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Mary Rohlfing

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For 12 years, Mary Rohlfing was a professor of communications at Boise State University. But in 2004, she chucked academia to become what she calls a "soil farmer." Now instead of wandering the halls of higher education, Rohlfing roams Morning Owl Farm, an 8-acre piece of fertile land in the Boise Foothills, where she lives with her partner Lori, co-owner of Newt & Harold's board shop, and a menagerie of animals. Rohlfing grows 40 different types of vegetables, plus assorted herbs and flowers, and raises 165 ducks. She helped launch the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, worked to defeat the anti-gay Proposition One in the 1990s and spearheaded the creation of the American Community Values networking group. BW rode along on a trip to Meridian to pick up a 1,000-pound bag of duck feed.

For 12 years, you were a BSU communications professor. What made you decide to go raise ducks?

There were a couple things that happened. Boise State joined that group of schools that now believes first and foremost in research. Because governments aren't funding education, they have to go seek out money. And funders don't pay for good teaching, they pay for stuff they can quantify, like how many research publications you have. Or industries will pay to produce workers, like Micron will give you an engineering school to produce Micron workers. It started to get very corporate, and I never wanted to work for a corporation, so I sort of lost faith in higher education.

Did you enjoy teaching?

Oh, I loved it. I really loved teaching, I just hated everything else that came along with it. Being an educator in Idaho is not easy; it's not for wimps. Because in general, the culture is not supportive of education, and they're suspicious of educators. So it was tough to do that well here because the demands were that you should be spreading yourself pretty thin. I really had a dean tell me at the end of my career that teaching really should have been a lower priority than research or trying to get grant money.

Did you know much about farming when you started?

No, nothing.

What drew you to this life?

After Sept. 11, I was standing in my garden, I think it was about the 15th of Sept., 2001, and I realized that was the place I was most at peace in my whole life, just picking tomatoes or something really mundane. I looked around and thought, "This is where I want to be." So I started to read and ask questions. I love research; I just don't want to do the shitty research you have to do because you're supposed to do it to prove your worth. I want to do research that matters. I had this big question, "How can I farm?" and I found the answer by reading and consulting with people and paying attention. And I saw an opening and an opportunity. I wanted to grow food and feed people. That's what I thought I was doing. But I don't really do that anymore. Now what I'm doing is creating soil.

So you're a dirt farmer?

I'm a soil farmer. I realized that farming isn't really just about feeding people, you're really creating soil. Because food is an outcome of the soil. I see my whole farm as a system, that everything on it should have a place in the soil cycle.

How many critters do you have on the farm?

Right now, two barn cats, one indoor-outdoor cat, two dogs, six turkeys, 165 ducks, two pigeons, an owl and we board two horses.

Do you ever eat your ducks?

No.

Do you name your ducks?

The lame birds I've named are Crook, because she had a crooked neck defect that we fixed, and Uno, because she has only one good eye. I have turkeys named Matt and Jude and Ben and Connie, named after neighbors.

How was your year last year?

This past year was a tougher year for us because I got West Nile Virus last fall. I had three or four days of 103-, 104-degree fever. That's when I went to the doctor. And I was sick to my stomach a lot and I couldn't stay awake. I was sick for probably eight weeks.

What's the most common problem you have on the farm?

Things are always breaking.

What is the most fun part of farming?

The starting season. Planting those very first seeds. That and also seeing the very first little green shoots begin to come up.

What's the hardest thing about what you do?

I would say that it's admitting that I can't save a bird's life and then doing a humane culling. A lot of folks see a lameness or defect and cull the bird immediately. I try to doctor them—cleaning wounds, setting lame legs with tape and sticks—really!—using "pool therapy" to rebuild endurance, whatever I can. Sometimes, though, those don't work. We name those birds and we let them live as long as nature will let us have them. Otherwise, no, they're not pets.

What do you think needs to happen in Boise?

I hope we'll get some visionary leadership, and this ties into my job as a farmer. We are probably going to continue to grow, because it's such a great valley, but right now, I've been watching how subdivisions are created and approved, and the questions asked are sort of old-fashioned, like where will the children go to school, and who is going to provide fire protection? And all those things matter, but I think the big question we aren't asking is, who's going to feed those people?

Why do you call your customers "eaters?"

They're not just consumers. They are people who eat the food that I grow.

How does it feel to wake up every day knowing that you are feeding people?

The Jewish mother in me is like, woo hoo, you know, it's great! It's really gratifying, and I get these little fan letters from people who e-mail me and say, "I had the most incredible salad last night!"

It seems like my garden is an art project in a lot of ways, a performance, but it judges me mostly.

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