One man’s health saga leads to regenerative agriculture
WINGINA, Va. — A former athlete with a degenerative disease has become a regenerative agricultural farmer, going “wild” and challenging the limits of this form of agriculture.
This is the story of Daniel Griffith, founder of Timshel Wildland in Nelson County, Virginia, as well as the Common Wealth Network, a mid-Atlantic group of verified regenerative agricultural farms.
Griffith’s life essentially fell apart in the final years of an otherwise successful high school athletic career in football and wrestling in central Ohio. During a jog, he broke his hips and shoulder due to a genetic disease that affected his bones, which he did not know he had.
The healing process was slow. Five to six years later, he said, he had reached a very low point. Fatigue almost paralyzed him and his digestive organs did not work well. The numerous hip surgeries had not completely cured him. He would lose a lot of weight, then gain it back.
“My mind worked, but my body didn’t,” he said.
During this time, he was emotionally drained and depression set in. A friend gave him a book called People Are Not Normal, by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. The subtitle of the book read: “A farmer’s advice for happier chickens, healthier people and a better world”.
As Griffith was reading the book one evening, his mother told him, “We tried everything, but we didn’t try the chickens. In other words, despite all the surgeries, medical advice, medications and appointments, Griffith had never tried to change his diet.
Without any farming experience, Griffith and his wife, Morgan, purchased 100 Australorp Black chickens.
“I didn’t know anything about chickens or pastures or poultry,” Griffith said.
Even though he grew up in a rural area, surrounded by 30 acres of forests and fields, he never really thought about farming until his health depended on it. He started reading all the agricultural books he could find.
So the Griffiths started gardening and hated it. They then cultivated land belonging to Griffith’s godfather, who came with 200 head of cattle.
Griffith began eating farmed foods, including foods from bone marrow and organs left over from livestock. More importantly, he found a new direction in connecting to the land and working with livestock and nature.
“My health started to come back,” he said.
It wasn’t just the nutritional changes that started to help her. He thinks it was a global healing brought about by his new active relationships with the land, nature and a new practice of holistic farming.
The couple bought a 400-acre farm and moved to Virginia. They named it Timshel Farms, a name that would later change to one word.
Although Griffith feels better on farm foods, he’s not 100%. With degrees in math and computer science in college, Griffith put those academic skills to good use to fine-tune the diet that worked best for him.
His wife suggested the couple keep a diary of everything they ate. They would record how they felt 30 minutes before, during and after their meals, including physically, emotionally and spiritually. They recorded all the raw materials for their meals. Griffith took the data from this detailed task and put it into the computer. Within two years, he was able to spit out the results of the foods that made him feel the most. He had a list of 21 foods that didn’t make him sick at all. Included were such things as russet potatoes, Himalayan salt, zucchini, squash, green beans, and other foods.
Griffith has been eating a daily meal plan with just these 21 foods for seven years now. His food is prepared only by him or his wife, and the ingredients come from their farm or from farmers they know. He doesn’t eat anything else. He does not eat at the restaurant. He goes to sit in a restaurant with his family while they eat, but he doesn’t participate in anything. And he feels better than ever.
As his physical health improved in recent years, his passion for better farming began to explode. The regenerative agriculture movement led him to learn and teach others how to make this form of holistic agriculture produce the best results. He is now the director of the Rubina Institute, an accredited center of the Savory Institute where he offers courses in holistic agricultural management in Virginia.
He does this through the efforts of his farm, which is now known as Timshel Wildland.
The name of the farm changed as Griffith’s vision of regenerative agriculture changed. He not only started thinking outside the box, so to speak, he thought outside the pasture.
“At the beginning, we were told, when we were buying cows, to breed our bulls and move our cows. We had to separate them and then castrate the bulls,” Griffith said.
Griffith wrote about when this farming mindset changed for him in the book “Wild Like Flowers.” Griffith and his wife were stuck in the field with a stubborn bull during a blizzard. They needed to move it, but the animal wasn’t taking orders. He instead chose to charge them as they all stood in an extremely cold pit of mud.
“It was a stressful time,” Griffith said. His wife, who felt as muddy and defeated as her husband, looked at him and asked, “Do people call this natural farming? Which part is natural? And then she asked an additional question: “Could we undo the way everyone does it (and do it naturally)?”
The Griffiths chose not to separate cows and calves. There was no weaning or castration. While many farmers would gasp at this concept, the Griffiths have seen satisfying results at Timshel Wildland. They also saw the beauty of livestock relationships.
“Over the next five years, we saw more abundant life,” Griffith said. “Our calf-to-cow percentages have gone up. We had bigger and healthier cows.
The farm had carried out an ecological study in 2016 which revealed that its area had five species of pasture grasses. A recent study revealed 179 species.
“We’ve never planted any,” Griffth said, “It’s soul to the ground.”
Appetizing perennials fill the pasture. Timshel Wildland also has an extensive network of ponds for livestock to water.
In addition to the cattle, it is home to a herd of 30 sheep and 250 pigs which all live “in the wild”.
The efforts of this regenerative farmer may seem small, Griffith pointed out, but they produce just as well as their counterparts.
All meat is slaughtered in a USDA abattoir and sold at farmers markets, directly from farm to table and on local farms.
Timshel does not ship its meat across the country.
“I believe local farms are important,” he said. “We’re not exporting nutrients and we’re not breaking the cycle,” he said.
Griffith collaborated with 32 other mid-Atlantic farmers to form the Common Wealth Network. All the farmers in the network have EOV, or Ecological Outcome Verification.
“Instead of saying we are all regenerative farms, we are verified regenerative farms. All of our farms build topsoil with more carbon than we leave out.
Common Wealth Network EOV farms each have their own way of operating regeneratively. “We don’t focus on practice. We don’t care how many times you move your cattle,” Griffith said.
Griffith went from being physically unable to do much to managing regenerative farmers in his area and operating his own farm in just a few years.
“I’ve never felt better,” he said.
Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer from central Pennsylvania.