A self-proclaimed guacamole addict, Diana Prichard spends her days deep in the heart of Michigan on a hog farm. As a farm, food and political blogger, she shares her exciting life with a captive audience. We had a chance to talk to her recently.
When you were young your mother told you that you should marry a hog farmer? What made her come to that conclusion?
Yes, an Italian Hog Farmer to be precise. I’m not sure, exactly, but suspect it had something to do with my unique ability to put away a plate of spaghetti that weighed more than I did and my tendency for having champagne tastes on her beer budget. She must’ve been under the impression that hog farmers make a good living. She was wrong, but the benefits are paid in bacon so I keep at it.
Tell us about Olive Hill.
I joke that it’s my quarter life crisis. I was working full time and taking more than full time credits in my pre-med program in college when I decided to be a farmer instead. In hindsight it was probably more of a miniature mental breakdown than a purposeful decision making process, but it’s led me in an amazing direction so I can’t complain. Worn down and feeling lost, I’d gone AWOL from classes for a week.
I was on a trail ride with a good friend in the back forty, the fall breeze ruffling the soy beans beneath our mares’ bellies. As I vented about my schedule my friend planted a seed, suggesting I might be happier doing something else. Shortly before that I’d undergone a battery of tests for what looked like at the time to be ovarian tumors. They turned out to be cysts and nothing serious, but during the process I’d written a bucket list that had included “raise chickens for meat.” My mare’s name was Olive and, as they say, the rest is history.
Since then the farm has gone through several incarnations. We began with those chickens, just for ourselves. The next season we raised more and then more again later in the season, selling first to family and friends and then friends of family and friends of friends. The third season it kind of ballooned into this thing with a mind all its own. It was all wonderful experience, but I’m enjoying the more refined nature of the operation now. These days we have just the pigs, raising heritage breeds and their crosses on paddocks and in dirt and deep-bedded pens. We sell pork locally, direct from the farm, and we’re looking into wholesale opportunities for later this year.
You recently visited Africa with ONE (a grassroots campaign of more than 3 million people committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases). What was the experience like? How did it change the way you view the world?
You know, I went into the experience very much expecting to be changed, but I think I just came back stronger and more rooted in who I already was. I’d like to think that means I had a strong sense of self and perspective before I left. I never felt like those things came easily growing up so it’d be quite a triumph for me at this stage in life. All the same, it was an amazing experience that I will never forget. When I first came back I wrote that I wasn’t so much moved to give as I was moved to do, to take action. That feeling has really stayed with me throughout the journey of re-entry and re-acclimation to our western ways. The people of Ethiopia gave me a tremendous amount of hope for the future and renewed my faith in our ability to make the world a better place.
The programs that are working on the ground in Africa, and Ethiopia specifically, are making tremendous strides and all in ways that empower the people to do for themselves. It’s not all drop shipping food and water like is so often purported. The initiatives they have for educating farmers were, of course, especially interesting to me. Like all of their programs it’s really a full-circle effort, teaching everything from farming techniques to educating families on ways to prepare the new crops they’re growing so as to maximize the nutrition.
Above all, I’d say the people of Ethiopia taught me a lot about resilience and joy; two things on which you simply cannot put a price tag.
You do a lot of work helping farmers connect to their communities with social media. What advice do you have for farmers who are trying to get their message and products online?
Patience and persistence. Bringing up a social media presence is kind of like bring up livestock. They can’t fend for themselves at first. You’d never throw a chick or a calf or a pig out in a field and expect it to survive without a little help. You can’t throw your social media presence out there and hope for the best either. It takes time and you’re not going to net any results until you’ve at least raised it up to market age.
What is a typical day in the life of a woman hog farmer/writer/photographer in the middle of Michigan farm country?
One of the really great things about being a small operation is that we’re not doing the same thing every day. Our chores are still cyclical. Some are static, of course — feeding, watering, bedding, general tending — but things like farrowing, weaning pigs, castrating, and shipping pigs to the processor are all intermittent. I tend to write and shoot in the down times. When we’re busy with those “extras” there is less writing and less photography happening, and when we’re slow with just the everyday tasks I spend a lot of time behind the Macbook and camera.
What advice would you give other women who are taking a similar path?
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I see a lot of new farmers wanting to completely reinvent the wheel just for the sake of reinventing the wheel. It can cause a lot of headaches. You don’t have to agree with everything someone does to get something out of what they do. Pay attention, dig until you find the ‘why’, that’ll tell you something about how to go about change if change is what you desire. And you may just find that once you understand the ‘why’ change isn’t the goal so much as refinement.
How do you see the food movement in the United States? What would you like to see change?
I’m really excited about what I see happening in the food movement right now. There seems to be a greater sense of cooperation emerging, more willingness to listen and learn. These are the conditions under which real innovation comes about and that makes me very hopeful.
As for change, I’d like to see more of our prominent food and ag voices coming from farms. Right now most of our big food and ag names are people who are writing from behind desks in NYC, Berkeley, and so on and so forth. They’re sitting in urban centers, surrounded by concrete with no real life experience in fields and barns. That’s a big problem and aside from my farming aspirations, it’s something I’m really trying to change.
What do you see as the future of Olive Hill?
I’d like to do more wholesale, more farm tours and ag education. I’d love to open an on-farm shop and classroom to facilitate that. We’ll see. Right now we’re just focused on the hogs, turning out the best pork we can and growing smart rather than fast. Quality is important to me. Balancing flavor, production practices, and economics is our first priority in whatever we do.
What people/experiences have inspired you the most?
My Grandpa, who we called Poopsie, hands down. He and my Granny had a whole herd of kids, as was customary of German Catholic farm families of their time, and the family lore is that he ruled with an iron fist. I never saw it and I guess I’m happy about that. It allows me the luxury of seeing him through a smitten child’s eyes forever. He was the main cook in the family long before feminism made engaged fathers a thing. He was a gardener and I remember the smell of his musky cologne and tiny tomato plants filling the back porch of their farm house whenever we went for a visit in the late winter and early spring. He passed away when I was a teenager. I was far too cool to ask him about his gardens and recipes at the time and I regret not having had that chance a bit.
We asked Diana what her favorites were. Here’s what she said:
Favorite Farming Books
I’m one of those really nerdy people who choose to read things like ‘The Nutrient Requirements of Swine’ for fun. I also waste inordinate amounts of time digging through dusty boxes in antique shops hoping to find farm manuals and cookbooks from decades ago. Unfortunately, this makes me absolutely worthless at recommending books that people can 1) find and 2) will find at all entertaining. A few that I’ve enjoyed recently have been ‘Food In History’ by Reay Tannahill; ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton; and ‘The American Way of Eating’ by Tracie MacMillan. Not exactly farming books, but related.
What music are you listening to right now?
Barton Hollow by Barton Hollow.
My friend Karen Walrond of Chookooloonks inspires me on a daily basis.
The folks at Frog’s Leap Farm fulfill my tomato lust.
I visit What Katie Ate regularly just for the photography. Her ability to capture texture in food photography is unrivaled.
Favorite bacon recipe.
Bacon Cabbage Homefries. I love warm, hearty fare. If it can’t be eaten with your fingers I prefer it to be something best suited to a bowl.
Canon or Nikon?
I shoot Canon, but have to be honest. I chose my first Canon simply because of the brand name recognition, I knew it was a good company that would stand behind its products and knew nothing about Nikon. I’ve been pleased with that assumption, but I’m not as rabid about my brand loyalty as many.