A Guide To — And The Cost Of — Being A Modern Farmer
Kate MacLean is a young farmer living in central Vermont. Together with her partner Nick and their toddler, she manages a diversified livestock farm of 120 acres. Kate’s photos and commentary on farming life provide a stunning but unsentimental view of the daily frustrations and joys of smallholder farming.
Kate and Nick do not come from farming families. They both graduated from prestigious colleges in the northeast, and then launched themselves into jobs in San Francisco. Soon, however, they found themselves disillusioned with the routines of a consumption-focused lifestyle, and gradually decided to start over as farmers.
They are part of a small but growing movement of Americans in their 20s and 30s who choose farming out of a personal commitment to agro-ecological sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals. For politically conscious consumers, these small farms offer an important alternative to corporate farming and its widely documented mistreatments of employees, animals, and the environment.
But starting a new farming life with no family mentors or homegrown traditions is tough. Kate and Nick have faced innumerable technical and economic challenges. But amidst all the escaped cattle, the ever-looming threat of crippling poverty, and the frozen water pipes that left them and their toddler with no running water for months during this past Vermont winter, their efforts have also afforded them the rare opportunity of living an intentional life on the land. I spoke with Kate about the joys and challenges of her new profession.
Hi Kate! What made you decide to become a farmer?
I grew up on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Our setting was suburban compared to rural Vermont, but we had a great farming community. I always felt very close to our CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm, and spent many hours as a barn-rat at various other farms.
But my interest in farming remained abstract until the late 2000s, when I was in my mid-twenties and working for Facebook in Palo Alto, doing translation work in their French department. We had many friends, including my sister, who despite living a stone’s throw from the city, were effectively living rurally. They were all producing at least some of their own food. This was a new idea for me. I had always appreciated the CSA and the farmer’s market, but never thought I personally would have the power to grow my own food. Seeing my Bay Area friends doing just that was inspiring.
Karmically, as I was coming to this realization, my partner Nick’s aunt, who lived at the foothills of the French Alps, asked if we wanted to house-sit for her during the winter of 2010. Housesitting, she explained, would involve looking after her French cat Jules and her flock of hens, and ensuring the pipes didn’t freeze in her 200 year old stone house. I was eager to leave San Francisco. Facebook was a fabulous place to work, but I knew it wasn’t my calling. I was anxious to explore a more rural life, and the house-sitting gig seemed like the perfect opportunity. We scrimped and saved and put together enough funds to quit our jobs that October, and were in France by November.
In France, Nick worked for a local butcher, and I became immersed in the hens and read a few dozen books on homesteading and gardening, thinking I could learn enough through that. By the time our visas were on the verge of expiration, we had both gained the courage we needed to pursue a life in food production, but also knew we needed much more guidance and instruction.
So we moved to North Carolina that spring, where my cousin owned a pastured pork farm. We spent two years there, learning everything we know now about livestock farming. We learned everything from how to castrate piglets in a field to general farming principles like rotational grazing. After North Carolina, we moved to New England to work as farm hands on a whole diet CSA, and then as livestock managers for a prominent Boston vegetable farm. When I became pregnant with our son, we decided we would like to settle down. This is when we decided to buy our own land.
Before we get to how you bought your land, let’s talk a bit about the type of farming you do. You and Nick are livestock farmers. Why did you choose livestock farming in particular?
It is probably circumstantial that we became livestock farmers. When we returned home to the States and landed at my cousin’s farm, we went there because of my relation to her. Had she been a vegetable farmer, we might have begun a life of vegetable farming. As it turned out, she was a pig/cow/sheep/goat/chicken farmer, and this is what we learned to love and farm. Livestock farming requires a lot more land than vegetable farming. Thus, we were moved to look for land in places like central Vermont where the per acre cost is relatively low (for New England).
I see. So what does your daily routine generally look like?
Our daily routines vary greatly from summer to winter. The most wonderful part of livestock farming in Vermont is the ebb and flow of the seasons. In winter, we mostly rest. In summer, we work much harder. Winter’s chores are limited to feeding hay, keeping bedding clean and dry, and ensuring the waters don’t freeze. We typically milk from April to January.
Our summer work takes up most of every daylight hour. We milk first thing in the morning. Then we spend a couple of hours moving animals — they are all moved almost every day, to maximize our rotational grazing. The middle of the day is reserved for projects like fencing, the kitchen garden, animal house building, and other projects that aren’t daily occurrences. At the end of the day we milk again, collect eggs, and check on everybody to make sure there are no problems that arose midday. We go to bed pretty early as the day can be very physically demanding. My cousin in North Carolina told me that a farmer only needs two things in her house: a good bed and a good hot shower. She was right.
And a hot shower is something you did not have for several months this winter, right? Speaking of challenges, what were the most important financial difficulties you faced when you were first starting out?
Land ownership is probably the biggest obstacle in the current (small) revolution against factory farming. The second biggest is access to good slaughter facilities, but that is a tirade for another day. Land is expensive because you are competing, almost everywhere, with the deep pockets of developers looking to turn farmland into housing developments. When we were renting a home and land, we would work for our landlord on their land in exchange for lower rent. We’d found rental deals through word of mouth and through local organic farming organizations. For example, the Northeast Organic Farming Association does a wonderful job connecting farmers to each other, and creating a space for continuous learning through their annual conferences.
