Photo: Meritt and Brandy.
In the middle of the summer of 2023, I travel from Alpine, Wyoming, to Tremonton, Utah. I have just come from a week of being amazed by the natural features of Yellowstone Park. I am heading to the desert delights near Moab, anxious to put a checkmark next to my bucket list of “places to see.” To break the drive, I have planned a Harvest Host stop in Tremonton, Box Elder County, at an animal farm that raises goats, alpacas, pigs and chickens.
The heat is stifling, so I stop in Lava Hot Spring, which promises a mineral soak. The town is overflowing with bikini-clad, poorly-fitted-boardshorts-wearing tourists clutching large lime green, purple and orange tubes and their noodle-waving children riding on open trailers that ferry them to and from the hot springs. The sidewalk is sticky with melted ice cream. Candy floss floats in plastic balloons from storefronts, and the sweet smell of sugar hangs in the air. I duck out of town quite quickly.
My next stop is the town of Tremonton. Baking in the August sun. I nose my van through the empty streets, looking for an open grocery shop. All are closed in honour of Sunday, except for a Family Dollar Store, selling a bright array of plastics, junk food and prepackaged meals. “Welcome to Utah,” I think to myself. I do a quick mental inventory of my fresh-food-in-fridge status and decide I will survive another night and follow Mrs. Google’s directions through a network of farm roads and fields to Harland Homestead and its animals and poop.
On arrival, a petite woman with sparkling blue eyes points me to a parking spot. She is about my age and wearing a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and heavy boots. She introduces herself to me as Brandy. “You are welcome to come and watch the goats being milked this evening, and of course, our shop is open,” she says as she shows me around the farmyard.
I retreat to the solitude of my van, the doors open to a view of goats and clucking hens through a haze of heat, dust and flies. With time, as the day cools, I stretch my legs and wander around the small yard, taking in the alpaca and the store.
I step through the store's never-locked door into an air-conditioned room laden with farm goods. A dogeared notebook and stubby pencil wait beside an honesty basket. With nothing else to do, I take in the home-spun alpaca wool, the lotions and soaps, cheeses and yogurts. I carefully select two small jars of goat's yogurt from the fridge, one topped with apricot compote, the other with plum. The farm is 100% organic, and the fruit and yogurt are made in small batches by Brandy. I drop my coins into the honesty basket and carefully mark my purchase in the book.
Utah is probably best known as the capital of the Mormon faith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered at Temple Square, which encompasses five city blocks of Salt Lake City. It is a deeply conservative state. The pay gap between men and women ranks as among the third worst in the country, with men making 37% more than women— and it generally ranks poorly by other equality measures such as representation in leadership, legal protections, rights, attainment of advanced degrees and workplace environment.
Returning to my van, I come across Brandy, who has come to take the goats, one by one, for miking. I ask her questions about the farm, and she is surprisingly funny with a raunchy sense of humour. In a short time Brandy and I are chatting like old friends. She is a farmer, and life on an animal farm comes with mating, breeding and slaughtering, all of which Brandy is comfortable and familiar with.
Her female goats are all named and kept for dairy and breeding. The unnamed males will be sent for slaughtering. She talks about her goats while milking. “Notice their eyes,” she says. She explains that goats' eyes have wide, rectangular-shaped pupils that give them excellent night and peripheral vision, with almost a complete 360-degree view of their surroundings. It is their only defence against prey or danger. Brandy tells me about each personality and their place in the goat hierarchy of Harland Homestead. Enjoying her company, I am reluctant to end the evening.
In the morning, we, once again, pick up our conversation as though we have known each other for many moons. We stand at the paddock fence, and Brandy calls to her beloved alpacas, all female and all with a name. Alpaca, I learn, has no top teeth. They have bottom frontal incisors that fit against the hard upper dental ridge. They graze by “clipping” the grass rather than ripping it out of the ground. The upper lip is cleft, and each side of the lips is independently manipulated, which helps them as they fastidiously forage for food.
