25 March

Portrait: Joshua Rockwood And Me

by Jon Katz
Joshua Rockwood
Joshua Rockwood

I went to Glenville, N.Y., today to West Wind Acres Farm  to meet Joshua Rockwood, suddenly one of America’s best known,  most beloved, and most controversial farmers. It is not easy being Joshua Rockwood today, but it sure is exciting. He is awaiting trial on 13 counts of animal neglect, all misdemeanors but it sometimes seems he is on trial for murder. All day long, wherever he goes, friends, neighbors, farmers, strangers, people who buy his lamb, pork, beef and chicken come up to him and commiserate and wish him well, offer him support, shake their heads at the strange nature of the world.

He has, for many, become a symbol. Of the hard and little-understood life of the real farm, of the unseen and little understood struggles of the real farmer,  and of the very ugly cross currents that run through the animal world.

For all of his connections to his community, the prosecutors tried to force him to post a high bail bond last week at his first hearing, they seemed to want  him in jail. I think this was perhaps the hardest thing for me to believe. They said he was a flight risk just like other dangerous criminals. His attorney was incredulous, Joshua has a wife, two kids, and a 90-acre farm with more than 100 animals on it.

None of them died or were grievously injured by him – that is the definition of abuse. Where would he run? Why would he run?

The judge denied the bail request. Joshua was, I think, holding his breath.

Joshua told me before I came that he was not permitted to give any statements for public consumption to me or anybody else, and I told him I was not interested in statements for public consumption, I am not a TV or newspaper reporter, I am an author, I have only my own rules. Mostly I wanted to get a feel for him and a look at  his farm, the details of which are being intensely debated and described and portrayed all over social media and on television.

We made a deal and promised to trust one another. I said I would do nothing to betray his trust. He said he was happy to have me.

None of the arguments online did it for me, I need to see things for myself. I don’t like writing about someone I have never met, seen and heard. I needed to get a feel for his place, his farm. Just as so many people wish to get  feel for mine.

I was prepared to like him, I was prepared not to like him. I do not like lots of people at first blush, or even second.

I agreed to keep everything that was said off-the-record, and we did not discuss the details of the hearings. Not really my concern, it is in other hands. There are lots of people who  live to argue and judge people and play God and judge and jury on Facebook, I am not one of them. Joshua and I were instantly at ease with one another, there was no discomfort, hesitation or awkwardness. Nobody pulled any punches, the way men do when they meet one another. I asked him a million questions about his life, he answered every one of them, looking me in the eye, never flinching.

I thought there was some anger in him, some gentleness, a quick mind that was always going.

Joshua is soft-spoken and well spoken. There is, as I was told, a quietness about him. A sharp intelligence. And some vulnerability in those sometimes sad eyes, for sure. He is quite steady, but there is much pain and hurt in him as well. Not easy to be accused of awful things in front of your family, to have animals you love hauled away by the police to places you don’t want to see them go. But I felt he is a very strong man, he will not go to pieces or bend too much.

Joshua and I walked over every inch of his farm, much of it still covered in the ice and snow and mud and frozen manure of our brutal winter. He and his animals all got through the winter, but Spring, the farmer’s season was laying in wait for  him. The secret informer struck and the police arrived right after the solstice.  We walked among pigs, cows, I saw his beautiful Maremma sheep guard dogs, his sheep, his chickens. We hopped over fences, shelters, lean to’s, huts, we walked through mud, climbed hills, talked easily with one another for nearly four hours.

Time went by quickly, I was surprised when it was time to go. There was no small talk, just talk.

I should say I did feel close to Joshua, I liked him a lot. I think he is incapable of guile, a trait that has perhaps cost him dearly. He wrote last week on his blog that when the police came for him, he let them in without a warrant, he never hesitated. He admitted to being sometimes overwhelmed, he had many things to learn.

When I left, I remember thinking I would have been happy to have had a son like Joshua, that is one way I assess people. Would I be happy to have them as a kid? In this case, I would. Joshua has suffered some brutal tragedies, brushed up against a frightening illness, suffered a lot of doubt. And rebounded, again and again. He means to do good in the world.

He is idealistic, hard-working, almost shockingly open, a rare thing in our fragmented world.  There is nothing guarded about him, no sense of secrets, no wariness. His blog is an open book, an honest memoir.

Joshua’s dream is to produce good and healthy food for people. I watched and listened all day as one person after another drove onto his farm to wish him well, wish him luck, offer help, thank him for this and that, order some food, claim their faith in him. He is very much loved and admired. One young woman came to his hearing to tell him – and me – that she owed her life to him, he helped her when she needed help badly.

That is also a pretty rare thing, all those people going to all that trouble,  especially for someone accused of wanton disregard for  living things.

I wondered how many people would show up for me in that way if I were in trouble, not that many, I think.  I walked up some steep hills with Joshua, I fell and tripped more than once, he caught me and steadied me. The pigs live on a huge field, it was covered in ice, the cows are at the top of the hill, a lot of snow to stomp through, a lot of ice to fall on, and I did. Good thing I have been working out daily at the gym. I did make it. As always, I saved my camera.

But I am tired and I want to think a bit about my visit to West Wind Acres. And my eyes are tired, too from the wind and my knees sore from all that hiking. I did have my shoes nibbled on by pigs, and that is new. I’ll write him some more.

He is seeking help for legal fees and for the thousands of dollars he may have to give to a local rescue farm that took three of his horses after the police raid on  his farm. It’s called a bond. You can see his gofundme project here. You can read about his farm in his own words here. I believe in words, they tell their own truth.

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