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The Modern Day Farmher Series | Jessi Wilbur

Originally published as an ongoing series in The Piedmont Virginian magazine — May/June 2016 issue.

Over the past 10 years, and especially recently, the face of farming has changed dramatically. Recent industry trends indicate a shift towards both organic foods and GMOs, as well as a movement away from age and gender norms. The average male Virginia farmer is now 68 years old and, unfortunately, his grandchildren aren’t necessarily trying to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are more farmers rising up, and not the kind you’d necessarily expect.

Today’s farmers are small families and couples trying to make ends meet, but even more so, trying to leave a better world behind for their children. It’s not just that, though. The new face of farming is no longer only men, but women as well—pioneers leading the way to a new and improved agricultural system.

A woman’s “place” on the farm has changed as our world modernizes. Sometimes there’s only the woman running the farm, without a man involved at all. She is, what we like to call, a modern day “farmher.” We are privileged to know some of these women and we are equally pleased to feature three of the Piedmont’s own in this three-part series.

She awakens every morning at the same time whether it’s below zero or over 90 degrees outside. On a cool, foggy morning such as this, you’ll find her warming her hands with her breath before sitting down to milk the goats in the serenity of the dawning light. The dew from the grass soaks her boots as she treks back into her kitchen with a basketful of bounty—warm eggs from the coop, a few vegetables from the garden, and a pail spilling over with an abundance of fresh goat's milk.

Jessica Wilbur—Jessi to her closest friends and relatives—is the owner and leading lady of Sky Paint Farm in Jeffersonton. With her husband, Matt, their daughter Taylor, their son, Reed, and a brand new baby, Juniper, Jessi takes pride in raising animals organically on her homestead, including Nigerian dwarf dairy goats, rare Icelandic chickens, Silver Fox rabbits, and honey bees.

While her husband Matt helps with the larger projects, Jessi largely runs the entire farm by herself, performing the daily and weekly chores. You’ll often find her mowing the lawn, mending fences and gates, weeding and harvesting, tending to all of the animals, processing meat, and moving fencing about on the property.

Jessi’s love for farm animals developed at a young age while growing up around them, though never living on a farm herself. Jessi and Matt understood the need for a more self-sufficient lifestyle in 2009. And so began their own farming journey with a garden hoe and a few seeds.

“We never intended to be farmers. As a matter of fact, my husband used to use it as a degrading term,” says Jessi. “My husband was born and raised in the heart of Springfield, Virginia, and he didn't like animals. But he has adapted so very well and so quickly to country life—building hutches, coops, fences, and sheds.”

Jessi admits that her first year of gardening was fruitless, but the couple got a knack for farming as they added chickens and goats the following year. Each year, their farm continues to grow, and now they are expanding, hoping to share some of their products with their community.

While showing her quaint three acres of farmland before the birth of her new baby, Jessi’s eight-month pregnant belly never once got in her way of farming—a pleasant reminder of just how beautiful this farming life as a woman can be.

“It’s as if it isn’t even there when I’m doing chores,” Jessi says, gracefully crawling in and out of animal pens and hutches. “It’s funny, my husband just said the other night while watching me how he couldn’t believe I could still do all of this at eight-months pregnant. But honestly, it has to be done, and therefore it’s just another normal day, and I want to do it.”

Sky Paint Farm is on its way to becoming self-sustaining through the hard work of the Wilbur family. Their fences and pens are moved daily or every other day to open up fresh pasture for their animals. This practice also cuts down on the cost of feed and provides the animals with organic nutritional needs. In return, these animals provide fresh fertilizer for the garden; clean, organic meat for the freezer; fur for crafts and clothing projects; and ultimately, dinner for the table. Each animal is cared for humanely, and there may be no greater satisfaction than knowing exactly where your food came from and how it was treated.

“I know these animals were raised, milked, or butchered with respect; that they have plenty of grass, sunshine and clean water, and that they live their lives with dignity and are allowed to behave according to their species.”

When asked what the most difficult part of being a female farmer is, Jessi will smile and express the annoyance that most women farmers have—the misconception that the burden of farming and homesteading shouldn’t be placed on a woman. While society has come a long way over the past century, many people are shocked when women take on stereotypically masculine duties, especially when it comes to manual labor. She is especially irked when people comment about how many farm animals they have, and family and friends who vocally disapprove of their lifestyle.

“We hear about our ‘zoo’ a lot, which is aggravating. We breed and raise productive animals that provide us with delicious fresh foods. And the last time I checked, we don't house any lions, tigers, bears, zebras, or giraffes.”

As she sweeps her daughter’s hair to the side and welcomes hugs from her son, Jessi is the epitome of a modern day “farmher”—multitasking as a caring mother of three and a hardworking, rough-handed farmer. Perhaps the most daunting and tiring aspect of the task is that there are no sick days, holidays, or vacation days as a farmer, wife, or mother. However, the alternative is that she takes pleasure in watching her children learn to respect hard work and live happy, abundant lives. Taylor and Reed even have their own section of garden this year, which they specifically asked for without any prompting. And when mom needs a helping hand, they are always there to lend it.

“There are so many children who don’t even want to go outside anymore, and it’s sad. You don’t realize how much time you spend inside until you have a few farm animals.”

When asked the question what she does in her spare time, she jokes, “What’s spare time?” Riding her two paint mares helps her to wind down. According to her, the two have earned their keep as her therapeutic necessity.

Jessi and her family have big goals for their little farm over the next 10 years, including total self-sufficiency. In a perfect world, her family would eat three or more days’ worth of meals each week that are grown completely on their own farm. Having a self-sustaining farm is important to her. They are also looking forward to expanding their garden to include medicinal herbs and a tea garden. Jessi will also venture into homemade goat’s milk products this year, such as hard cheeses, candles, salves, and more, which will be available on their website when there is an abundance of product available. 

Though her life as a farmer is demanding, time-consuming, often unpredictable, Jessi is still finds ways to make time for her family and friends. Navigating this balance is what it means to be a “farmher.”

Watch more of Jessi's story here...


Read more from this series in the upcoming issue of The Piedmont Virginian magazine.
Our next woman farmer will be Molly Peterson of Heritage Hollow Farms in Sperryville, VA.


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