By Jennifer Woolwine

How Hobby Farming Changed My Life


baghdad to barnyard

February 19, 2021

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It is crazy to think how different my life was just a few years ago. I struggled daily with getting out of bed. I was in excruciating pain, physically and emotionally. I was on a lot of narcotic medications for pain management. I am talking about more narcotics than people with debilitating conditions take. I was on fentanyl, oxycodone, valium, and other prescriptions from forty to fifty pills a day.

In 2013 I attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription pain medication and was in and out of psychiatric facilities due to my depression and suicidal ideation. I even had to take disability retirement from my government job at the age of 27. I know to some people that being “retired” so young is a dream, but I felt like I had lost my identity. I no longer had a job to keep me distracted and busy. All it did was mess with me mentally, and I slipped further into depression.

I eventually dropped out of college during my senior year because I didn’t care anymore. I had no goals or dreams, and since I was not working or going to school, I lost all motivation to live. I was completely isolated and spent most of my time in bed or lying on the couch. Honestly, those few years are a blur because I completely shut down and checked out.

We needed a change

My husband, David, knew we needed to make a drastic change, not only to save our marriage but to save ourselves. We lived on a small lot in the suburbs, and while we had a large, beautiful home, we never felt at peace there. The neighbors were close, and there was no privacy. There was always traffic and things going on in the neighborhood. We were suffocating. We both needed a change, and fast.

We were in the process of moving to Florida when our paths took an unexpected turn, and we ended up buying a 42-acre horse farm in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Moving to the farm saved my life in more ways than one. I chose sobriety shortly after we purchased the farm and haven’t looked back since. (I’ll link my blog post about my recovery here). I attended therapy regularly and worked on myself and my mental health.

David and I both struggle with PTSD from our deployment in Iraq. We feel claustrophobic in crowds and do not like being around many people or in traffic. We are always looking for escape routes, whether it’s a grocery store or a restaurant. I cannot tell you how often we have both walked out of a store with a full cart because of our anxiety. My anxiety manifests into physical symptoms like passing out because I feel uncomfortable around strangers. So finding a space where we could relax was significant to us.

Meant to be

When we first saw the farm, we knew this was where we were meant to be. (You can read more about my Farm Story here.) We started spending time outdoors, going for walks on the farm, practicing target, and even playing golf. We had 42 acres surrounded by thousands of acres of National Forest, which meant no neighbors! We could finally breathe again!

Soon after my first year of sobriety, we added animals to the farm. I will never forget how excited I was to have the farm animals I had always dreamed of finally. Even though I grew up on farms for most of my childhood, we were not allowed to have any indoor pets. So, besides a few dogs and cats, my experience with farm animals and indoor pets was limited.  Little did David know that I wanted ALL the animals our farm could fit.

Feral donkeys

Rocky and Annie were feral donkeys. They were eight years old and had never been handled. You could tell immediately they had a rough life. They were beaten up and covered in scars, just like me. At first, they intimidated me, especially with Rocky, our largest standard donkey. He was very protective of Annie and would kick her whenever anyone got near her.

 I started just sitting in a chair in their stall, reading a book, or playing music on my phone. I would have a bucket of treats with me, and it was two weeks before they would take treats out of the bucket. Then a few weeks after that, they would take the pleasure out of my hand. I spent hours and hours at the barn with them for months. The more we stuck to a routine, the more they started coming around and seeking us out, mainly for treats, but we were okay with that.

A strong bond

Over time, I eventually started gaining their trust, and our bond strengthened when I incorporated clicker training. You can check out that blog post to read more about clicker training feral donkeys here.

I fell in love with donkeys and the special bond I have with them. We currently have a happy herd of five donkeys, but I want to rescue a pregnant jenny one day so that I can experience the joy of a baby donkey. A baby donkey is definitely on my bucket list.

We added a lot of animals to the farm within a short period. We added donkeys, goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits, and peafowl within a year. Each animal is unique and brings something different to the farm. I had no idea how much this farm and the animals that reside at Little Mountain Ark would change my life.

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While running a farm is a lot of work and not easy, it has made me a better person. Having a daily routine and responsibilities is beneficial for my mental health. The animals provide a sense of calm and companionship that someone is suffering from chronic depression needs.

For someone dealing with many toxic family relationships, the animals provide a safe space for me to be myself. I do not have to pretend everything is okay and that they love me on my good days and bad. The animals provide unconditional love and support that I was not receiving in my other relationships.

PTSD and Farming

Buying the farm did not cure our post-traumatic stress disorder. We still have issues with being around people and out and about in public. We will probably always struggle with it, but we are doing much better now with the farm than we were without it. I have formed more genuine friendships through the farming community, which has opened many opportunities. I found a passion for photography, writing, gardening, and creating greeting cards and custom pet art.

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Several years ago, I was completely isolated; I had no desire for relationships with friends or family. Now, because of the farm, I know what true friendships mean, and I am so grateful to everyone who has followed my journey thus far.

Sharing my story

I wanted to share this post because we all have struggles and heartaches. While we may not have been through the same traumatic experiences, we have all experienced depression or trauma. We all have dark days, but I want you to know the light is waiting for you on the other side.

Keep fighting; if you feel alone or have nowhere to turn, do not be afraid to ask for help. We all need a helping hand at times.  We found hope and healing on the farm, and I want to share that hope with struggling others. Whether it is a little conversation by the woodstove, walking in the woods, tending to the garden, or petting the animals. While we don’t have everything planned out, we are hopeful for the future of Little Mountain Ark Farm.

xo, Jen

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  1. Gayle says:

    Hello, I am Gayle, a follower of your delightful Instagram posts. You directed me to your blog to find the answer to a question I asked about how you found your farm. Thank you so much because your blog is going to give me even more pleasure learning about you and your animals. I suffered from depression for several years but was able to work through it with help from God and the never ending love of my husband. It is unique in that something that helped pull me out of the darkness were the books of James Herriot and his animal stories. My daughter’s two doggies give me happiness beyond description and our little farm of orchards and veggie beds gives a reason to be outdoors and feeling grateful.

    Best of luck as you live life on your gorgeous farm.

    • Hi Gayle! I am so glad you decided to check out my blog! I love how Instagram helps to connect so many like minded people from all over. That is wonderful that you were able to worth through your depression and have come out on the other side. You are an inspiration to so many! I love how nature and country living can heal so many broken spirits! Thank you for taking the time to reach out. I look forward to getting to know you more! Have a wonderful day!

      XOXO- Jennifer W,

Jen Woolwine       Author

Jen is a combat veteran and wife who is passionate about animal rescue, homesteading, and mental health advocacy. Jen's amazing journey of transitioning from military service to homesteading can be followed on her blog and social media platforms @baghdadtobarnyard.

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