I was raised in a time and place where playing with toy six-shooters, riding stick ponies, and roping bushes and bedposts were pretty much the norm. My favorite bedtime story was Joan Walsh Anglund’s The Brave Cowboy — although I also loved for my father to read me another chapter from Will James’ Lone Cowboy: My Life Story. These early childhood heroes were eventually replaced with a motley collection of authors, artists, public figures, farmers, ranchers, and even scientists and philosophers. From each, I learned compelling lessons that continue to guide me.
Most of my heroes were long gone by the time I found them. A few were not.
Organic real-food farmer, loving husband and father, and eclectic philosopher, Nathan Winters, of Petersburgh, New York, was notable among my youthful heroes. Nathan passed away April 29, 2014, at the age of 34 — victim of a machinery accident on the farm.
I was first drawn to Nathan’s presence some years ago, after he embarked on a bicycle trip across the United States. I followed his progress on Facebook, Twitter and his blog. In many respects, Nathan had left the world of computer programming, website development and online marketing to find his dream — thankfully for me and thousands like me, Nathan spread the news of his discoveries in nearly real time. After hours of reflection informed by visits with rural and small-town folks of virtually every shape and size, Nathan formulated his dream and set out to achieve it. Armed with endless energy, untold creativity, some internship experience and the support of thousands of people like me — who had a personal, philosophical stake in seeing him succeed — in 2011, he jumped into food farming whole hog.
Nathan used his substantial online skills and marketing abilities to build a customer base and to generate working capital for his first year in business. In an article he wrote for us, Nathan indicated he had lost money in his first season, but he knew how he was going to improve the balance sheet in the next year — and improve it he did. Working endless hours while incorporating creative and nonconventional solutions to common problems was his hallmark. Nathan was famous for opening up new ground by running hogs in the area first, for example. He was also famous for his love of Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs.
Fast forward to 2014, as Nathan, his wife, Eliza, and their daughter, Mathilda, were gearing up for Hill Hollow Farm’s best year ever. Hogs were farrowing, new land was opened up for the growing of even more vegetables, the old barn they called home was getting a makeover, the starts were growing, and thousands of folks were cheering the couple on. And then it happened.
As so often is the case in the farm community, when a hero or neighbor falls, there is a sea of folks who float the family and the business through the worst of times. In Nathan’s case, the international outpouring was nothing short of phenomenal. Folks brought food, and friends and family supported Eliza and Mathilda. Chores got done. Supportive words poured in via every means imaginable, and The Nathan Winters Memorial Fund was setup to provide capital to finish some of the projects that were begun, cover new and existing expenses, and help keep Nathan’s — as well as Eliza’s — dreams alive.
So even in death, Nathan Winters continues to inspire, which makes him a lasting hero and someone we will miss profoundly. I’m proud to ask you to read about what Nathan thought about starting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture a Win for Farmers and Members).
I’d love to know what you’re up to this season. Send me a note and a photo (at least 300 dpi, jpeg), if available, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the whole works may just wind up in a future issue.
See you in September,
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.