From One Field to Another
As a student-athlete, Ursinus Hall-of-Famer Jess Lamina Gray ’08 was an All-American, All-Conference field hockey stalwart. Now, she’s excelling in a different field: farming.
Jess Lamina Gray ’08 is no stranger to success. A 2018 inductee into the Ursinus Hall of Fame for Athletes, the field hockey stalwart helped lead the Bears to four Centennial Conference (CC) championships, as well as an NCAA title in 2006. She was a two-time All-American, including a first team nod during Ursinus’s run to the national championship, and she made the All-CC squad every year of her career. A three-time All-CC first teamer, the 2008 Ursinus College Senior Female Athlete of the Year ranks second in school history in shutouts (20) and third in saves (380).
After graduation, the 2008 exercise and sports science (ESS) major was hired as an assistant field hockey coach at Gettysburg College, but soon took a head coaching job at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. After five years, she and her family moved to Maine, then Tennessee, and then New Jersey, where she took another head coaching job at Drew University.
All this to say, Gray is used to being a standout in her field.
So while it’s likely no surprise that, despite a drastic career change, Gray is still earning accolades, what may be unexpected is the timeline in which she has made it all happen.
The Pandemic Plants a Seed
It wasn’t even two years ago that the Doylestown, Pa., native and her husband, Marcus, a wildlife biologist, bought a 30-acre farm in Virginia.
“When COVID-19 hit, we were just like everybody else: We reevaluated what we wanted out of our lives and what our ‘why’ was,” said Gray. She called the pandemic an awakening that made them ask, “‘How would we want to spend our days if we could spend them however we wanted?’ I think we all need to find the positive in ‘Covid times,’ and for us it was the final push that we needed to start doing something we were passionate about.”
In addition to wanting to spend more time outdoors with animals, they also decided that they wanted a different environment for their four children, ages 2 to 10, and they wanted to get away from the typical grind. So they started shopping for a farm.
Operating a farm wouldn’t be entirely new territory. “Being outside was always a big thing for us. Our kids are raised outside: We’re hiking and doing everything else outdoors as much as we can,” said Gray. It was a desire spend even more time outdoors that had prompted their move to Maine, and over the years they had raised chickens.
In the summer of 2021, the family started Kitchen Sink Farm with a focus on “regenerative, back-to-the-land farming.” They raise sheep, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, pigs, and bees. They also have a butterfly garden and grow crops, including pumpkins for a pick-your-own patch in the fall; they hope to add Christmas trees as well.
“It definitely was a leap of faith,” said Gray. “We’ve done a good job of creating the connections that we needed … It was a big gamble for us, but so far it’s paying off.”
Making Hay While the Sun Shines
A year ago, they identified a new opportunity—for their sheep. “We started seeing a lot of solar panels going up in our in our county,” said Gray. After some initial research, she and her husband joined the American Solar Grazing Association and learned that people were promoting rotationally grazing sheep under solar panels. Interested in having their own sheep flock forage outside of their farm, they started to rotationally graze them, thus beginning their solar grazing business, Gray’s LAMBscaping. Now they have more than 400 head of sheep grazing more than 2,000 acres of solar panels.
So what’s one avenue a new grazier can use to help learn the ropes? YouTube. Sandi Brock, a sheep farmer, hosts the channel Sheepishly Me: Adventures of a Sheep Farmer. Gray is one of her 928,000 subscribers. “She does a barn system, which is different than ours—we’re 100% pasture—but we follow her for tips.”
In one episode, Brock mentioned that her husband had been awarded a Nuffield International Farmers Scholar. Intrigued, Gray “gave it a Google” and applied. With just one year of experience operating Gray’s LAMBscaping, she was not optimistic about being selected.
The nonprofit helps develop individuals who will shape the future of agriculture in their local communities and globally. Each year, between 70 and 80 applicants are awarded a Nuffield scholarship, which has three distinct segments: an eight-day conference for all scholars; a Global Focus Program, for which eight to 10 scholars travel together for six weeks to up to seven countries; and Individual Research Travels and Report, which allows scholars to travel independently to investigate their own research topic, culminating in a 10,000-word report that is made available publicly to add to the knowledge base of those in agriculture.
Her passion was palpable during the 45-minure interview with a committee of eight, and within a week she knew she had been chosen.
An Agricultural Changemaker
“I think that there’s a way to change the economy down here,” said Gray between tours on the farm one busy Saturday morning. “Where we live in Virginia, it’s very heavy in cattle and tobacco. The problem is that the government controls the tobacco prices, so that’s an issue. And then with cattle prices, feed prices going up, and land prices going up, and all of these very hard-to-control things, farmers are not making a lot of money on cattle. I think—and I’m hoping my research can help with this—that there can be a really good sheep economy. They’re not as expensive, they’re better for the landscape, and they don’t do as much damage over time.”
For the global focus portion of her Nuffield research, she and a group of seven other scholars will travel to New Zealand, Brazil, England, and Brussels, with a stop in Texas along the way.
The goal is to explore a variety of topics, some of which may be unfamiliar to some of the scholars. “Even though I’m studying sheep and the sheep economy and the climate a bit, we might be going to wineries and talking about what’s going on in wineries and how they’ve started to adapt,” said Gray. The intention is to give scholars “a better idea of agriculture in the world as a whole and what people are doing and how they’re changing … We had a phone call the other day and the Nuffield president said, ‘I know some people might be uncomfortable. It’s topics that aren’t necessarily in your wheelhouse, but you’re going to learn to get comfortable with topics that aren’t in your wheelhouse.’ It reminded me a lot of my Ursinus background. We were taking classes, reading books, and always exposed to topics that weren’t necessarily in our major, but it was a great learning experience. I think the same thing with this global focus: I might learn something that has nothing to do with sheep, but can be applied to sheep, and I would have never gone down that road if they hadn’t led me there. I’m really excited about that.”
Her itinerary for the independent portion hasn’t been determined, but she is considering returning to New Zealand and England since they have rich sheep histories. In addition to assessing how sheep farming can thrive in a warming and drying climate, she will investigate vegetative structure, soil health, carbon sequestration, lamb market development, and incentive programs in countries outside the U.S. [She has until February 2024 to complete the independent travel and research.]
“We think solar grazing is going to be a very big thing for the next 30 or so years,” said Gray. “In Virginia alone, they’ve committed over 40,000 acres [to solar farms] . And there’s a ton of solar in Pennsylvania, a ton in New England. It’s down in Texas, in California; it’s only growing. And the great thing about it is you don’t have to own the land.”
She is working to spread the word that “farming isn’t always going to look like this, and here’s another method to do it.” Part of her research will explore ways to involve younger farmers. “Solar grazing is a really great method because it’s not your land, but you get paid to take care of it.”
It’s a message she is also eager to share with Ursinus students, regardless of major.
“[My years at Ursinus] were so important for who I was able to become,” she said. “I wasn’t like a risk taker or willing to go out on a limb until I got to Ursinus. That definitely laid the foundation, gave me a willingness to try different things, and helped me understand that lessons learned in one column can totally apply to a column later. But it does seem silly, and I guess kinda strange, when [people say], ‘Oh, you’re an ESS major and now you run a farm—how is that sport science?’ I don’t know, but I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am without having had that.”