Herdshare & Healthy Soil at Free Hand Farm

Written & Photographed for Fibershed

As far as the eye can see, soft and verdant grasslands roll out like a thick green carpet dotted with healthy, ancient oaks. A trodden path of tall grass leads the way past a few small creeks to the open pasture where the animals graze. In the foothills of the Sierras, just outside the town of Placerville, Melissa and Spencer Tregilgas lease a stunning 95-acre ranch. There they farm full time, with the help of their sprightly daughters Molly (9), Adele (7), and Maxine (4). Together, the family makes up Free Hand Farm.

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Raising sheep for lamb and wool, their flock is comprised of purebred Jacob sheep, which according to Melissa are on the smaller side of sheep and easier to handle. The rest of the flock are cross breeds: Blue-Faced Leicester crossed with Cheviot, and Shropshire/Jacob crosses, also known as mules. They sell their beautiful roving by the ounce and yarn by the skein, which can be purchased at their farm, and at local yarn shops Knits and Knots in South Lake Tahoe, and Rumpelstiltskin in Sacramento.

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Sheep aside, the main part of their farm is dairy cows. “We run a very small scale dairy operation called a herdshare,” explains Melissa. “In a herdshare, everyone co-owns the cows. They pay a boarding fee once a month and receive an allotment of milk each week.” Their cows are jerseys, milking shorthorns, and one guernsey. They are joined in the work by the helping hands of the girls and by one part-time milker. With so much grassland, the animals are kept content by grazing as much as they want.

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Melissa, a Sacramento native, and Spencer, originally from Indiana and Michigan, have been farming together for six and a half years. Both, however, started off with careers in the arts, including painting, sculpture, and modern dance. But once they had children, they decided to shift gears. “It wasn’t super exciting to do [professional] arts with kids because you have to hustle pretty hard in the art world, and it doesn’t involve kid’s stuff,” says Melissa. “We both really like being outside and wanted something they could do with us to some degree, rather than us going away to a day job.”

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To get started in farming, Melissa and Spencer interned on a pastured livestock farm in Maryland. They were planning on staying there on the East Coast but decided to move back to California for the young girls to be closer to the support of their extended family and Melissa’s hometown.  They moved from an interest in beef cattle to dairy cattle, as their passion for raw milk developed and they realized health benefits for their family. “Our girls used to get super bad eczema from dairy products. We tried raw milk and it completely went away,” says Melissa.



Three years ago they found the land they are leasing now, land with a particularly interesting history. Originally, the land was tended by the Nisenan tribe, a people indigenous to the American River watershed. During the Gold Rush, a man named Charles Graner obtained the land, then sold it in 1868 to a group of Samurai fleeing the Boshin War in Japan. They came to start a new Japanese agricultural community, bringing tea and silkworms with mulberry saplings. After a couple of years, they lost their funding from the Japanese overlord, and the bank took the farm. The Veerkamp family bought the land and farmed it from 1870-2010, eventually selling it to American River Conservancy (ARC). Melissa and Spencer lease from the ARC now with the agreement that the land is to be maintained as a working farm. Melissa is excited about soil testing, so they can show the Conservancy how soil health, viewed through carbon content and soil organic matter, can improve over time with proper livestock management.

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Walking the land, you can feel the imprints that many different groups of people have made over the centuries. Melissa points out the one old Japanese tree that still stands near the milking barn. As the sun sets and the girls come rushing in for dinner, it’s clear that many people have been nourished from this life-giving land, and that Melissa and Spencer are carrying on the tradition.

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south africa

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i am the daughter of immigrants .
my greatgrandparents fled from Lithuania during the Bolshevik revolution from persecution for being Jewish
(Lithuania : “Lyti” / the Land of Rain)
leaving with nothing somehow landing in Capetown, South Africa
(“Camissa” / Place of Sweet Waters)
they were taken in and took refuge there
and in the following generation, my grandparents studied medicine. when my grandfather couldn’t afford to continue his education, neighboring farmers and friends pooled money so he could complete medical school. he became a doctor; my grandmother a nurse and they worked intimately with the Zulu tribe
my grandfather befriending the local ‘witch doctor’, learning from his traditional clapping and chanting healing ceremonies, 
integrating medicine of the western mind and indigenous village wisdom
building bridges between black and white, creating alliances in service to the health of the people. 
when apartheid was instated in 1948 my grandparents were banned from their life’s work and the health center was closed down. they were exiled and received death threats for continuing
so with 3 young children (one my mother) and another on the way
they boarded a boat and
landed in north carolina, united states of america
where it was the 1950s and the work in racial justice & health continued
and my grandfather founded the school of Epidemiology at UNC
...
i just recently learned of these stories, these trials of successive generations 
and now i make my way with my family to that place of sweet waters
to meet our foreign family
to let the land speak, uncovering hidden histories living in my dna
to assimilate and desimilate my identities 
to let my ancestors see their home again through my eyes
to behold mama africa,
that grief-stricken jubilant powerful cradle of humankind 
to see what is to be seen
to be in awe
to be an ally
to learn and to remember
roots, culture, history, humility, humanity
to go like water and return like water.

