Chasing Wild: An Organic Farmer Harnesses the Power of Trail Running

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The first sound I hear is crunching gravel. Starting a run half asleep isn’t always a bad thing—there’s an ethereal electricity of waking up bathed in moonlight to find your feet moving beneath you. I log so many pre-dawn miles that I usually don’t remember dressing myself and the sound of my phone alarm rolls into a waking dream of pure habit.

By the time I crest the ridgeline at the top of our lush, wooded valley, a choir of a million insects and birds fills the air, at their loudest volume right before daybreak. I know I only have 90 minutes until I have to shift from runner to farmer, so I push out any thoughts of harvesting, planting or the mass of emails waiting for me.

I’ve been farming alongside my husband and his family for a decade and our Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) was one of the pioneers of the sustainable farming movement in the Midwest. Located in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, Vermont Valley Community Farm, named for the Town of Vermont in Wisconsin where we are located, feeds thousands of families in the greater Madison area. The farm has been instrumental in educating young farmers who’ve gone on to start their own operations, becoming an institution dedicated to improving the food system beyond our own production.

I dart off the road and into the dark forest, flipping on my headlamp as my feet hit the single-track. I’m fully awake now and it’s time to shred my home trails. I live, farm and run in the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin. The craggy rock formations, tight valleys and unrelenting hills were untouched by the glaciers of the last ice age. Starting from my front porch, I can reach a thousand feet of vertical gain in two miles, defying the notion that Wisconsin is a flat state.

The drive I feel for both farming and running can only be described as earnestness. I’m fixated on repairing the broken food system, rejecting conventional agriculture, refusing an ordinary life, and diving deeper into the wild spaces. Sometimes I feel guilty for my fervent insistence on living out my ideals and wonder if it’s a luxury to expect so much out of this world.

Weaving up from the valley floor to a clearing in the forest, I see the sun is starting to change the sky as it shifts from black to the deepest navy to blush pink and every mauve and lavender in between. The sound of popping and snapping comes from a dark thicket on my left and a family of whitetail deer stares into the cyclops eye of my headlamp beam before bounding away. I accept every opportunity to run with wild creatures, so I take off after them on a parallel trail. I’m envious as the deer leap with an animal athleticism I will never know.

My mind is always overwhelmed with ideas and possibilities, a sense of busyness ever present in farming, but quelled by running. The real reason for all of my brute effort, both in farming and running, is an attempt to satiate my desire to live deeply in our natural world, not as a bystander watching safely from a climate controlled environment. Sustainable farming cultivates nature to support our lives, while running breaks me down and builds me up so I can do this work with more humility.

The roaring energy of a CSA farm sustains itself and making a commitment to growing food for your community lights a fire keeping your steadfast momentum charging forward. The endless challenges small-scale farmers face can only be survived by an inner devotion to our trade and this passion goes beyond the strongest work ethic I thought was possible.

When I pop back out onto the road, sweat stinging my eyes, the sky is full of daylight. I look at my watch and it’s 6:11 a.m. The rest of the human world is waking up, making coffee, and driving to work, but I’m moving through space and time toward home with a heart so full, it feels like it could burst. Some days, I’m so overtaken with the power of my run, my emotion wells up in my eyes and streams down my cheeks.

Every morning as I trot back up the driveway to my house, I transition from my running self and return to my farming world, leaving the dirt and sweat on my skin knowing I’ll only get earthier as the day goes on. Achieving true wildness will always elude me, but I’ll never stop chasing it with the energy of the farm raging behind me.

Images by Carrie Highman.

xx Jonnah Perkins

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Nine.