard.

On top of the products we carry, I also want people to feel welcome. I had some friends out visiting last week and while we were in the store so many friendly faces stopped by (and lots of new ones too) and there were conversations left and right. Lots of laughter, sharing of recipes, and my heart was so full: we’ve created a space where people like to visit and feel comfortable–a community of people who appreciate our food and our love for farming.

Someone recently asked me if our little county store is like that song in Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” What he didn’t know at the time was that that song plays in my head often living where we do, and that was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid–my mom would sing it to me–and I love it. 

You worked with fellow farmer Forrest Pritchard shooting the cover of his first book, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm. There’s some talk about another book on the horizon for you two. Can you tell us about it?

MP: Another book? Who said that? Really?

Yes, it is true. I’m typing this from California, actually, as we just finished our first day of shooting at an organic citrus farm. We’ll be traveling to 16 more farms across the country over the next few months, working it in between farmers markets for him–and wedding and other editorial shoots (and farming) for me.

I’m so excited about this project more so after our day today. This book will have beautiful stories; I’m still on cloud nine after meeting the family we interviewed today. It will highlight the essence of the faces behind our food; farmers, at least the ones I know, are such genuine people. You don’t do it if you don’t love it, and my goal with this book is for you to fall in love with each and every one of them–for you to feel as though you were standing there speaking to them as we have.

My hope is for you to want to support agriculture as a viable option for the younger generations because it is a beautiful, beautiful thing to be handed a freshly-picked Oro Blanco Grapefruit–fragrant and divine–from the man who planted the tree and nurtured the life that blossomed from it as I did today. The title of the book is still in the works, but I can tell you it will be absolutely beautiful, heartwarming, and available in June of 2015 from Lyons Press.

You’re located in the Shenandoah Valley, which immediately makes us think of Joel Salatin. Is he, by any chance, an influence on Heritage Hollow Farms? Give us your take on Joel.

MP: Joel Salatin definitely played a large role for us, and while I’ve met Joel on numerous occasions I’d bet he doesn’t realize just how much. Living just outside of Aspen nearly 7 years ago Mike read Omnivore’s Dilemma–my friend calls it the gateway drug to (sustainable) food–and that got his wheels turning. Eating locally wasn’t anything I had any interest in simply due to lack of awareness, but yet he started mixing chicken feed for our small flock of laying hens ‘like that Joel guy in Virginia’.

I didn’t know who ‘that Joel guy’ was and really could have cared less. As life would have it we moved to Virginia about a year later, and as life would further have it we were invited for a private tour of ‘that Joel guy’s’ farm. Within that year, Mike left the kitchen and I continued working for a regional food publication as a photographer.

I never ever thought our life would be so abundantly surrounded by (really good and local) food.

I never had interest in photographing food or raising cattle and pigs, but we kept following where life was clearly leading us and, well, so far it hasn’t let us down. 

Any last words? What have I not been clever enough ask you?

MP: I think, surprisingly, I’m out of words!

Well, thank you Molly for such heartfelt answers all the way from California.

MP: I enjoyed it. Your questions really made me think. Thank you.

Photo credit: Molly Peterson