Duke Staff Member Finds an Outlet on Her Farm

Kate Plyler raises turkeys, goats and a sheep

Kate Plyler feeding her goats.
In the early days of their farming adventure, Kate Plyler and her husband, Conrad, tried their hand at raising turkeys. Photo courtesy of Kate Plyler.

“I always joke that we don’t know what we’re doing,” Plyler said. “But we really don’t. Neither of us were really prepared for this. But we were ready to learn as we go.”

The decision to try their hand at farming came from a desire to live more sustainably and learn a little bit more about where their food came from. So, in addition to a garden that produces tomatoes and cucumbers, the Plylers decided to raise turkeys.

On the day that a turkey farmer delivered the first members of the Plylers’ flock, the couple’s inexperience was evident right away. The couple went inside for a brief moment with the turkeys in the yard only to return and find one in a tree and another on the roof of their house.

 “We didn’t know they could fly!,” Plyler said.

In the first year of the farm, the Plylers had nine turkeys, getting an up-close look at the amount of work, resources and time went into raising animals.

“It was pretty eye-opening,” Plyler said.

After the turkeys, the Plylers decided to raise two Nigerian dwarf goats – names Sugar Plum and Pumpernickel – as well as a sheep named Baabara.

In the morning before they start work, and in between tasks and meetings, the Plylers venture out onto their property to check on their animals and crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers.

While the Plyler’s farming adventure was fueled by a desire for a new challenge and deeper understanding of the agriculture they rely on, the Plylers’ quickly found that the farm helped their well-being.

This isn’t uncommon as Kavanah Anderson, Director of Learning and Engagement for Sarah P. Duke Gardens, said there are numerous ways that spending time outdoors, specifically working with plants, can positively affect a person’s well-being.

Kate Plyler and her husband, Conrad, currently tend to two goats - Sugar Plum and Pumpernickel - and a sheep, named Baabara. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

She points out that tending a garden provides exercise and give tired eyes a break from staring at a computer screen. She said there’s even research that shows a connection between the microbes found in garden soil and improved mood. But the awareness and satisfaction gained from helping things grow is the most lasting reward.

“There is a really positive change that can happen when you’re caring for living things,” Anderson said. “You’re more attuned to seasonal change. You see the relationships between living things and build empathy and an awareness of things beyond yourself.”

In her work with the Center for Health Management, part of the Duke Department of Population Health Sciences, Kate Plyler often has long phone interviews with people who are – or who have loved ones who are – facing serious health crises. These conversations often deal with difficult subjects such as cancer or health hurdles facing children.

She said that following these interviews or any stressful work task, taking a minute to check on her animals, spending a moment among the green plants rising from her garden or making notes of the farm tasks waiting for her when her Duke workday ends, offers a welcome dose of balance.

“The ability to step out of the office and go pet a goat, during the workday, it makes a really big difference,” Plyler said. “It makes a positive overall difference in our mental health to have this overarching project to focus on.”

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