Q&A with Farmer Elli Sparks

Photo by Erica Flock

Ever wondered what it would be like to run your own small farm, raise your family’s food, and subsist off the land? Meet Elli Sparks, a small farm owner, climate activist and mother who has devoted her life to sustainable farming and protecting the environment.


Describe your farm and the people and animals that live there.

We have 30 acres in south central Virginia, about an hour and a half from Richmond.  The land is gentle rolling hills with both woods and pasture.  We moved here from Richmond exactly one year ago.  We are in partnership with my aunt, who bought the land.  

We have 110 animals: five cows, 12 goats, a flock of laying hens, ducks for eggs and meat, 16 geese we plan to sell at Christmas to our friend in Richmond who is a butcher, cats, dogs, and occasionally broilers (chickens raised just for meat).


When did you realize you wanted to be a farmer?

I knew I wanted to be a farmer when I was a teenager.  I remember driving to visit my grandmother on her 2 acre farm in Harford County, Maryland.  I loved driving through the countryside, looking at the farms.  I used to think about the artistry of a farm and imagine the decisions being made by farmers.  I thought those choices were as much aesthetic as they were scientific. I think a good farmer looks at her animals and plants the way a painter looks at the world.  What can I notice today that can help me improve things tomorrow?


What did you learn in your first year on the farm?

A lot!  I learned to let go of perfection.  I also work full time at Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL).  Farming is done in between phone calls and grant writing.  Farming and CCL and raising my family completely fill my life.  If I were farming full time, I think I would have more projects completed on the farm.  But, I actually enjoy the challenge of making decisions that keep my load light and the animals fed and happy.


What have been your greatest challenges & rewards?

Our first round of births.  Four of our goats delivered their kids this spring.  Two of them popped the kids right out.  Two of them needed our help.  My own kids were with me both times we needed to help the does with their delivery.  Staying calm, involving my kids, and ensuring a happy delivery was a delicious challenge for me.


Photo by Erica Flock

How do you manage the land sustainably?

We do rotational grazing (which I like to call “Prairie Farming”).  This allows us to rest the land in between grazing.  Prairie Farming will restore the grasslands to their original glory.  Happy grasslands make deep topsoil, which makes the grasslands more drought resistant and allows them to be carbon and methane sinks.  Happy grasslands need herbivores to function.  Herbivores need predators or herders to keep the herds healthy.  I am delighted to be a herder of goats and cows and chickens and ducks and geese on my farm.  Eating them heals and sustains me.  Them eating the grass, pooping, and moving is what heals the land.  A healthy land heals the planet and restores our climate.  Brilliant, don't you think?


What’s the best part of being a farmer?

I love having visitors to the farm.  I love feeding them food I have grown and processed.  


What changes would you like to see in the U.S. agriculture system?

Number one: Legalize raw milk. Do you remember the book Heidi?  She lived in the mountains with her grandfather.  The doctor in town sent a sickly girl to live with Heidi and her grandfather because he wanted her to benefit from fresh air, sunshine, and the good clean raw milk from the goats that Heidi and her grandfather milked each day.  

Number two: I would like to see industrial hemp legalized.  It’s a great building material, we could make paper with it, and it’s renewable and more quickly grown than trees.  Save the trees for the forest.  Use hemp instead.  It also heals the land.  Nice!

Number three: Allow people to "regulate" small farms by visiting the farm and deciding for themselves if they would like to buy food from the farm.  Ditch the oppressive regulations on small farms.  Save regulations for agribusinesses, who need help keeping food safe.

Number four: Require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our foods.  


What can people do to support small farmers like you?

Buy our food.  Advocate for the above changes.  Stand by our sides when the USDA raids our farms, takes our computers, and dumps our milk on the ground.  Visit the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and Weston A. Price to learn more.


What advice do you have for someone thinking of going into farming?

Jump in, dream big and have fun!


A diverse group of farmers like Elli are committed to environmental stewardship, healthy food and protecting farms and farmland across the country. Read more of their stories on the American Farmland Trust website.


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Richmond naturalist

I agree that people have the right to consume raw milk if they so choose. But I think it's a mistake to romanticize it with tales of Heidi (a work of fiction). People also died from exposure to pathogens from raw milk. Pasteurization is not evil. The science is unsettled as far as nutritional benefits---even proponents concede that. Flavor magazine published a good, even-handed discussion of the issues a couple years ago.

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