Every morning, Cheryl Denz rises in the predawn quiet and sits down at her computer, composing off the top of her head a prose poem that tells the ongoing saga of life at Terra Optima Farm in Appleton.
In these morning farm reports, which she posts on social media and which have earned her thousands of fans from near and far, she has shared funny things that happen on the farm, like Charlotte the pig’s romance with Lancelot the rooster, and sad things, too, like the recent accidental death of a piglet. A few months ago, though, the farm reports began including occasional updates about something new — the mysterious health concerns that had been plaguing the 59-year-old farmer for more than a year.
“4:15 am Farm Report / After much internal debate…. / Do I write about this or not / I decided / Why Not / Not about the Farm / Definitely about the Farmer / and / Healthcare / One doctor / One year and one half / knowing something / was very very wrong inside myself / But what? / Shortness of breath / Unexplained rashes / Nasal cavity lesions / Hemorrhaging under my skin / Low fevers / Cold night sweats / Coughing gasping for air no apparent reason,” the report began for June 27.
It was frightening, she said this week in an interview at her farm.
“They thought I had cancer,” she said.
But through a long diagnostic process, a doctor finally figured out what was ailing her. She was suffering from a rare disease called sarcoidosis, which causes inflammation and can affect the organs in the body. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sarcoidosis usually starts in the lungs, skin and lymph nodes, and also can affect the eyes, liver, heart and brain. It can’t be cured, she said, but it can hopefully be managed, and Denz was put on high levels of steroids. The drugs had strong, unwanted side effects.
“I don’t sleep well, and it can make me feel nervous and jumpy. Nauseous,” she said.
The doctor’s appointments, medical tests, fatigue and other symptoms of both the disease and the drugs seemed relentless, and managing her health has become more and more of a full-time job. That’s not so easy, because she already has a more-than-full time job: as a livestock farmer who is solely responsible for the health and well-being of all those animals. Her pigs, chickens, miniature rescue donkeys, horses, goats and other animals that live at Terra Optima depend on her for their food, water, affection and care.
“People keep asking why I keep farming,” she said. “Well, I don’t want to stop. I have all of this to wake up to. It keeps me going. It keeps me from feeling sorry for myself.”
Life at Terra Optima Farm
If there is such a thing as a typical livestock farm in Maine, Terra Optima is not it. Instead, it’s a place where the pigs roam wide tracts of forest instead of being cooped up in a stall, where chickens lounge on a hot day in the shade of a grape arbor and where a nursing sow trusts Denz enough to let her cuddle the piglets. The farm seems peaceful for both human and animal inhabitants, and welcoming to customers who come in and pay for their raw milk, eggs, pork and other products out of a fridge in the barn using the honor system. Denz started farming in earnest in 2000, after she was misdiagnosed with lymphoma (she now believes her earlier symptoms likely were connected to her sarcoidosis, which she simply refers to as a blood disorder).
“I came home and thought if I get out of this, I want to make changes,” she remembers thinking.
One of the changes she made, raising animals for food, actually was inspired by a terrible dinner she had with her neighbor.
“We were having pork chops from the supermarket. They were flavorless, gray and nasty. They were so bad,” Denz said. “We talked about raising a pig, and we each got one pig. We were having a grand time. The meat was great. The experience was good. The next year we did it again.”
That enterprise grew over the years until she was raising 120 hogs in rotation, having them forage outside in a farming technique called silvopasture. The meat she got was good and she eventually opened Terra Optima Farm Market in Rockland in 2013, selling her homemade sausage and other products from other local farms. Her morning farm reports really began as a way to get free advertising for the store, but it didn’t work out exactly as planned.
“I started writing about the farm, hoping there would be a correlation between the farm and the store,” Denz said. “What happened was that people would come in to meet me, not to buy things.”
