Disciple: Little Way Farm
Every life is enriched with a connection to the land. Whether it’s cultivating herbs on your porch or volunteering at a community garden, spending time in nature or tending to a patch of soil reminds us of the importance of caring for the earth that sustains us.
For the Rev. Joe and Dr. Michelle Sroka, the owners of Little Way Farm, that connection has become a way of life. Understanding the interdependence of all living things, they have built a farm and a business that are, at their heart, relational.
AN ORGANIC JOURNEY
Little Way Farm is a family farm located in Siler City, North Carolina. Its origins do not date back generations as others do, but rather the farm has its roots in an urban ministry, the Community of the Franciscan Way, a mission of the Diocese of North Carolina. Partnered with St. Joseph’s, Durham, the ministry was dedicated to welcoming and working with the urban poor.
The Srokas were a part of that ministry, but as their life evolved with marriage and children, they recognized the urban setting was no longer ideal. When friends proposed moving out of the city to a more rural setting, they didn’t see an immediate fit. But a journey that began with volunteering on a vegetable farm eventually led to the purchase of Little Way Farm, which became the new home of the Community of the Franciscan Way. The farm is now the Sroka family business, and the guest house on the property remains open to those who need a place to stay.
“We kind of came at it organically,” said Joe. “We got more involved in learning the history of the Catholic Worker Movement, a back-to-the-land movement founded in the 1930s. We talked about the large systemic problems that run rampant over the poor and how having a connection to the land that sustains us may be an answer to some of those problems. We thought, hey, this is a chance for us to live into our ideal for hospitality and care for creation, and to raise a family as well.”
If the journey to becoming full-time farmers was an organic one, it’s also the approach the Srokas employ in the life of their farm. Theirs is a regenerative meat farm, which means the natural gifts of all its tenants, from people to animals to insects in the soil, contribute to the welfare of all who live on the land. This is done by replicating systems found in nature, using a rotational approach to keep soil, plants, animals and humans healthy and thriving.
Joe likens the system to the buffalo that once roamed the prairie. “They were herd animals,” he explained. “They’d move from place to place, grazing an area down, and then they would move on to a new area. They wouldn’t come back to that previous one until it had rested and regrown. They left behind natural fertilizer, they tramped seeds into the soil and stimulated the soil with their hooves. Then humans came along with roads and fences and all kinds of things. What we model is how nature still wants to work.”
At Little Way Farm, cows are moved from pasture to pasture on a daily basis. In the pasture they vacate, the chickens enter and take over the natural cycle, spreading manure and eating fly larva, which, in turn, keeps the fly pressure down and fewer flies on the cows. Because they are different species, the cows and chickens are dead-end hosts to parasites, limiting the spread of disease. Taken together, the natural behaviors of the cows and the chickens provide a sanitizing and nourishing effect on the pasture, working together to create a better system.
“What you’re doing is trying to leave the land better than you found it,” said Michelle. “You’re trying to stimulate growth in the land, and you’re also trying to consider the needs of every living thing on the land beyond just what you’re raising. With the regenerative practices on our farm, we’re trying to consider small wildlife pollinators and birds. We’re trying to think about the organisms in the soil. So our rotational practices are one way we do that and let the land rest and regrow.”
KNOW YOUR FOOD
Being attuned to the relationship between the soil and the life it nurtures is but one example of the role relationships play in the life the Srokas have built.
“Creation care isn’t this abstract thing that we’re doing,” said Joe. “If people aren’t there to love the land and care for it, we have environmental and other issues. The Church talks a lot about holding together our love of creation and our love of our neighbor. The two things do go together. When you love the land, it sustains you and provides for your life. You can’t separate that love of creation from the love of the person sustained by it.”
Interpersonal relationships are beneficial as well. “Relationships are important because they can tell you if your farmers are actually using the practices that you want,” said Michelle. “They also help us break the cycle of convenience that so many of us are accustomed to. When you know a farmer personally, you feel an emotional connection. You want to support them in the work that they’re doing. It’s going to make you be more intentional about your food and where it comes from.”
Then there are the practical benefits to the personal relationships. When one knows the farmer who grows their food, local businesses and communities are supported. Too, the information gained by being in relationship helps to navigate the labels that accompany our food.
“Labels that are out there can just mean different things,” said Joe. “For example, if you purchase organic chicken at a grocery store, that just means the chicken ate organic feed. Otherwise, it was raised indoors on concrete. It’s never seen the sunlight. It’s never had fresh air. It’s never seen a blade of grass. But a consumer who doesn’t know that could see that label in the grocery store and think, ‘Oh, organic chicken, I’m doing my part to help.’”
“Green washing is a huge problem,” added Michelle. “People think certain things about organic because they remember the organic movement and what it was trying to do. The problem with the labeling we see in stores is that big corporations capitalize on buzzwords and use them for their particular purposes. It’s why we recommend knowing your farmers directly. Along with all the other benefits of the relationship, you can learn about their specific practices and make sure they align with your values and that any label used actually means what you think it means.”
You don’t have to be an expert in farming practices to ask questions that will help you learn what you want to know. Joe offered a few easy suggestions, the answers to which speak volumes. If you want to know about the raising of animals, he said, ask “Would you drink the water they drink? Would you eat the food they’re eating? Would you lay down where they lay down? The answer to all of those questions on our farm is ‘yes.’”
Asking about how animals are raised can be illuminating as well. It is fair to ask about how decisions are made, how the needs of the animals are considered, how lifestyle needs are met. You can start simple and go deeper as the conversation progresses, always asking, “How did you make that decision?”
If you’re able to visit a farm, look at the health of the soil. Bare soil patches can indicate something is wrong, whether due to animals being on that patch of ground for too long or a failure to plant a cover crop.
“Farming is not just about performing technical skills,” said Michelle. “It’s also learning to understand and know what’s going on with the most minute details of the land in a way that takes a really careful cultivation of practice. There’s a really robust farming presence on Instagram and social media, so people can look for farming practices and learn more about farms there, too.”
The relationships the Srokas have cultivated have deep roots and continue to thrive. Not just on the farm but with the people they serve. Joe sees a clear connection between the two.
“I’m a priest,” said Joe. “There’s a lot of shepherding and caring for others—people as well as creation. There’s a connection between how we treat the land and each other. If you can abuse the land, you can abuse a person, and if you can abuse a person, you won’t take care of your land. We have to care for things in holistic ways and care for them together.”
Connect with Little Way Farm
In addition to opening the farm to visitors once a month, Little Way Farm offers home delivery in a nine-county area, offers regional pickup locations and ships to customers throughout the United States.
- Website: littlewayfarmsilercity.com
- Visit: First Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
- Follow on social media:
- Facebook: littlewayfarm
- Instagram: @littlewayfarm
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple