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Jon Darling opens his farm to returning army vets

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Lewey is a six-day old lamb. He's the first animal I meet on Darling Farm, stumbling around on four gangly legs. Farmer Jon Darling follows behind him, along with Gordon Darling, his father. Gordon picks up the lamb, a brown, tan, white, and black-speckled creature, and holds him tenderly. "This is Lewey. L-e-w-e-y, named after my great uncle," he says. "And this is Penne Pasta," he adds, pointing at a wriggling brown dog at our feet.

Jon stands a few feet away from us, talking to City Paper photographer Jonathan Boncek about the various chefs he works with. I look between Jon and Lewey. Gordon sees my face, imagining the future fate of the tiny lamb. I'm worried. "We're gonna keep him," he tells me as Lewey nibbles his shirt.

Welcome to Darling Farm.

Honey Hill

Darling Farm is a 20-acre sheep and goat farm on Honey Hill, a spot in McLellanville surrounded by the Francis Marion National Forest. Darling has been working this piece of land for three months now. But he's been farming since 2012 when he had his livestock at Thornhill Farms. He also has a group of pigs on a piece of land about 10 miles up the road.

Darling is kind and gentle with the goats and sheep, and he carries dog treats in his back pocket for Libby and Bella, the great Pyrenees who patrol his stock. I understand that he will take many of these animals to Kingstree to be killed and processed, but I still wonder if he gains something from helping get them there. I ask him if livestock farming in particular helps with the rehabilitation of army veterans — do they crave that animal contact? He shrugs, "It's really about meeting other vets."

Gordon Darling, Jon's father, walks through the fields with the farm's herd of sheep. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Gordon Darling, Jon's father, walks through the fields with the farm's herd of sheep.

That's why I'm here, to talk to Darling about his experience not just as a farmer, but as an ex-Army Ranger now tilling the land. A member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Darling plans to set his farm up as a place for other vets to come and stay for up to three months at a time. He's had a few come out so far, staying for long weekends. "It's amazing the conversations that kick off with someone you've never met," he says.

Just last week Darling was selected to join the fellowship program offered by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which awards farms $5,000 dollars for equipment. "The idea is helping vets returning home from service. Sometimes it's not an easy transformation," says Darling. "I'm hoping that we can provide a place where they feel safe, take the time to decompress, and work side by side with other ex-soldiers in a similar position."

Darling joined the military after 9/11, serving tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Africa. But when he got back to the U.S., like many vets, he struggled with the question of, what now? After several years of DJing, working in restaurants, and even owning a restaurant, Darling started working in livestock production on Thornhill Farms in McLellanville. He points out the original Thornhill sheep to me, old frail-looking creatures with worn down knees and tags in their ears. He admits that they may need to be put down soon.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Darling is no stranger to death. A roommate died in combat, with a pregnant wife back home. He shakes his head, mentioning that the deceased man's brother joined the army soon after. Darling served six deployments over the period of his four-year enlistment. "It was so many deployments, it kinda flew," he says.

From farm to market

Darling owns 66 sheep, some are just grazing animals, most will be used as a source of meat, and others, specifically rams, serve mainly as breeding sheep. He also has 14 goats, currently used for their milk, with the potential for them to be used for their meat. Darling's starting a new breeding program with his pigs, currently getting 18 ready for market.

Darling sells his lamb meat, goat milk and cheese, and pigs to local restaurants like FIG, McCrady's, and the Granary, whose chef, Brannon Florie, has also recently been asking Darling for goat meat. When he tells me all of this, we're squatting in a field, surveying the animals grazing before us. The goats won't let you get close enough to pet them — they stare quizzically, the kids hiding beneath their mothers' legs, and the big bucks shaking their heads and huge horns from side to side. They're vocal creatures, just like the sheep, who embrace the concept of "baa" to the Nth degree. Considering Darling Farm is new to the business, Darling himself isn't quite sure how many goats he'll ultimately end up with.

