Bristol homestead is a test farm and a classroom

BRISTOL — Jon Turner nurtures a complicated sort of nostalgia, and it comes with a soundtrack.
“Early Artie Shaw, the big bands,” he said. “I have a nostalgia for the 1940s.”
It makes sense that a former U.S. Marine whose ancestors have fought in every war since the American Revolution might feel a connection with the musical backdrop to World War II.
But for Turner, who operates Wild Roots Farm in Bristol, an educational operation offering workshops for anyone interested in resilient food systems and ecological design, it’s more than that.
“That generation was on the cusp of industrial agriculture,” he said. “Families were still self-sufficient and still had personal relationships to the land. This is special. It’s important to me.”
Recapturing and honoring that connection, he believes, are essential to the future of food systems and, indeed, to human life on this planet.
Turner sees Wild Roots Farm, which consists of 10.5 acres nestled at the foot of Bristol Cliffs, as an “educational landscape, focused on community engagement through practical application. We utilize regenerative/restorative practices to develop resilient food systems and assist community members in viewing the landscape through an ecological lens.”
But the project’s beginnings go much deeper — and are much more personal.
“Without plants, I wouldn’t be here,” Turner said.
In the Battle of Ramadi in 2006, while on his second deployment to Iraq as a U.S. marine, Turner suffered two traumatic brain injuries in the space of 18 hours: one when mortar fire hit his barracks, and again the next day when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. He was 21 years old. A year later he received an honorable discharge from the Marines.
By that time the Connecticut native had already forged a special connection with the people and landscapes of Vermont, and so decided to move here.
Like many of his fellow soldiers, however, he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and struggled with depression, anxiety, insomnia, alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. In Burlington he found it difficult to reintegrate into civilian life.
Then he started making art with activists and fellow veterans.
“We made paper from uniforms,” said Turner, now 34. “Some saw it as art, some as politically charged, some as emotionally charged. But it helped me process my experiences. It also put me on a path of not relying on normal systems to understand my experiences and issues.”
JON TURNER HAS taken a regenerative approach to agriculture at Wild Roots Farm at the foot of Bristol Cliffs. The farm includes forest garden food systems, terrace farming, silvopastures and permaculture. He shares the landscape, and the knowledge he’s acquired by working in it, through a series of workshops offered on the farm.
Independent photo/Steve James
In 2009, at the Burlington Clay Studio, he met Cathy Ward, whom he would later marry.
“I still remember driving across the country with her in a VW bus and looking over at her and thinking, ‘I’m going to marry her,’” Turner recalled.
With equal clarity Turner remembers breaking ground in their first garden that year, a 10-by-15-foot plot at the Rockpoint School in Burlington.
“I felt my bare feet in the soil, and growing food suddenly made sense,” he said.
He didn’t know it at the time, but that first season tending their garden would eventually help him find a sense of purpose in life.
“By teaching, we learn.”
Five years later — this past March — Turner won the 2019 Eco Spirit Award, which is given annually by the Ripton organization Spirit in Nature to “persons whose lives are illuminated by their appreciation of the beauty, mystery, and preciousness of the natural world. Awardees are dynamic role models who engage us in debate, and urge us to explore the implications of our behavior during our present global environmental crisis. They lead us to a path of hope for the future of all life and nature on earth.”
Turner has reached this point by learning — and teaching — as he goes.
“You have the best teacher all around you,” he said, waving his hand across Wild Roots’ hilly landscape, bustling with life.
Since moving onto their homestead site in 2016, Jon and Cathy have established a silvopasture for rotational grazing of goats and poultry, installed a 3,600-square-foot forest garden, built annual beds and a high tunnel for annual/perennial production, and planted more than 400 trees valued for their ability to cycle nutrients, provide forage and habitat for wildlife and yield food for human consumption.
All the while, Turner has continued to work with veterans through the Farmer Veteran Coalition, whose Vermont chapter he founded in 2014.
Wild Roots Farm has also welcomed hundreds of Middlebury College and University of Vermont students for workshops and service-learning projects.
“People are looking for a connection to the landscape,” Turner said. “And it’s reassuring that there are youth behind me who care about the environment.”
This past Saturday Wild Roots Farm hosted a pasture walk and discussion about grazing/rest periods, pasture management, soil building and pasture management.
Turner thinks of himself as merely a “conduit” in this system.
“There’s a lot of science to this, lots of numbers,” he said. “Carbon sequestration and nutrients. But that’s not entirely part of my approach. I come at it from a more holistic perspective. It’s more visual, more design-oriented. There’s a lot of sitting-on-the-hill visualization.”
JON TURNER’S DOG, Sadie, accompanies him on walk around his Wild Roots Farm in Bristol.
Independent photo/Steve James
Part of it is also about, say, paying attention to what happens in the middle of bad weather, and learning from that.
“Interactions and reactions should influence design,” he said.
The workshops have been so successful that next spring Turner hopes to expand the curriculum.
He doesn’t seem comfortable taking much credit for this success, however.
“The landscape is what lights people up,” he said. “Any time a light bulb goes on for somebody, it’s because of a conversation they’re having with the environment, not because of something I’m saying or doing.”
His next institutional project, he hopes, will involve creating a nonprofit and opening a farmstead school.
“This place cradles me and I want other people to be cradled by it,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s keeping his hands in the ground.
“It’s meditative, healing. The environment knows.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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