For a while this winter, Jay Lavery was the most famous farmer in the world. He made a video of himself dancing in the barn of his NY farm and it ended up being viewed by more than 10 million people. Going viral meant flying to LA for an interview on Ellen. and being besieged by requests to buy his farm’s products.
So where is Jay now? And what has going viral done to/for him? Along with the rest of the world, I called to interview Jay and got a story about a round-about path to farming and an inspirational story about being who you are, and doing what you love. He asked us to share his story, so that others will look at their own challenges and get some hope from his example.
Born and raised in Albany, New York, Jay realized he was different in his senior year in high school. He was gay, and growing up in a conservative Catholic family in the 60s and 70s, that meant that he was considered a pervert and could even end up in jail. Jay really believed in praying, and would pray every day, “What am I supposed to do? What does this mean?” He had fallen in love with one of his friends who was straight and was heartbroken for something that he didn’t even understand, because he had no idea what homosexuality was and didn’t even understand heartbreak at that time. In his confusion and pain he attempted suicide twice.
After his second attempted suicide, a doctor came into Jay’s hospital room. When the doctor spoke to Jay, he said something Jay remembers all these years later, and more than anything wants to pass along. The doctor said:
“You can choose to live your life exactly how everyone expects you to live, you can be successful, and you can die a lonely man. or you can take the chance, and go for what you are feeling and what you are believing, and you can end up by being very happy.”
An overwhelming feeling of acceptance came over Jay, something he had never felt before, and everything changed from that day. He graduated from high school and followed in his father’s footsteps, taking a job with the airlines. Jay became a flight attendant. Once he got a good schedule with United, he started following another dream of being a stand-up comedian. He would fly during the week and do shows on the weekends. He would spend from Friday until Sunday night in cabs going to different variety shows, with 10-12 comedians in a show. He’d do 5-12 minutes on a show, and run to the next venue. Between flying and comedy, Jay played water polo with Team NY Aquatics. He was fit, he was happy, and “had all of these great things happening, and felt like everything was perfect.”
And then he injured his back and everything changed.
At the time, Jay didn’t realize what had happened. He was in the galley of the airplane. He had to maneuver his cart, and was reaching in to get all the meals ready, and he felt a weird tickle. He remembers saying to himself, “That was a weird feeling.”
That night at the hotel, his legs started bothering him. He didn’t put the two together. He was always pulling something and thought he must have pulled something in his leg. On the flight back, he kept complaining about his leg. By the second day, he was limping, and called his doctor.
He had herniated a disc. He had to do physical therapy and couldn’t do anything for six weeks. The company doctor said there was nothing wrong and he should go back to work. So Jay went back to work, against his own doctor’s orders. Three months later, Jay injured his back again, and crushed the disk that was herniated, and herniated the disk above and bulged the disk below that one.
For two years, Jay tried every non-surgical solution he could find. But without relief, he was finally talked into a spinal fusion. No one told him that he would need a live-in nurse, someone to pull his pants up and down, and do everything for him for two months. That was the worst moment of his life – he felt like “I just made something that was horrible a million times worse. That was probably the darkest point.”
But what seemed awful might have been the best possible outcome for Jay. While he was recuperating, a friend gave him the book “Driven to Distraction” written by two doctors with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It was the first book Jay ever read from cover to cover. As he read it, he felt that it was written for him, and to him. Thirty years after this kind of diagnosis typically happens, Jay found out he had ADHD and dyslexia. That opened him up for different techniques for focusing and medications, and an understanding of his childhood. Instead of being a bad kid, he saw that he had neurologic disorders.
Jay had lived his whole life thinking he wasn’t made for school. But with his new diagnosis and ways to mitigate for it, he started school. First, he went to a community college, where he discovered that there is so much going on inside books. “It’s like going on a better trip than you can take on an airplane.” From there, he was accepted into Columbia University. He graduated (cum laude), but the whole time, right up to when he got that diploma, he kept expecting someone to come up and tap him on the shoulder and say, please come with me, we’ve made a terrible mistake.
As he continued his studies at Columbia in Adult Psychopathology, Jay pursued another interest as well. He studied food politics, and food systems, something he had never thought about, and volunteered for a green roof project that used permaculture design, sparking his interest in permaculture.
It was his interest in food and permaculture that was on his mind as he drove up to Albany one day to visit friends in his old stomping grounds. He was thinking about the fact that soon he’d be 50. He could be a clinical psychologist until he retired, and then do what he wanted to do. Or he could do what he wanted to do now. And what he realized he wanted to do was have a farm.
Jay found a farm within 50 miles of Albany, with pasture, and a house that needs a lot of work but is livable. He planned to start slowly to maintain complete control, and avoid getting in over his head. First, he wanted to be sustainable as a homesteader and then scale up to where he could sell things.
So remember that back injury that started Jay down this path? Well, that’s what’s responsible for the viral video too. It turns out that dancing and meditation are the only things that keep him pain free without mediation. When he posted his now famous video, he wrote “I hope this can inspire anyone to move, in spite of pain, and I hope this puts a smile on your face for the New Year.”
When the calls started coming in, Jay was surprised. “I had no idea that folks were going to be looking at me and the farm and products on the farm.”
The few products he did have to sell, like syrup, he didn’t want to ship across the country for a few dollars, preferring to maintain the model he started with. Shipping maple syrup in styrofoam doesn’t fit his goal. He says, “I have to keep my dream of making this a permaculture farm.”
Jay is still getting internet traffic and made some changes because of it for this summer. On the advice of friends, he got a lawyer and made the farm into an LLC to avoid issues of liability. In the process of becoming an LLC, Jay adopted a new farm name that would take advantage of internet traffic looking for the dancing farmer, and now he’s got the Dancing Farm.
He’s also doing farm tours on weekends, which he had wanted to do, but had gotten no interest in. This year, visitors pay for an hour and a half tour of the farm, something people in the area would think is “crazy”.
With the website updated to the new name, he figured out the e-commerce part of the farm, selling his goat soap with environmentally responsible packaging – the same wood shavings he beds the goats with. He has also located a licensed kitchen and plans to make apple chutney and cider vinegar from the hundred-year old orchard on the farm, selling locally and online.
Jay thought after all this planning, his job with e-commerce was done. He forgot that when someone makes a purchase, he has to put the package together, label it, and bring it to the post office. That awareness came at a time of the year when he’s been flat out with farm animal babies being born everywhere. He’s comfortable pointing out his error, though, and quick to laugh about it. It’s amazing how much we can plan, and not recognize all the issues we will need to deal with.
Most of all, Jay has seen the attention is still there, and with it he’s able to show people the inspiration behind his farm, “nature working with nature”. The biggest benefit to his fame, he said is to have people take notice. He hopes that maybe he can move someone to inspiration the way he was.
So – going viral is a lot of work and a lot of luck. If it happens to you, maybe Jay’s example can help you benefit from it. And let us know! We’d love to share the news!