By Sarah Stuart Oderyd, co-founder of the Carnation Farms nonprofit organization and 5th generation on the farm
There are moments in life when we are faced with the choice to play it safe or to completely shatter our comfort zone. My husband Daniel and I stood before a moment just like that when Carnation Farms found itself without a tenant in October of 2016. We called a family meeting at our Nevada home to figure out what to do with the property my great-great-grandfather built over 100 years ago.
Before this moment I had not been very involved in what happened at the Farm since it had been under different ownership or leased out for as long as I had been alive.
Our family would still visit the farm occasionally during this time and I remember how full of life it felt and how beautiful it was when we came out to feed the calves in the Nestle years. When I close my eyes and walk through the breezeway in the main barn I can still smell the cows and feel the warm bottles in my hands ready to be fed to the hungry calves. It pained me to see the gradual but so very noticeable deterioration it experienced after Nestle left and it ceased being a functioning farm.
For 31 years the farm was either under different ownership or being leased out by the family for $1 a year to the summer camp that was here in the years between Nestle and 2016. Although my father and great aunt generously supported their mission, almost no other family was involved during these years.
Once the family suddenly had the farm back when the camp decided to leave, we began the task of figuring out what to do with the place. We agreed early on that we wanted the new Carnation Farms to become a public non-profit benefiting the community and we spent the next several months figuring out how.
One of the first things we talked about was how the farm once again should be just that, a farm. How it could be a perfect place for people to learn about where food actually comes from and the journey it takes from soil to grocery store to plate.
For someone whose never cooked, learning how to feed yourself and the ones you love can be an empowering and life changing experience. For me personally, I didn’t really see the importance of food, cooking and thinking sustainably until I met Daniel in Sweden in 2012 and started travelling back and forth between our two countries every 3 months.
His passion for cooking is contagious. I went from someone who didn’t even know how to boil an egg to someone who enjoyed experimenting with different ingredients and cooking methods relatively quickly. I saw how effortlessly Daniel’s family cooked when they got together and how they created meal after meal from scratch with fresh ingredients and good communication. It looked both efficient and enjoyable for everyone involved and it seemed to give them a sense of closeness I had never seen before.
Compared to the stereotypical modern American household that I grew up in where everyone just made their own sandwich or ordered takeout and ate at different times, this was a breath of fresh air and I wondered if both my relationship with my family and my relationship to food would have been stronger had we been a family that cooked together.
To see my family, my community and my country from the outside was a sobering awakening that challenged things I would’ve never thought to challenge and consider things I didn’t even know to consider.
So when Daniel and I moved into a house in the same town my parents lived we introduced family dinners on weekends where we would actually cook and share meals together.
The more we cooked and the more we talked around the table the more inspired we became to learn more and eventually a mission started taking shape for a new organization at Carnation Farms.
Since all of us lived in Nevada and my father knew most of the staff from the previous tenant, many of them decided to stay behind when their old employer moved on which gave us a pretty big staff from day one. We used to joke that we must be the only start-up with a 100-year history and a full staff that had worked together for a decade.
It wasn’t until I was exposed to the foods Daniel grew up with from Arctic Sweden that I realized how differently we view food in the United States. In his hometown I ate things like blodpalt (blood dumplings), smoked reindeer heart, hang dried moose meat and different kinds of foraged berries that were used in some variation in almost every meal. All of it delicious and definitely worthy of the same respect as a perfectly grilled American ribeye.
In addition to having a completely different perspective when it came to the edible cuts of an animal and what animals were edible Daniel also spent big parts of his 20’s on a farm in South Dakota, so when we started having meetings about making this place a working farm again we utilized many of his experiences from both Sweden and the Midwest.
I will never forget the mortified looks he got in the very first meetings when he suggested things like snout to tail cooking and processing our own animals on site. Seeing the cultural shock between Daniel and adults who were perfectly content not knowing where their food came from only cemented our faith in the mission further.
We also began to research additives that go into the food we eat. In this research we were actually able to identify a “mystery allergy” that had plagued me for years and sent me into anaphylactic shock several times after consuming seemingly unrelated foods. It turns out that I am allergic to a food additive derived from a certain insect that’s primarily used in products labeled “all natural” and that is used in everything from makeup and crayons to candy and sausage.
This too opened up my eyes to how very little most of us know about what we are putting into the bodies of ourselves and our loved ones. Before I was introduced to the concept of cooking from scratch I had never even considered the ingredient lists on the back of the products I consumed. I just assumed that they were safe to eat since they were legally sold in the stores. Delving into the world of food additives led to many terrifying discoveries that really brought the whole concept of organic food and farm to table eating home for me.
After months of tweaking things in meetings and discussions, the family finally landed on a mission we were comfortable with. We thought we would get off to a flying start with our new mission, but after a failed pilot year that never even left the runway, Daniel and I decided to permanently relocate our family from our home in Nevada to Carnation in a final attempt to get the organization off the ground.
We soon realized that this wasn’t enough so we started a nationwide recruitment process to find a CEO that actually believed in our vision and had the necessary skillset to make it a reality.The CEO we ended up hiring was the first person we hired specifically with our mission and vision in mind and although he’s not the CEO any longer he’s still serving on our board of directors.
In retrospect it was probably extremely naïve of us to think that a leadership that used to run a camp could execute a brand-new food- and farm-based mission while all of us lived out of state. Once we were settled in Carnation and had some key people in place, Carnation Farms was ready for its second pilot year.
Surrounding yourself with the right people makes all the difference and sometimes we stumble across a cause that is so big and so important that it seems to have its own gravity pulling like-minded people and compatible ideas together.
We realized that with the 818 acres at Carnation Farms we were uniquely equipped to make a difference by challenging the way food and farming are viewed in this country. So we asked ourselves, if we don’t do it now, who will and when?
It’s always more valuable to look for the things that make us similar rather than the things that make us different and there is one thing we all have in common: We all eat, so let’s eat better together.