Rolling in Green

By Lydia Denworth | May 2015 | Vogue | Topics:

Rain boots were simply fashion accessories until my husband’s long-cherished fantasy of owning a farm took root.

I barreled up the uneven hillside, through the high grass and stinging nettles. A young Holstein crashed along ahead of me. The cow had ducked under the electrified fence as though it were a piece of string and headed down hill to a patch of untouched green. I had to get her back in the pasture, but she was stubborn and surprisingly fast.

Scratched up and favoring an ankle I’d turned on a hidden hummock, I was beginning to get mad as well as winded. This cow, #12, was a troublemaker. Like a teenager convincing friends to cut class, she’d been breaking out regularly and bringing others along. This was the second time today already, and this time there was only me to deal with her. I was pretty unsuited to the task. Until four months earlier, when we’d bought the farm, I had rarely come closer to a cow than a milk carton.

Glancing down to be sure of my footing and save the other ankle, I realized I was wearing the Hunter boots I’d bought when we lived in London ten years before. They had never served as anything but chic rainwear, good for walking my sons to school in Brooklyn on wet days. It seemed incredible that my wellies had actually become farmwear, as their original makers had intended.

Wheeling in front of #12 to head her off, I called out an approximation of the Pennsylvania Dutch cow-calling chant we’d learned from our Amish neighbors–“Kum-bas, Kum-bas”—and waved my arms to make her think I was bigger than I was. She tried to break the wrong way so I ran wide around her and pushed her toward the spot along the fence where she’d gotten out. Finally, she headed in the right direction. I made encouraging noises, but inside I was thinking murderous thoughts and calling her names.

Just as she ducked back under the wire, my husband, Mark, pulled up in his truck. Jubilant in victory, I punched my fists in the air, and he beamed with pride, but I couldn’t help thinking: This is not what I signed up for.

The farm was a dream Mark had been nursing for decades, a yearning rooted in his rural Pennsylvania childhood. He grew up outside Harrisburg in the moment before the landscape changed from mostly farmland to mostly tract housing and malls. Though it was sold long ago, his great-grandparents’ farm, with its green-roofed farmhouse, looms large in his family history. We met in college and have since spent nearly all our adult lives in New York, London, and Hong Kong, but it was always understood between us that someday there would be a farm.

Even so, I thought he meant a farmhouse. A pretty, old place in the country to be visited on weekends and vacations. At most, I imagined a gentleman’s farm with some sheep or chickens, perhaps a field that could be hayed and a picturesque barn, all of it farmed for pleasure rather than income.

Over time, in direct relation to his dissatisfaction with his work in the financial world, the desire for farmland grew into something more—a need for something elemental and honorable. In the year before I agreed to look for a property, I would find him at his computer in the evenings compulsively—even a little furtively—searching Land and Farm dot com. We called it farm porn.

Ever the pragmatic one, I had a list of reasons to say no—we should save money, we don’t have enough time, etc. All of which provided cover for an inchoate uneasiness. Mark is the kind of man who takes up running to get a little exercise and ends up doing unsupported ultra marathons in the mountains. Thinking small is not his way. I feared his dream would subsume our lives, or more specifically, the urban, writerly life that was my own dream. Ultimately, though, I found a more profound reason to say yes: my husband had a hole that needed filling.

The truth of what he was after was revealed on the January weekend we spent driving around Central New York looking at properties. “Bring boots,” the realtor warned. We pulled up to a farm, and were shown not into the house but into a barn full of dairy cows tethered to stanchions with a deep trough running along the ground under their backsides. The house, when we got to it, was the unglamorous ranch house of the heavyset, bristly farmer who’d made his living selling milk.

Other places had no livable house at all.

“We can build a house,” Mark declared. “It’s the land that matters.”

“The buildings are awfully close to the road,” I said, eyeing a house only feet from the tarmac.

“That’s so the tractors can get to the barns.”

“What tractors?”

I am such an unlikely farmwife that Green Acres jokes are as obvious as the stench of pig manure. Beyond my love of cities, I had no affinity for raising anything other than my children. My childhood cat was really my brother’s; the occasional houseplant I brought home rarely survived. When Mark tried to grow corn in our backyard, I shook my head as the squirrels ate it and took the subway to the farmer’s market.

For Mark, the appeal of Central New York, which encompasses the area you’d get if you drew a circle that touched the edges of the Catskills, Adirondacks and Finger Lakes, was precisely that it is outside the normal range of second homes for New York City dwellers, and is therefore still heavily agricultural and cheaper—a fraction of the going price per acre in the popular counties closer to the city. (The same reasons it has recently drawn so many Amish.) He didn’t care as much as I did that it’s more than four hours from Brooklyn and the winters are brutal.

On our weekend of looking, we turned south late Sunday afternoon to head home via one last place. The realtor had left us with directions. “If I were building a house there, I’d put it here,” he said, marking an X on a map.