Eventually the store closed, but Denz kept on raising hogs and selling the meat to local restaurants and other customers. She also kept on with the farm report, sharing her daily observations, pictures and videos of the animals and people at the farm with an ever-growing audience. In her warm, personal stream-of-consciousness style, she writes about the drought, the piglets, the fluffy new puppy, her human helpers and much more.
“4:30 am Farm Report / Three dogs and I / stand in the chill of the early morning air / A quiet time this morning / Sherman sniffs the air / wondering who has been wandering through / His Farm Domaine / Lucy rolls on the dew covered lawn / sliding down the grassy slope / over and over again / I stand pajamas boots on / looking for stars animal movements anything at all,” she wrote on Sept. 1.
Morning Farm Report
The reports do not shy away from the hard work that’s an inherent part of any farm. That work didn’t used to be a problem for Denz, who has been active all her life. That’s why it has been especially strange and disconcerting to no longer have the energy and ability to do all the things she used to do. It is maybe even stranger to share her situation with the world, and to accept the help that has been offered from her friends and her community.
In the morning farm reports, Denz doesn’t focus on her health troubles, but they sneak their way in sometimes. That’s been okay with both her and her readers.
“When I got sick and I started writing about it, oh my God, the personal messages,” she said. “People would say, ‘keep writing.’ Sometimes those messages would come at a time when I would say, why bother? Then I get a note or a phone call. Someone stops me on the street and says to say hi to Charlotte. There’s a lot of that, and it seems to come at a time when I need it.”
It was hard for her to write about what was going wrong with her body. But she felt compelled to share, in part because she has health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and the last few months of political challenges to the law have been hard for her to take.
“I have Obamacare, and I was worried that everyone who has it was going to lose it. That’s why I wrote what I wrote. I wanted to let people know it’s not just faraway people who would be affected. It’s people right here, and I can use my writing for that,” she said. “This constant threat of the last year, of the possibility of losing that health insurance, is almost more than I can stand. I’m a walking pre-existing condition. I’m not an overly political person. You won’t see me at rallies. I’m busy working. But this is all of us.”
One of the steadfast readers of Denz’s morning farm reports is Alison Wheeler, a tattoo artist and massage therapist from Rockland. Wheeler met Denz last summer when her horse, Simon, retired to Terra Optima Farm, and she wanted to do something to help the farmer when she learned of her sickness. And so she started an online fundraiser to raise money to help Denz with any medical bills that insurance won’t pay, with alternative treatments, and with keeping all the animals in carrots and oats and popcorn. So far, people have given more than $11,000 to the cause.
“She is just such a caring person, and she touches so many people’s hearts with her writing,” Wheeler wrote to the BDN. “I can’t tell you how many mornings I’ve laid in bed, checking Facebook, eyes filled with tears, because of something beautiful she’s written.”
And it wasn’t just the stories of farm life that resonated with Wheeler, who has been dealing with her own health concerns of a concussion and a bad neck injury after an accident earlier this year.
“She was very hesitant to write about her medical problems, and it took a lot of prodding to get her to ask for help publicly, but I honestly think it’s her most powerful work,” Wheeler said. “I think there are so many people like myself living with chronic health issues, who feel very alone and suffer silently. To read and be able to relate to her experiences allows us to feel connected.”
Denz said that the money, the help on the farm and the kind words she has heard from people — some of whom she did not even know — has had a profound impact on her.
“I was stunned at the response,” she said. “I cried. It was really overwhelming.”
So far, there isn’t a happy ending to Denz’s medical situation. She is still working hard to try and manage the disease, as the doctor’s appointments and the drug tweaking has continued. But so has the love and support of her community. On Sunday, Oct. 8, she is holding a fall festival farm party to celebrate the season. She also wants the party to be a way to joyfully broadcast that she is still around, and to say thank you to the people who have buoyed her up throughout her ordeal.
“I would like the party to be a reflection of the joy and happiness that people feel here on the farm,” Denz said. “We’re still here, and I’m going to stay here as long as I can.”