Meet Horny Toad model Robert. He’s an apprentice farmer, barefoot hiker, lover of sheep jokes and hardcore food activist.
Our description seems a bit inadequate – in your own words, who are you?
I’m a 31 year old American/Canadian born in Zambia. I grew up mostly in Ottawa, Ontario playing playing competitive hockey until I left for school in New Hampshire at age sixteen. I sustained a serious neck injury on the ice my first year away and was extremely lucky not have any paralysis. I think getting that early shake-up at a point in life when I felt invincible helped focus my attention on health. It also made me question a lot of conventional ideas about life. I studied anthropology in college and spent the better part of my twenties pursuing divergent paths, such as a stint at a shipping office in Singapore and as a divemaster in Cambodia. Traveling uncovered a real interest in traditional food cultures and their effect on human and environmental health. This led me further down the rabbit hole toward grad school in nutrition and food policy. Despite my intention to get involved in overseas development work related to nutrition, I got wrapped up in the domestic food movement and now think grassroots, community-based action is ultimately the way out of our current mess. I chose to become a farmer of sorts, which has thus far included some apprenticeships on diversified grass-based farms, work a with a seaweed harvester and membership in an oyster farm co-operative. At this point I have about a year and a half of real experience and I’m still pretty green.
What’s a typical work day like for you (or what are your main responsibilities)?
I’ve been in my current position at Essex Farm since January. We start all our days with morning meeting at 6AM where the farm manager, Mark Kimball, outlines daily tasks and logistics. My role so far has been to take care of the beef herd, the dry cows, the hogs, the breeding sows, the laying hens, and help out all around in the butcher shop, a.k.a. meat world. Basically, I stacked a lot of hay wagons, broke open plenty of frozen streams (in the winter), fixed fencing, monitored herd health, helped out with castration, helped slaughter pigs in the pasture, helped cull unfit cows, helped eviscerate and break down carcasses and ran the meat shop during distribution on Fridays. When the grass arrives soon, I’ll be spending lots more time working on the details of good grazing practice.
The farm is unique in that it offers a year-round, full-diet, free-choice membership. Members get to share in the feeling of abundance as they take what they need in almost any combination and quantity for the week within reason. It really is different not to worry about the logistics and hassle of more conventional marketing methods like retail stores, farmers markets, and restaurants. I enjoy working in a team environment where everybody brings unique skills to the table. We have hearty farm lunches every day and rowdy team dinners every Friday night. It’s definitely different than working on a small family farm. The trend here is to take ecological farming and really scale it up in a professional manner. I’m not sure what model I prefer yet but I’m glad somebody is experimenting with the possibilities.
What’s a typical play day like for you?
A good play day consists of a late and lazy breakfast with absurd amounts of animal fats followed by some kind of outdoor activity. I enjoy getting on the ocean in a kayak, SUP, or sailboat. A proper play day really should include a grueling game of Ultimate Frisbee. I’m a big fan of playing the paleo dork and hiking barefoot. But the most rewarding activity is usually over the holidays when I go cross-country skiing in the Gatineau outside Ottawa with my old man. Nothing beats a good winter day.
What are the three best things about your life and why?
Firstly, I eat better food than most Wall Street Bankers do, even though I’m basically a bum by most standards. Farm fresh fatty grass-fed glory is at my fingertips every day.
Secondly, high quality and high octane tea is a constant companion in my life. Thanks to family friend Jeff Fuchs, a modern day tea explorer, I have access to some of world’s best bitter leaves. Perhaps lastly, the best thing in my life is the wonderful diversity of friends I have come to know over the years of living a semi-nomadic life even though I rarely see many of them today.
What makes you laugh?
I like good dry Maine humor, witty Brits, immature bathroom humor, sheep jokes and old family stories. I like humor as a form of optimism personified the way old Victorian explorers might have used it in the face of ridiculous adversity. I like to laugh and make fun of myself more these days. I think it helps soften people to my more extreme views.
What was it like being on a Horny Toad photo shoot?
I had a blast. I thought the crew created a relaxed and fun environment allowing us a surprising degree of creative input. It felt much more like playing around than what I imagine the soul sucking drudgery of more typical photo shoots might be. I particularly liked drinking champagne and eating lobster at a scenic ocean side cabin. How can you argue with that? I also enjoyed how the photographers helped explain their craft to us as a way letting us be co-producers in the art instead of pieces of meat to be moved about.
Favorite thing to eat?
Nothing beats a fresh Maine oyster for me. Once a roommate and I ordered a couple hundred for a graduation party. We picked them up from this wholesale place in Boston Harbor and proceeded to shuck a dozen right there in the sweltering hot parking lot. I swear it was like jumping into the cold ocean followed by the best amino acid high you can imagine. We decided it was like kissing a mermaid.
Traditional Mongolian preparation of mutton is a close second. They slow cook the meat/fat/bone with hot stones the size of your fist. In my experience, it was eaten unceremoniously on the kitchen floor out of a cheap plastic wash basin with bare hands and few shared sharp knives. Large quantities of vodka and fermented mare’s milk were part of the affair. Delicious.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Honestly, up until recently, I saw myself living an expat life in wide array of countries somehow involved with preservation of traditional nutrition and foodways. Although I have not abandoned this idea, I now see myself living in a small rural community in this country that is almost entirely self-sufficient and involved basic ecological regeneration. I’d like to be directly involved in producing food and sharing it.