Photo: Harland Homestead alpacas.
We stand together, gazing across the farmyard. “It will be nice when the trees grow,” I comment, noticing spindly saplings planted equidistance apart around the farm's perimeter. “Yes, we are trying to keep them well watered, but we have a dry farm,” says Randy. I am reminded of the hardships of farming as Randy explains to me that their farm has no water rights. They are negotiating for more municipal water services to better service the farm, but it is an expensive outlay for a small hobby farm.
Together, we walk to the little farm shop. I want to buy wool for my friend Karen, an avid knitter. It is special to buy the wool of an alpaca I have met in person. I chose a neutral colour, and Brandy informed me it was wool from the alpha female I had just been petting. We sit together on the shop steps and talk. Everyone has a story.
Before Harland Homestead, Brandy and Merritt spent six years on the road in a band. Life as a travelling musician took its toll, most especially living in a bus and hours of socializing in bars and pubs. It was a family tragedy that shook Brandy to the core. Her nephew, an experienced mountain climber, died in a fall in Alaska. While at his funeral, Brandy received a call. Her daughter had sought refuge at a police station in Utah after escaping her home. “It was the most surreal day,” recalls Brandy.
Brandy was aware for some time that her daughter, one of her five children, was in an abusive relationship. On the day preceding the phone call, her son-in-law had threatened, beaten and restrained her daughter in their home. He had demanded that she choose between their son and daughter. One of them, he promised, was going to die. At gunpoint, Brandy’s two grandchildren were bundled into a car and taken up a barren mountain, where her son-in-law made them kneel, cocked his gun, held a barrel to their heads, spun an empty chamber, and pretended he was going to shoot them.
“We came home immediately and bought this farm. We needed a place, our daughter needed a place, and our grandchildren needed a place to heal.” Brandy’s daughter and grandchildren lived with them on the farm for three years. The grandchildren were home-schooled, and the family took comfort from the gentleness of the animals that surrounded them. “We surrendered to God, and the miracle of healing was our blessing. This farm gave our grandchildren a safe space to be children again.” As her daughter regained her confidence and independence, she moved into the town but stayed close to the farm and family.
It sounds like a miracle—from hurt to healing—but it was hard-earned.
During this time, Merritt drove a truck to sustain the family and the farm, and slowly, Harland Homestead became self-sustaining. “It is hard but simple work. I still remember the first meal we made with everything supplied from our farm, Nothing store-bought. Scrambled eggs with veggies, hash browns and feta cheese. It was delicious, and I knew we could provide for ourselves from this small piece of land and offer a sanctuary to my family,” says Brandy.
We sit in silence on the cool concrete step of the small store on Harland Homestead. Time has dropped away. I have been taken up a mountain in the heat of the Utah sun and watched a man draw his gun on his children while his wife, the mother of his children, frantically seeks help. There is nothing more to say, and I feel that I have known Brandy for a lifetime. It has been less than 24 hours. Travel does that somehow.
“What did you call your band?” I ask, breaking the silence. “ Second Amendment.” Why? “Our second amendment was and still is under attack by our government,” says Brandy. I look at this sweet, intelligent woman sitting next to me, and the irony of her words lands hollow in my heart.
I watch the small farm disappear in the patchwork of fields and fences in my side mirrors. None of us get to escape life. And some of us, I feel, are luckier than others. My husband died at 56 years old from an aggressive cancer, leaving me a widow in a country I had only recently immigrated to. My son was fatherless at sixteen. And yet, despite having faced one of my worst fears, I still believe that nothing bad ever happens to me. My life is charmed.
My van heads south towards Ogden, Salt Lake City and the wonders of the desert.
Photo: Meritt and Brandy.
A recent U.S. survey estimates that one in three Utah women (33.6%) will experience some form of sexual violence, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Additionally, 41.6% of Utah women will experience psychological aggression, and 36.4% will experience coercive control.
References and further reading.