guest essay: daily sacrifices
Daily Sacrifices - by Katie Bowen of Meadowdale Farm, Putney, Vermont
Vermont is still a place where with enough work ethic, passion for doing what you love, and commitment you can find your path without having an expensive degree. Due to financial restraints I was unable to finish college. I had hope to be a professional jazz violinist and music educator and attended Berklee College of Music. It was frightfully expensive and I felt it was an irresponsible decision to start out in the workforce saddled with tens of thousands educational debt. We started farming with my husband's ability to create lumber from trees on our property and his construction skills. Now as a beginning farmer I do lot of self-study, reading, researching late at night and professional Ag development courses whenever possible. It's been a "learn by doing" model of farm education which isn't always easy when balancing a farm and family.
The moments where I realized I had a deep love and respect for agriculture were subtle. Driving down a backroad in Pownal with my Papa Van as a 5 year old with the windows down and getting the strong waft of freshly applied cow manure. I remember him saying "I love that smell." In my heart I knew I did too. As kids we grew up in the woods and I loved following brooks deep into the forest until they turned into swamps. I attended a high school where we were required to work on our school's dairy farm. I loved milking cows and didn't even mind mucking out the pigs. In the springtime we would gather sap in the late afternoons. One of the school's fundamental beliefs is "To believe in manual labor, be glad to do one's share of it and proud of the skills learned in the doing." This idea is something I think about a lot when shoveling tons of manure, or stacking hay bales.
"Farming is incredibly tough, often lonely, and stressful."
Luckily my husband is also a doer. We'd rather try things than worry about everything that could go wrong. I see too many young people who are completely capable of having a backyard garden or chicken flock who are paralyzed by what the industrial food system has told them "Leave farming to us." Just about anyone can do this. You just have to be committed to the idea you hands are going to get dirty and live simply, but the benefits far outweigh the sacrifice. Our family has learned to work as a team for a common goal and we find joy in very small things.
Our biggest challenge is that land is really expensive. We don't have the resources to purchase 200 acre farm. It was a huge financial gamble to buy the ten acres we are on now. When we purchased the land our zoning said that the municipality permitted "agriculture, silviculture, and forestry uses". Unfortunately, last summer we were denied a permit to cut, split, and sell firewood on our farm. Unable to have a forest products part of our diversified farm will make it virtually impossible to stay there. Our town is being gentrified. The Working Landscape that we pride our rural heritage upon is being bought by the wealthy as a place to retire. We still need to bring awareness to our community about the importance of buying local, not only local tomatoes, but also local firewood and lumber. With the average Vermont logger being over the age of 55 we need more young people working the land and forests. It's my mission to advocate and educate for the traditional inclusion of forest products on family farms.
The biggest reward is seeing my son grow up alongside of us on our farm. He's capable, responsible, hardworking, and would prefer to be haying than playing minecraft.
Our culture asks so much of women. I am responsible for being a homemaker, mother, educator, Army wife, while balancing running a business and homeschooling. None of my chosen professions pay well so we are constantly under immense financial stress.
"The modern "back to the land" movement is often romanticized and the core challenges are often overlooked."
There are daily sacrifices that one must be comfortable making to be doing this. As a first generation farm family we don't have intergenerational understanding and support from all of our parents. It's difficult for someone who's never been waiting for a calf to be born to understand that you just can't go visit them that weekend.
I wish people understood how expensive it is for small farmers to buy grain, fencing, and egg cartons.
I wish they understood that when they are balking about how much our pastured chickens cost they knew we don't factor in any of our own labor when pricing them.
I wish people would come to our farmer's market and not just buy Thai food for lunch, but purchase fresh food for the entire week.
I wish people understood that when a farmer doesn't return your call or email right away it isn't because we don't care, its because we've been up all night trying to find our chickens that are roosting in our neighbor's trees.
Individual states need to develop stronger Right-To-Farm legislation the protects new farmers. Vermont has legislation, but it doesn't do much to protect farms like mine that are the newcomers in the neighborhood. Women who happen to be my size need farming equipment that is better designed. I have to sit on a pillow and use the tips of my toes when I drive our New Holland which is neither exceptionally safe, or ergonomically practical. Farming has often been thought of as traditionally Man's World, especially when it comes to developing policy. I hope more women will join their local farm bureaus and other grass-root advocacy groups to bring their voices to the forefront.
All images courtesy of Katie Bowen - thank you for sharing your story and thoughtful insights.
Originally published March 10, 2016