When we were ready to buy land, we were very fortunate to find a wealthy and generous land conservator who was ready to sell one of her conserved properties. Conserved land is land that can never be used for residential development; only agricultural dwellings are legally permitted to be built. Because the land was conserved, it was valueless to a developer, thus greatly reducing the cost to us. It was sheer luck that we found this seller, but if we hadn’t been so lucky, we could still have tried one of many excellent programs, like the New England Land Link, that link young farm buyers to older farm sellers. I highly recommend these programs for any farmer looking for land.
Grant writing has become a big part of our lives as small scale farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Services have monetary grants that support young farmers, and these have been immeasurably helpful to us and our farm. Grant writing can become all-consuming, but it is a useful way to pass the winter months. I do not think there is any shame in asking for help. Big Agriculture rests so heavily on subsidies from our government so I think it is only just that Small Agriculture can benefit, albeit in smaller ways, from government funds.
What are some things you now wish you had known about the economic aspects of farming when you were first starting out?
I am very fortunate to have a partner in Nick, an engineer-turned-farmer, who is very savvy when it comes to money and records. He knew from the beginning how important it was to keep records and receipts. He also taught me the difference between investing in operational costs and in capital costs. For example, investing in a fence that will stand for 10-15 years is better than buying cheap fencing that will only give us 1 or 2 years, even though its initial cost is lower.
My economic advice to new farmers would be three-fold. First of all, 90% of farmers have an off farm job that brings in over half their household income, as making a living in farming is still very hard, given the low prices our fellow countrymen are increasingly accustomed to paying for their food. These second jobs can be anything from working for a bigger farm nearby to waitressing at a local café. Nick runs a local laboratory that tests dairy milk, and I work for a non-profit that does advocacy work on behalf of small farmers. Both of these jobs are flexible and part time. The extra income they provide us is crucial, particularly during the slow winter months.
I’d recommend, however, that new farmers seek second jobs that are flexible enough that they can still put in the necessary time and effort and love into their own operation. In addition, whenever possible, they should strive to work or spend time at a bigger farm, so they can continue to learn from more experienced farmers and improve their own craft.
My second piece of advice is to start slow. Don’t buy a flock of sheep having never worked with sheep or with that breed. Get experience on somebody else’s dime, working for or volunteering for another farmer via WWOOFing, or by introducing yourself at a farmer’s market. Learn from other farmers! Their successes and failures are invaluable.
Finally, if you can, invest modestly in a home base: a place of your own where you keep a barn to house your tools or animals, and with the land you need to operate these. Then, lease more land to grow vegetables or graze animals. Leasing land in most places is very inexpensive. Often you are benefiting the landowner, because they will get a tax break for keeping their land in agricultural use. Many of my farming friends, including ourselves, can lease land from neighbors for $1/year. We have 30 acres of pasture and already need more. We wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a farm with more pasture, but we can easily lease, for little to no money, our neighbors’ pasture that is otherwise not being used. It increases our size without increasing our expenses.
Is the US government friendly, policy-wise, to young smallholders like yourself?
It is actually the state governments, and not the federal government, that generally make a farmer’s life easy or hard. We moved to Vermont in part because of its history of leniency toward, and even support of, small farms. For example, for us and many other farmers, selling raw milk from our livestock and slaughtering livestock on the farm is a vital component of our work. Many states, however, do not allow either of these practices, typically on the pretext of public health agendas that have little basis in fact.
In reality, such policies are driven by the Big Dairy lobby, which has an economic interest in eliminating Small Agriculture and any non-pasteurization-based competition. State officials may cite public health concerns when prohibiting on-farm slaughter and the sale of raw milk, but public health has actually little to do with it when it applies to small farms. I suspect it is more the economic and lobbying pressure of Big Ag. Vermont, fortunately, does allow the sale of raw milk from farms. The state also allows the on-farm slaughter for prepaid customers of the whole animal.
These policies reflect hard-won legislative achievements, not simply the goodwill of Vermont policymakers. They come from the hard work of our fellow constituents and the advocacy of pro-small farm organizations, like Rural Vermont. Like most states, Vermont still feels the direct pressure of Big Dairy and other Big Ag groups. But it is more forgiving and supportive than many other states.
Now that you’re a few years down the road, any doubts or misgivings about turning to farming?
Sometimes, when my body is physically exhausted, or after a winter like we just had that was taxing on the mind, I wonder if it would be easier to return to civilization. It would be much simpler to buy milk from the store and beef from a butcher, and to let somebody else grow my potatoes and onions and tomatoes. It would be much simpler to sit at a desk and exchange my money for food at the store. This is the path of least resistance when it comes to food consumption.
My doubts about our chosen life did intensify when our son was born. My priority in life is to raise him in a loving, healthy and simple way, but often I wonder if we aren’t making it harder on him with the social isolation that farming life entails.
What eases my doubt is knowing that what we do here is for our son and his generation. The way most of our food is produced in this country is environmentally unsustainable and cruel to animals. I remind myself that what is easy or simple is not always what is right. I don’t intend to sound self-sacrificing. In truth, we live a beautiful and very fortunate life, and on sunny spring days like this one I can’t imagine living anywhere else. But it is not an easy life or a simple life. It is very complicated and challenging.
I intend on living out my entire life on this farm. In the next decade I hope we have driven our farm to a profitable and sustainable place. It is my sincere hope not just to pass along this land to our children, but to pass along a business that can live and thrive in their lifetime too.
This story is part of our food month series.
Ilil Benjamin is a graduate student. She’s been living in Ithaca for over 7 years.