All I see is celeste as the rustle of waxy blades of Long Island’s native little blue stem grass brush against my face and tickle my arms. I lay among 12 acres of bliss, between the river and the woods, lulling to the sound of Shetland sheep bleating in the background, seriously considering ditching my nine-to-five to become a shepherd. Under the canopy of black walnut trees, away from the winding roads of northern Smithtown, it is difficult to decipher which pace to set. While the constellations of hawks above and chirping of the yellow rumped warbler slow my mind to the rhythm of a steady turtle, the farmer behind the landscape zooming by on her 1920s tractor reminds me that a farm is no place to nap, no matter how mesmerizing.
Jennifer Murray of Turtleback Farm is cultivating much more than livestock. She is feeding a revolution of pasture-raised, ecology-forward “wild farming.” With every step, she identifies another native insect or plant, which she helps collect seed samples for conservation in collaboration with the Long Island Native Plant Initiative. Her long history in education drives her patience when explaining every element of the native landscape she seeks to preserve on her livestock and vegetable farm. She welcomes volunteers and shrugs at all praise, humbly bowing to nature as the source of her success.
I dare you to try and keep up with her on a tour of the 200-year-old barn, vegetable fields and historic farmhouse. I once saw her 100-pound frame haul a 50-pound bag of organic chicken feed across her shoulder, as she gracefully stepped over an live electric fence without wincing at its shock. The same hand that helps pull baby Katahdin lambs from the womb during a difficult birth or assist crossing box turtles, is quickly lent; I owe my left arm to Jen for her constant guidance throughout my first farm endeavor.
Murray is modest in acknowledging the array of impressive projects constantly churning out of Turtleback Farm. Whether it’s moving her mobile chicken coops, restoring native grassland in pastures or selectively mowing to reduce loss to pollinators, she is dedicated to the movement towards more sustainable farming. Driven by what she calls “a social responsibility,” Murray is not only changing the way we eat, but also our relationship with food and the environment.
Check back with us as we track her new projects throughout each new Edible Long Island edition. From heritage breeds to sumac leaves, Murray will guide us through the challenges and triumphs of agro-ecology.