Sacrums, temporal sutures, jaw bones; ankles.

I reflect on how in the last two days I met and laid hands on 6 people from the ages of 10 to 64, from the heights of 3 feet to 6.5 feet tall, with men, women, elders and children. 

It seems that these gifts for restoring our nervous systems and connecting with our bodies in the seas of stillness couldn't come at a better time, for all of us. The winter mists and rains assist our deepening. In the midst of a chaotic cultural landscape we come together to remember. And to b r e a t h e .

I want to say thank you to all who came to meet me in the well of listening, braving their own steady presence, and to those who've yet to come.

diamonds in the dark night

diamonds in the dark night : a wave of prayers emerging and assembling for ancestors, all relations, the new moon, samhaim, the rain, the waters, standing rock, yesterday, tomorrow, today, all of it

flying through my fingers they take their shape, make their form each from humble and beautiful origins— taos navajo churro, bolinas black ram' and my grandmother's handspun wool. I am a steady witness and servant to their meeting

magic

Magic is not anything you have to do.
Or even be.
Magic is an ancient tree
bearing perfect persimmons
hanging from her branches;
leaves turning pink
in the setting sun of autumn.
Magic is the way
this tree has been cultivated
by careful custodians
for hundreds
and hundreds of years.
Magic is how
the origins of this tree
have traveled from deep Asia,
to the Powhatan people of Virginia,
to my mothers garden.
Magic is collecting
eleven pounds of persimmons
Alone
on a Thursday
and the vibrant lovethumps
that travel
from my heart
to this Diospyros kaki
for what she provides me
and all of history
every October
when she fruits into being.

born of rain


it was raining
when i was conceived and it was raining
when i was born.

and it is raining
now.

the waterfall returns to the mountains,
the fresh air returns to my lungs,
the softness
returns to the soil.

in the rain i am home and
in the rain i am found -
i remember myself through her sound.


i am born of rain
and it is raining now.

 

unlikely harvest

if i could play your notes
in black and white keys
what songs would you sing?

if i could weave your most precious jewels
into my cloaks
or affix each one of your pearly teeth
into my smile
how then would i shine?

besides these fantasies
there lies a promise
and that promise is to plant you
over and over
like our teacher taught us to do,
with the hopeful intention of a heart's longing
to see the face of an old friend return again.

for it was under unlikely odds
and through dust that you grew --
an all too-closely planted mixture of two sacred strains and maybe a thousand more emerging
from the tiny corner of a tiny garden
so longing to be beautiful
you came
bewildering me your novice
and from a few gifted seeds now woven
and multiplied into a mosaic
that uplifts my face of joy.

this has been a true teaching, one not found in books or schools or conversations
my first rising with your long dawn time,
my first dance with your speckled seeds,
dark and luminous
my first encounter with a People's culture
so ancient, so loving,
my first taste of harvesting and hearing
and continuing on in the fierce seedsong
stories of food, of beauty, of resilience.

the equinox and the elderberry

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on a familiar road, unknown to you ~ you just listen and you go
and the medicine in your heart
meets the medicine of the season
meets the medicine that greets you and leaps into your hands; 
restoring & re-storying my way about these worlds
swimming through time and leaving offerings and thanks
to my plant relatives I find... 
to the queens
to these trees, 
to these elderberries. 
for seeing me and shoutin to me and giving me their life
to make medicine for our bodies
when the cold winds blow in, 
and the darkening sky draws in, 
and we gather closer together around the fire
for the reciting of our annual autumnal hymns
again.

on being seen

sometimes it startles me to remember
what it feels like to be truly seen.

sometimes the waters break
and tears come, and i am small
on the ground, out of the great
love I have for this world,
for nature, for earth

sometimes its hard to keep going
to feel anything but that --
the overwhelming love and
ferocity of grace, of beauty
that i see, that sees me.

in the seeds, in the creatures
in the winds, under the trees
the waters break, I scream
I bleed, I love.

My heart is made of water
and Water is Life.
"I'm in love with a world that is being destroyed." -Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

How does a tender heart keep beating?
Sometimes I feel so naked, vulnerable, afraid
How do I penetrate these walls,
these fields of solidity
with this deep watery love?

I cant let it harden, I must keep feeling, grieving, believing
that this love has a place,
a firm ground to stand on
a power to grow from
that allows me to give love that is so needed.

We forget until we remember
what its like to be seen
from the seeds, from the creatures
from the winds, from the trees

from a world, that asks nothing of us,
if not to listen
and to speak,
and to stand
in our love for it,
in our care of it,
in the protection
of the tiny creatures
of the giant creatures
of the great, vast, 
intricately beautiful
supremely inexplicable,
ferociously undeniable
web of life.