HomeSocial Impact Heroes Helping Our PlanetHow and Why Donna Kilpatrick of the Heifer Ranch Decided To Change...

How and Why Donna Kilpatrick of the Heifer Ranch Decided To Change Our World

I really have felt called to farming and being a steward of the land. I took a few zigs and zags in my career, but this role at Heifer USA allows me to live out a truly purposeful life where we take care of the land while helping farmers build sustainable businesses, feed their families, and contribute back to their local economies.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact,” I have the pleasure of interviewing Donna Kilpatrick.

Donna has spent more than 20 years working in agriculture, with a focus on regenerative agriculture. She has managed the Heifer Ranch since 2017, where she oversees a team of women farmers that take care of a 1,200 acre working, regenerative ranch. Prior to returning to farming full-time at Heifer (having worked with them since 2007), Donna held positions in college admissions throughout the U.S., and as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, she worked with cattle and dairy farmers. She holds a degree in sustainable agriculture and literature from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she worked on the college farm, and a Masters in nonprofit management from The New School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

So, I didn’t grow up on a farm! Sometimes people are surprised about that considering my current job, but really my undergraduate experience was where I found my passion for farming and agriculture. Having said that, my grandparents had a farm in eastern North Carolina, and we spent a lot of time there growing up. I absolutely loved everything about going there — we rode horses, dirt bikes, played with the animals. I remember vividly running through cotton fields and the garden packed full of vegetables. My mom would sit in lawn chairs for hours with her sisters, shelling peas and husking corn. The time I spent there on my grandparents farm forged strong, vivid, powerful fond memories.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Heifer USA is the U.S. program of Heifer International, a global development organization that works directly with small-scale farmers around the world to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. I oversee all operations at Heifer Ranch, which is the heart of Heifer USA and represents all facets of Heifer values. We practice regenerative agriculture, farming methods that go beyond sustainable to regenerate the earth, because we can’t grow food if we don’t have healthy land to grow that food on. We teach small-scale farmers how to productively and profitably grow food so that they can feed their communities. And, we help support agriculture businesses like Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, so that farmers are paid a fair price for high-quality, humanely raised meat that is delivered directly to consumers via the Grass Roots e-commerce store.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I fell in love with farming when I came to understand it as true stewardship of the environment during my time at Warren Wilson. I attended a unique liberal arts college in Asheville, NC where all students, regardless of financial need, are required to work as part of a holistic education based upon strong academics and service to the community. My work assignment was on the College Farm where I worked my way up to a student crew leader (“crew boss”) in Livestock and one of the main equipment operators for field work (planting, harvesting, cutting hay, etc.). I absolutely fell in love with my work on the farm and spent my breaks and summers on campus taking care of the animals, driving tractors, and running equipment. At Warren Wilson, I found, through the work program, my unique genius… a passion for farming so strong and so energizing that I could forget to eat. That passion has never dulled.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I really have felt called to farming and being a steward of the land. I took a few zigs and zags in my career, but this role at Heifer USA allows me to live out a truly purposeful life where we take care of the land while helping farmers build sustainable businesses, feed their families, and contribute back to their local economies.

My real Aha moment came after working in sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College and then on a small, family owned pasture based dairy farm, I went to work on a very large commercial dairy farm. In that role, I was responsible for all feed rations, herd health, artificial insemination and stepping in for the milker a few times a week when he was off. The cattle lived on concrete 24/7, and they were milked three times a day. The joy that I had experienced farming in balance with the surrounding ecosystem was void. I was miserable, and the missing link was just so obvious. I was fighting nature at every step. The cattle were not eating what they were designed to eat. They were not mobbed, mowing and moving through pasture. We were pushing them to produce beyond their normal capacity and forcing everything. I was working in a mono-culture system and hating everything about it. There are no monocultures in nature. In regenerative agriculture the beauty is working with nature, not against it. I quit that job and never looked back.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Although I’m not the founder of Heifer or the Heifer Ranch, our work has taken on such primacy during the global pandemic and the ever looming climate crisis. In this moment, I’m particularly proud of the partnership I’ve helped scale up, in terms of production, at the Ranch with Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative and for providing training for the new Grass Roots farmers. One major source of pain for sustainable small-scale farmers who aren’t part of the industrial meat production supply chain is finding a market for their products. Grass Roots’ online shop lets those farmers access markets beyond their own community. And, the predictable way Grass Roots does their order placements allows small farms to have a bit of forecasting for their revenue.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