Before we walk the fields, Darling and his father head into a small shed, the floor covered in hay. Six lambs trot behind them, eager to suck on the bottles of milk that Darling carries. He gingerly picks each lamb up, tipping the bottle in their mouths. They have names — Stewie, Tips, Juanita, Happy, and they were all abandoned by their mothers. And so the task of raising them has fallen to Darling. "It's hard to slaughter them if you're bottle-feeding them," says Darling.

"It's more than just the animals," he adds. "You turn the land into what you see as healthy and productive."

Darling's livestock don't just produce meat and milk — they also help clear his land. The sheep and goats eat grass, the goats eating a little more of the stems and other gnarly parts because, well, they're goats. The pigs dig into the ground and get at the roots of plants, ridding the field of tough stuff Darling can't pull up himself. He'll spot burn after the animals get the grass down enough. I ask him about a timeline for that and he sweeps his arms to a huge patch of shrubs 100 yards away. There's still a lot of work to be done.

A day on the farm

The farm's goats produce milk and cheese, and they may soon be used for their meat. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The farm's goats produce milk and cheese, and they may soon be used for their meat.

Darling was thinking about farming long before he joined the military. His father's side of the family was comprised of dairy farmers, and Darling often spent time on their land. "But I was playing, I wasn't working," he laughs.

Once he decided to be a farmer, Darling gained as much knowledge as he could by attending goat and sheep conferences. At the end of the day, though, he says, "You can read it all, but until you do it, you don't know."

An example of not-knowing-until-it-happens? When he witnessed his first birth. "It was a little funny," he says. His eyes widen as he adds, "It's just like, 'oh shit!'" Darling is generally alone when the sheep give birth, and he's had to assist a few mothers. Remember Tips and Happy? They, along with all the other bottle-fed babies had something abnormal happen in their births. The mothers leave and Darling takes over.

Sometimes, though, Darling may not be around for a birth, and that's where Libby and Bella come in. The dogs sit by a baby lamb who's been abandoned, alerting Darling. Sometimes they even lick the after birth off.

The sheep herd currently consists of three different breeds, St. Croix, Katahdin, and Dorper. Darling isn't sure if he wants to keep the St. Croix around for much longer because their medical issues are harder for him to assess. He can look in the eyes of the other sheep and tell if they're sick, but that's not the case with the two St. Croix, big sheep that stand apart from the herd, their long beards making them look like grumpy old men.

"I'm not looking to raise full registered animals," says Darling. "I just want them to taste good."

The next step

Darling doesn't want to rush mass production of his livestock. He's not interested in that. He's already made valuable connections with local chefs who appreciate his sustainable and ethically raised meat, and he would like to continue in that vein. What he does want is to turn Darling Farm into a destination, for vets and civilians alike.

"It will be as farm to table as it gets," he says, explaining planned dinners, farmers markets, and parties on the farm. Darling has partnered with Tara Derr, best known as the owner of Farmbar, the mobile restaurant that once lived at 1600 Meeting Street. Derr and the Farmbar have bopped around since that stint at 1600 Meeting, but she's setting up permanently at Darling Farm, where she and Darling will create a foodie and farm destination. Darling Farm will host its first Saturday event, Talladega Fire + Fund, a fundraiser and celebration for the farm, on Sat. April 30, and they hope to be open more Saturdays throughout the year.

Most importantly though, Darling wants to take in vets, letting them live with him while they tend the stock together. For now, the land still needs work, and the pond's one duck needs companions. "I call him Marcus, like the Lone Survivor," says Darling, referencing Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who earned a Purple Cross for actions against the Taliban in 2005.

The lone survivor — a fate Darling has avoided. Wherever he walks, his animals flock to his feet, his legs, his hands, and if his plan works out, there will be scores of vets joining him on Honey Hill. As Darling says, "It can be a working retreat for some, or a base of learning. Doesn't matter, as long as they feel good about themselves and feel important to the community."

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