Essay - Red Horse Ranch

Kyle and I gathered at Red Horse Ranch in February to work on assembling all of the pieces and parts of this idea, This Craft Nation.  I’ve lived at Red Horse Ranch with my wife Ulla, for almost ten years.  It’s a lovely piece of land nestled next to “The Winery,” (Fenn Valley Winery) in Fennville, MI.

It’s a fitting starting point I suppose, as this is the place where my awareness and curiosity towards homesteading and the connected lifestyle really took root. I grew up in the outer reaches of the suburbs of Chicago; near farms, but not on one.  I had farmer grandparents, and some great visits and opportunities to drive a tractor or two, but It was not my standard lifestyle.

We played in fields, rode our makeshift bikes in “the trails,”  a commandeered vacant lot at the bottom of our hill, and had neighborhood-wide kick the can battles, well past dark.  Even though I was in a fairly agricultural community, I never paused to think about how we raised food, or what it took to make things, or grow things.  Like most boys, I had an appetite more focused on finding adventure, playing with my friends, and getting into trouble.

As life brought me into a serious appreciation and study of music, home brewing, cooking and eventually a career in craft beer; my entire perspective widened.  I have been fascinated by learning about what other passionate, talented people have to share.  My world has been widened by listening, being curious and just brave enough to say yes to projects that inspire me, whether I know the hows and whats of them or not.

For a while, I thought I was a Chicagoan for life.  Addicted to the hustle and bustle, I was also proud and invigorated.  In a big city, there’s this competition of sorts, where you have to figure out how to withstand and overcome the challenges of overpopulation and city infrastructure, in order to experience as much of the incredible, enriching and abundant culture as you can.  I enjoyed the game as much as anyone, but in 2000, my beer career called me to Kalamazoo, MI at about the same time I was realizing that the ever-captivating game I was in with Chicago, was fulfilling, was also wearing me out.

In short, we headed for the country and bought a house that came with a horse, a little outside of Kalamazoo.  As the story goes, when I was finishing up the first visit with the realtor, I called Ulla, who asked what kind of horse he was.  “A brown one,” I answered - which sheds a little light on the level of my horse experience at the time.   It was huge shift in environment and I loved being in the open space, where the night sky could fill with stars amongst a chorus of frogs and crickets.  I had no idea how new that would feel, while also filling me with nostalgia for my pre-city childhood of grass-stained jeans, muddy boots and the calm settling of dusk.
Our first horse Sundance taught us a lot, and inspired us to find our second horse, Blackjack.  Both of these horses have since loped to the other side, but not before teaching us their amazing and quiet language.  Learning how to live with horses, including care, handling and leading, as well as learning to ride and the art of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) has been an amazing life fulfilling journey.  It’s also been a great complement to my fast-paced, people-filled whirlwind career.  When I’m with the horses, I feel like work falls away.  My wife established her counseling practice, The Sundance Center, which specializes in partnering with horses to help people.

In 2007, we moved and established Red Horse Ranch in Fennville.  We took our primer horse-farm lessons and put them to work, tackling major renovations of fencing, barns and home.  While overwhelming at times, you can always see the benefit of the work you put into the farm.  Similar to the grounding nature of the horses, I believe the old adage, “In order to clear the mind, you gotta dirty the hands.”

Fennville is a quiet, rural town - but it’s filled with colorful characters who are creating life-paths from their vivid imaginations.  It’s agricultural in many ways, while also filled with artists, independents and creative souls.  We continue to be amazed at the sense of community we have found here.  I’m regularly inspired to learn from someone, try something new or make something better.

It’s through community that I was inspired to dig deeper into seasonal cooking and eating, better understanding the value of paying attention to where our food comes from. We have learned to migrate that parts of homesteading that fit, into our lifestyle.  We have gardened and grown too much.  We’ve figured out how to buy from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and we currently raise chickens for farm fresh eggs, cut, rake and bale hay for our six-horse herd and raise four pigs seasonally.

I’ve learned to be mindful of scale; and realize the differences between our farm and a full-scale farmer.  I do however, try to soak up wisdom from the farmers I’m grateful to know, and I take on our projects to increase the quality and provence of what we eat, but also to learn from the connection, being open to new insights and perspectives.  I hope I can put my experience to work by sharing my passion and inviting people in to try something new, get some mud on their boots and take a deep breath under a star-filled sky.

What does any of this have to do with This Craft Nation?  Well,  Kyle and I also got to work; organizing the trip, recording our first podcast episode in the series and visiting our good friends down the road at Evergreen Lane Farm.  However, this is also my origin story of sorts.  It’s the curiosity that makes me feel at home here, that has also fed my belief that the shift we’re seeing in our world is bigger than a sales trend.  I’ve seen people’s eyes light up and their worlds change, because they saw people canning tomatoes, or they smelled a horse’s nose.  I want to bring light to stories that will help people feel connected again.  

It’s a bit of a discrepancy to leave the farm for a month to talk about the value of connection. But to me there’s a beauty that seems to connect city Fred and country Fred. I love having a wide worldview and even a wide world, hearing stories, learning lessons and being inspired by people from all over the world, and I love coming home, and really feeling home.   I love filling our kitchen with flavors discovered along the way, having stories every bit as delicious and engaging.  It will be hard to be gone, but we have a wonderful team of helpers that make travel possible, and I’m very grateful to Ulla, Jenny, Sheri, Isaac, Rosalie, Carmen, Jeff, Amy and Matt for their help. We’ll be back in the knick of time to to catch up with the abundance of Spring, a gratifying, yet robust collaboration and maybe a little competition with Mother Nature, while we ready ourselves for a great Michigan summer.