A Way of Life
Family Demonstrates Sustainable Living
Story and Photography by Asha Timperley
It’s mid-September and Jonathan and Catherine Dodd are meandering around their five-acre permaculture farm in Papillion, Nebraska, examining the consequences of the year’s first frost. Though the tomatoes, squash and chard are wilted, along with many of their other crops, the Dodds aren’t disappointed or discouraged. It’s about rhythms, Jonathan explains, “It’s time to hibernate.”
To say the Dodds first “fell into farming” wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Catherine describes it as an interest that turned into a passion when Jonathan worked with coffee growers in Nicaragua and quickly became fascinated with their farming methods. He noticed how vital farming was to make communities sustainable, sparking a desire to incorporate those methods into his family and community back home.
At that time they lived on four acres in Florida and thought, “Why not turn this into a farm?” Knowing little to nothing about farming, they put an ad on Craigslist that said, in essence: “Want to learn how to farm? Come learn with us!”
“We had someone at our house in an hour,” Catherine says. “This is a huge need … people want to learn how to farm.”
For two years, the Dodds learned the basics of farming alongside strangers who became friends. They cultivated, harvested and celebrated with homegrown meals. “We learned a lot from the people there,” says Catherine. “We have so much to learn from one another.”
In 2012, the Dodds moved to Nebraska, Jonathan’s home state, where he took a job as a church mission’s pastor, and the family started New Earth Farm and Goods. Still not claiming to be farming experts, they are passionate about learning and sharing with the community, which continues to be a crucial part of their journey.
Jonathan has earned his permaculture design certificate and has gradually incorporated those methods at their Nebraska farm. Permaculture farming uses approaches that pay homage to the natural rhythms of nature by observing and mimicking the life cycle of plants and animals. “We’re really trying to show a different way of doing things,” Jonathan says. Their farming technique isn’t just a hobby or a business, but a way of life.
Walking around their property you’ll notice strategically landscaped gardens and trenches that direct rainwater to the vegetation. You’ll see forest gardens, which mix a variety of plants that grow well together in one location—making use of companion planting and layering. You’ll also recognize old church pews, bathtubs and bathroom stalls that have been repurposed into gardening beds and mushroom houses. Jonathan sources as many free or nearly free resources as possible, especially during these initial trial-and-error years. “[We] have been slowly trying to build our home and our family in a sustainable way as a demonstration,” he says.
This year they planted well over 100 varieties of vegetation, ranging from multiple varieties of carrots, kale and radishes to Aronia berries, peaches and fresh herbs. They started a tree nursery with persimmon, hazelnut and chestnut trees and care for 50 chickens, 12 sheep and one steer. “I want a place where food is just raining from the sky,” Jonathan says with a laugh.
It’s a lot to handle at times, they admit, and oftentimes their personalities clash when it comes to managing all the details. Jonathan says he’s more of a visionary and dreamer, while Catherine is more realistic and practical. “I’m the tortoise and he’s the hare,” Catherine shares with a smile.
In addition to maintaining the farm, they are raising their three children—Charlotte, 8, Thaddaeus, 6, and Shepherd, 3. Their youngest children have grown up exploring the outdoors as soon as they learned to walk. It’s pretty typical to see the kids tromping around the farm or making “cakes” out of kale, grasshoppers, mud and worms. The Dodds have taught their children how to forage for edible plants and oftentimes send the kids outside to seek out naturally growing berries, herbs and other plants for use in that evening’s meal.
“I wouldn’t want anything different for my kids,” says Jonathan, who grew up in the suburbs. “I was never taught how to build anything and we never had a garden.” Living off the land was not part of his childhood, so learning how to observe and care for the land has been a discovery process for both Jonathan and Catherine that has both pros and cons.
“It’s been something that my wife and I have found together and it’s been difficult,” he says. “We’re married, and we’re married to the land.” Being married to the land makes it challenging to take family vacations or even go away for a day or two. Like any family, learning to balance and juggle work and family is an everyday challenge, but it’s not something that they have to do alone.
They admit it’s easy to get busy and lose focus, but when they narrow down their mission to one word, “community” rises to the surface. It’s a place where collaborative thinking, education and hospitality converge, where people from all walks of life come together to share life, land and stories.
Their community includes four interns and two apprentices who worked at their farm this past summer and the members of their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. According to Jonathan, “Part of having community is welcoming it and loving it” on-farm but also going into the community. Jonathan has had students from Grace University and Nebraska Christian College tour the farm and hopes to make more educational connections in the future. He dreams about reaching out to unemployed individuals to share with them the skills necessary to grow their own food and sustain themselves and their families.
But for now, he and Catherine are focused on their current endeavors. They need to use the winter season to reflect, plan and rest before spring arrives. They need the break to regroup and reflect upon what they’ve accomplished, remembering why they started their farm and what they’re looking forward to in the years to come. “What are we trying to do…. I don’t know sometimes,” Jonathan says with a laugh. “I want to inspire people to see the world differently … to expose people to how the world could be.”
Asha Timperley is a Lincoln-based writer who works for a homegrown media company in the capital city. With a background in journalism, Asha is captivated by stories and is a firm believer that everyone has a story to tell. When she’s not writing, Asha enjoys spending time with her husband, cooking, hosting dinner parties, exploring local thrift shops and spending time with her family.