Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Christianity and natural farming in the Hudson Valley

Sara Badilini

Dairy farmer Rick Vreeland tends to his cows. (Photo/Sara Badilini)

A tall wooden cross and an American flag announce the entrance to “Freedom Hill Farm,” in Otisville, a rural village in Orange County, N.Y, that is north of the city, but not quite upstate.

The owners of this 50-acres , Rick Vreeland and his wife Julie Vreeland, are born again Christians. By combining the principles of natural farming with those of Christianity, they hope to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel with others.

“We don’t own the farm, we simply take care of it,” said Rick Vreeland, 67. “It belongs to God.”

The cows and their calves mooing in the barn are the soundtrack of this holy land, which is dotted with colorful signs singing God’s praises.

Jewish, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even atheists visit the farm frequently as well however, shopping their products and asking questions about the owners’ faith.

From the cows’ milk, the Vreelands produce yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir that they sell and distribute in retail locations from Albany to Brooklyn.

All of the employees — two full-time, five part-time — and the several volunteers are Christians. “We don’t ask for it, but God seems to send us only other Christians,” Julie Vreeland, 64, said.

Faith hasn’t always been so central to the Vreelands.

Julie Vreeland grew up in Otisville in a Roman Catholic family, but she “unconsciously fell away from religion,” right after receiving the sacrament of confirmation, at the age of 13.

Rick Vreeland never stepped into a church until he turned 38. “Everything changed that year. I was crossing a yard and I heard a voice telling me ‘You have to go to church,’” he said.

He doesn’t know why God picked that particular moment of his life to speak to him, but ever since, he has dedicated his life to what that voice called him to do.

After growing up on the family farm, not far away from where Freedom Hill Farm is today, he started farming in 1972, when he opened his own commercial farm with a colleague. His wife joined him in 1975, after they got married. Together they worked on their commercial farm for 26 years with more than 2,000 cows.

Despite the success of their business, they decided to quit and four years later they opened Freedom Hill Farm. The barn had been a property of the Vreeland family since the 1930s. After farming it for generations, the dairy farm shut down in the 1960s, and the barn sat empty until May 2007, when the Vreelands opened Freedom Hill and nine milking cows started calling the barn home.

“Before renovating the place we had been praying for years,” JulieVreeland said. “I wanted to do something for Jesus, but didn’t know what.”

Then they came up with the idea of a small dairy farm that could also be a Christian ministry for the youth.

The Vreelands understood they made the right choice when they met their neighbors, who run the Freedom Farm Community, a nonprofit that also happens to be a Christian ministry for young people in the form of an organic farm, where they grow tomatoes, cilantro, pumpkins and all sorts of vegetables.

Edgar Hayes, the nonprofit’s executive director, remembers when the Vreelands knocked on the door and announced the plan for their land. The Vreelands and Freedom Farm Community still cooperate today.

“We have our own program for the youths and they’re really busy with the dairy farm, but their cows come on our land, and we share a mission,” he said.

Lou Enoff, president of the Christian Farmers Outreach — a program based in Maryland that supports Christian farmers around the world with different initiatives — explains the connection between farming and Christianity using the parable of the sower explained in Matthew’s gospel.

“To sow the seeds of the gospel you talk to people to tell them about Christ,” Enoff, 78, said.

Christian farming became a popular concept in the United States in the 1980s. To respect God’s creation, devoted farmers started promoting organic agriculture and unprocessed foods, as opposed to more industrialized products, Enoff said.

Some Christian farmers gathered in organizations such as Christian Farmers Outreach, and the Christian Farmers fellowship. Others, like the Vreelands, carry out their Christian mission on their own.

“Once the seed is planted, if it falls on good ground, it grows and produces crops,” Enoff said. “If it falls in the weeds, then the weeds can choke it out. It's similar to evangelism.”

Today, the Vreelands own 36 milking cows and have around 1,000 clients, who come to the farm once or twice a week to collect their order or raw milk. Freedom Hill is one of only a few farms that sells raw, unpasteurized milk and products. They believe that producing whole foods, while respecting their animals and caring for the land is what makes their farming Christian.

The days at Freedom Hill Farm start early. Julie wakes up at 3.30 a.m., checking the milk orders, while her husband starts the day at 4 a.m. Once they are both awake, they study the Bible for about an hour before heading out into the fields.

“We pray for the cows, the land, the people we know. And we pray every day for divine meetings here at the farm,” said Rick Vreeland.

By 5 a.m. he is milking the cows, while his wife feeds the goats. The rest of the farm soon comes to life. The couple’s son shows up to gather the products and deliver them to the retail locations, and the store manager arrives to open the shop. Other employees and volunteers work in the barn, others fill the milk, and one makes the yogurt — which includes the pasteurization process, the culture of the yogurt with bacteria, and a 10-hour setting.

In the early afternoon Julie Vreeland takes the calves from the barn into the adjacent meadow, followed by some young visitors. Each child leads their own calf with a rope, teaching the calves how to follow instructions. One of them struggles more than others when a stubborn calf refuses to follow the young girl’s lead.

When bigger groups of young visitors come the Vreelands organize afternoon activities and games to entertain them, always starting with a prayer. But the rest of the time with the children is dedicated to games and activities, it’s not meant to be a religion class, explains Julie. Vreeland.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the children with a lesson on faith, we want them to witness our faith through natural farming. But when the subject of religion comes up we are happy to speak about it,” she said.

The Vreelands say they have found a way to combine the farmers’ lifestyle with the Christian ministry, but they don’t belong to any particular branch of Christianity. After trying a number of churches and denominations, they’ve found their own way to worship and praise God.

They hold weekly Bible study gatherings at their home — now on hold because of the pandemic. They also pour their faith and Christian values into how they care for the cows.

As they explain, one of the basic needs for cows to thrive is comfort. That’s why the cows at Freedom Hill Farm stay in the barn only while they’re getting milked and they spend the rest of their day in the fields, where they can take a dip in the pond and lay down.

That heavenly environment for the livestock prolongs their life expectancy, Rick Vreeland explains. On average, the cows at Freedom Hill live around 10 years, he says as he caresses the back of a cow whose box is in front of a poster of “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci, hanging on the barn’s wall.

“You cannot just go to church and think you’re going straight to heaven,” Rick Vreeland said. “You have to be born twice and then you secure yourself a place in heaven. This, instead, is cow’s heaven.”


Covering Religion: A World in the City

Covering Religion: A World in the City

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