I sifted through a pile of decomposing leaves, poultry bones and feathers, rotting vegetables, and God knows what else, in search of the enemy: scraps of plastic.
Any chance I had, I used a new device or machine; when someone asked, “Ya wanna give it a try?” I always said “Sure,” no matter how awkward I felt. I learned that nothing tastes sweeter than a carrot pulled from the cool ground on an October afternoon. Unless it’s an ear of corn still wet with dew, the milky liquid dribbling down my chin, as I waded among cornstalks two feet taller than my head. I relished swigging from a glass jug raw milk only an hour from the cow. I discovered that a shower cannot eliminate the reek from pulling leeks and garlic for a couple hours. And yes, I “harvested” chickens and my own Thanksgiving turkey. And they tasted damn good. In fact, our entire Thanksgiving feast was grown and raised within thirty miles of our home, and no meal has been as deeply satisfying.
I’ve been a teacher at Trinity-Pawling School for 25 years. I spent the past five months on sabbatical in Vermont researching the agricultural revolution in that greenest of states. My husband, Ned, and I have had a home in southern Vermont for more than twenty years. I had a hunch that the powerful farm-to-plate movement sweeping the nation had its proverbial roots in that state.
My research proved right. People in Vermont are unique, to say the least. There’s a great tee shirt that sums it up perfectly: “I’m from Vermont and I do what I want.” But these independent and determined people also demonstrate on a daily basis incredible generosity – I left every farm with a bag of whatever they proffered: veggies, grains, fresh yogurt and milk, meat and poultry and eggs.
By definition, sabbatical indicates the notion of rest. It struck me recently that my sabbatical was anything but relaxing. I took the sabbatical not to rest but to experience, study, learn, and write. To push myself out of my comfort zone and see where I ended up. I explained to a friend that I approached this five month hiatus from teaching with the same pace that marks my work at school, sixteen hour days and packed weekends. The one difference is that I could wear whatever I wanted and not be slave to classroom bells and set school schedules. Yes, I took a break from school life but I replaced that with a new classroom.
Farmers are intent on education. They share their knowledge, skills, and passion with one another and with the people who consume their food. They are developing a model for sustainable agriculture for the 21st century that could serve as a blueprint for the nation. Even as the global economy falters, Vermonters are finding sustainable ways to farm and feed their people. Small scale and local are the keys. The future of farming is in its past. In other words, they farm the way their grandparents did. I saw farms shifting over to draft horses and hand tools rather than heavy equipment which consume fossil fuels and compact the soil.
From July through November, I met more than 90 people, travelled to their farms or businesses, and interviewed them. I asked to hear the story of how they got into farming and why they chose Vermont. I made cold calls and sent e-mails to complete strangers, yet in most cases they responded and said, “Come on by.” In exchange for interviews, I offered my free and unskilled labor in their field. Vermont is all about trade and barter, a practice I adore. I drove more than 9,000 miles in Blueberry, my truck. I recorded at least 100 hours of interviews in which the farmers shared their joys and frustrations, their challenges and triumphs.
By November I was double, triple and even quadruple stacking my interviews each day. Farmers wanted to talk. I jammed in six sessions last week. And I have more to go. To put it mildly, I met some fascinating, passionate, and innovative people. I have always said that farmers possess an intelligence and a set of skills that most of us common folks lack. I was humbled day in and day out by what these experts in the field have packed in their brains.
I worked alongside people of all ages and backgrounds, with dreadlocks, beards and piercings that would definitely not pass at T-P. I headed into the field with strangers and learned never to prejudge because that skinny little dude with funky tattoos also spends his winters coordinating volunteers to help re-establish farms in Haiti. The girl with the chunky dreads and a small bone through her ear lobe was finishing her Master’s degree in alternative heating sources for greenhouses. The old guy milking his cows had a doctorate in zoology and introduced a pasture fencing system that revolutionized grazing of animals in Vermont. And the young woman wrestling while dressed as a green pea pod earned her Ph.D. in agronomy and oversees 2,000 cutting-edge field research projects for the state. I rode shotgun inside the cab of a tractor and the exhaust smelled like warm popcorn oil – because he had developed an intricate system of growing sunflowers, pressing them for their oil, and converted his tractors and farm equipment to run on sunflower oil, a new biofuel. And that man, a genius, never went to college. He would have been bored to tears.
My own Masters degree meant nothing when I was trying to round up a flock of chickens who literally flew the coop. The field crew didn’t care about my title back at school when there were crops to be harvested and the farmers market started in one hour. I was still called “rookie” on the turkey processing line despite twenty five years of teaching. I may be a runner and in pretty good shape, but miles logged doesn’t make me less beat by the time I heft that umpteenth sack of fresh picked corn, or potatoes, or carrots, or….
During this journey, I listened more than I spoke. I posed questions to the farmers and paid attention to what they said. As I drove, I thought about the people I had met that day and reflected on what I had learned. I planned for the week to come, orchestrated possible connections. I had so much to piece together that even daytime public radio broke my concentration. My mind was constantly engaged to the point where I had a hard time slowing it down at night. I tried to read the paper but invariably, I would land on an article that triggered some thought about farming and agriculture and I would reach for my journal. I basically exhausted myself each day, turned on public radio jazz or classical at night, made a dinner from whatever farm produce I had, and fell into bed. A bowl of yogurt or fresh milk and granola in the morning, and I was off on another day of field education.
I also had some fun making my way through my bucket list: I answered phones for the Vermont Public Radio fall fund drive. I took a chainsaw class. I attended dozens of workshops, meetings, and lectures. My most rewarding community service was “gleaning” for the Vermont Food Bank about a dozen times. Gleaning is going into the farmer’s field after he is done harvesting his crop and harvesting whatever remains. The vegetables were fresh and of excellent quality, and the tons of produce we saved helped feed Vermonters in need through community food pantries and homeless shelters. I mucked stalls and monitored food waste bins at a local agricultural fair and earned my “Compost Crew” tee shirt. Basically, if a farmer or an organization needed an extra hand, I stepped up.
What will I do with this experience? I’m not sure. I am in the process of capturing the essence in words, and the pages are beginning to pile up. I’ll keep you posted.
I am indebted to Headmaster Arch Smith for allowing me to par