There’s never a boring day on a 1,200 acre working ranch! Our recent decision to apply and be accepted as a Savory Hub captures our commitment to Regenerative agriculture and our desire to share this type of ranching with others.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I was hauling a yak in a borrowed horse trailer once. The yak completely destroyed the inside of the borrowed trailer and almost got loose in the town center of a quiet, little New England town. I learned that yaks are strong, equipment is expensive to replace, and that you should always have the appropriate equipment for the job.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

In life, my mom and dad were my biggest cheerleaders. They initially thought that I was crazy for wanting to farm, but they saw my determination and cheered me on. In agriculture, I’m developing a friendship with Will Harris that I greatly appreciate. Will is a very busy and famous farmer, and he has been so gracious in being a sounding board and offering advice. He is someone that I really respect a lot and just really like as a human being.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Get to know your local farmers. The pandemic has shown us how fragile our food system is. Shortening your own personal supply chain — buying locally, seasonally, from small family farmers can help them lead profitable farms, which creates that virtuous circle of strong farmers and strong communities.
  2. Check out Grass Roots Farmers Collective. Ordering directly from farmers doesn’t have to be cumbersome; you can do it while reading this interview! You can order organic, free-range meat and have it delivered to you within days. These products come directly from small-scale farmers, so you can rest assured that your purchase is helping them keep their farm going and supporting their local community as well.
  3. Support Regenerative Agriculture. Studies show that we have less than 60 years of harvestable farmland, so we have to start right now giving back to the soil so that it can heal itself. Purchasing from sustainable, small-scale farmers and buying produce seasonally can help break the dominance of monoculture farms. Becoming part of CSA’s that support small farmers or trying to shift your buying into more farmers markets versus grocery store chains, are small steps we can all take that support farmers who are trying to run farms that can take better care of the land.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

I would point to the small family farmers participating in Grass Roots Coop. They’re farming organically, free range, pasture-raised and practice regenerative agriculture so that they can keep farming for generations to come. While people are watching on the nightly news the real devastation large-scale industrial meat production has caused, sustainable small-scale farmers are able to pivot more quickly, save money through greater productivity using regenerative methods, and contribute to shorter supply chains that are proving more resilient in times of crisis. Through technology, these farmers in Arkansas are able to reach consumers anywhere in the country with fresh, safe food in only days, and we are seeing exponential demand for those products.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Focus on the soil!
  2. You won’t get rich from farming but if done right, you will build a rich ecosystem.
  3. Don’t skimp on good work wear (especially boots and rain gear).
  4. Wear sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat.
  5. Farming businesses that are successful are diversified with stacked enterprises.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Young people right now are going to have to deal with climate change their entire lives, so I would tell them to find careers that give them an opportunity to be stewards of this planet and to find ways to take care of the land. Heifer believes that we can end hunger and poverty while taking care of the Earth and that all of those missions are intimately connected. Everyday I wake up and feel like I get to give back to the land and our local community working at Heifer Ranch. That’s a powerful balm to the crises we see on the news at any time. Having a career you love and are passionate about while also giving back to the community can be so fulfilling, and I feel will be more and more necessary of an action as we move forward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Probably from George Washington, “I would rather be on my farm than be the emperor of the world.” Why does this resonate? Because I get it. I would rather be out in a field of cattle than any place on earth. There is nothing I love more than to be in a field as the sun is coming up.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I feel very fortunate that I have already had the opportunity to meet many of my farming heros. If I could pick anyone to have a few hours with (and in this case, especially a meal), it would be Sean Brock, an American chef who specializes in Southern Cuisine. I love his passion for heirloom ingredients, and his ability to showcase the farmer, the farm, and the soil in a way that creates a true southern terroir. As a farmer and a foodie, I adore his cooking and his passion for my profession and my contribution to the table.

How can our readers follow you online?

Yes! You’ll see lots of our farmers work on our YouTube page — along with lots of resources if you want to learn how to grow some of your own food or just see our happy farm animals!

We also do live chats and post lots of stories and photos at our Facebook and Instagram accounts:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!