“This is promising,” Mark said as we drove through the tiny but charming village of Hamilton, home to Colgate University, at dusk. A few miles further, we found ourselves on a peaceful stretch of rolling hills and pasture. The farm, when we found it, was muddy and run-down. Rusting equipment filled the yard. But the small farmhouse was white with a green roof, just like Mark’s great-grandparents’. A grassy expanse with a spreading maple tree separated it from the road. We turned up a small road opposite the driveway in search of the X. At the top of the hill, Mark pulled over and we struck out walking over a lumpy hayfield to the ridgeline.

When we turned around, I caught my breath. We were at the highest point for miles around. Fields and woods unfurled in front of us with only an occasional silo or barn visible.

“Oh yeah,” Mark said.

By May, we owned it—close to eight hundred acres of a once successful dairy farm done in by financial stresses and a family falling out. The hard times showed. The barns, though picturesque, were full of trash. In the farmhouse, where the widowed farmer had lived, the grime of decades was relieved only by a few bright spots of flocked wallpaper where photographs and a cross had hung for years. Fifty yards away, the log cabin the son had built was caked with dirt and dust and had chinks in the walls big enough to see through. The water reeked of sulfur and mice had taken up permanent residence.

But the land was glorious. It stretched from one hilltop to another and spilled down off the sides like a quilt too big for a bed spreading across the floor. The buildings were nestled in the middle. From the hayfield at the top of one hill early the first May morning we woke up as farmers, I gazed at the mist clinging to the valleys and anticipated getting to know the dips and rises, the pastures and woods, the trees and creeks more intimately with time. The clip clop of hooves rang out along the road as an Amish buggy rolled past. “Cue the Amish,” we joked as if the cinematographer for Witness had a hand in the scene.

I considered our prospects. Our knowledge of livestock and crops on that day wouldn’t fill a bucket and farming was notoriously precarious. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be constrained by tradition or encumbered by debt. Mark had vision and energy to spare. I provided the rational brake to his exuberance and had spent years as a journalist honing the ability to dig deep into new subjects. Maybe this can work, I thought.

Certainly it would be complicated. Mark was not yet in a position to quit his job and I was not willing to move anyway. Even if I had been, there was the question of school for our three boys, then ten, seven and five. Furthermore, our youngest, Alex, is deaf and has a cochlear implant. Though he attends the same school as his brothers, we rely on the services and specialists available in the city.

We hired a farm manager, and worked on a plan. Though I hadn’t shared Mark’s agricultural dream, I did care about the origins of our food. If we were going to have a farm, we both wanted to strive for sustainable, natural practices. Harsh winters and hilly country better suited to grazing than plowing mean that Central New York farmers have always tended toward dairy, but dairy cows have to be milked twice a day every day. That didn’t make sense for us. (The herd of dairy cows that included #12 were temporary residents, grazing our pastures until they were old enough to be bred, and teaching us about the importance of investing in good fences.) Instead we concentrated on raising livestock for meat and creating a family farm that would shun the practices of factory farming but be large enough to be economically viable, unlike so many of the small operations we thought of as “two pigs and a blog.”

Thirteen Black Angus arrived, pregnant, in September, as did the first batch of baby chicks that would grow to be laying hens. A herd of meat goats arrived from Montana in October. Floppy eared and bandy-legged, the baby goats were irresistible.

“So cute,” I cried, putting my hand out to one as you would a dog. The goat bit my finger, hard and deep.

“So authentic,” said the other mothers at school the next Monday, eyeing my bandaged hand.

A retired dairy farmer named Larry was renting one of our barns as a place to raise a few pigs just to keep busy. In his sixties, with coke-bottle glasses and a grey t-shirt straining to cover his belly every day, he turned out to be “a hog genius,” according to a neighbor. After seeing how many baby pigs he kept alive (no small feat as a sow often rolls over onto her piglets and squashes them), we took to calling Larry the pig whisperer and bought a boar and a sow from him for ourselves. When they had babies, the boys named two of them Bacon and Sausage. Apparently, they weren’t too traumatized by the idea of one day eating the animals we raised.

We gave the small farmhouse to the manager and renovated the log cabin, which turned out to be far more capacious and comfortable than we had imagined possible. At the X where we had imagined building, we picnic while the boys play on the wrapped hay bales lined up like giant marshmallows. After a lifetime of disinterest in planting and pets, I accepted the challenge of a vegetable garden and let the boys talk me into getting a dog and adopting a barn kitten to boot. I traded $800 worth of hamburger from our first bull, Hugh Hefner, to an Amish carpenter for a nine-foot long table made out of reclaimed barn wood. When I serve up a farm breakfast, the biscuits are homemade and the bacon, the eggs, the berries, and even the table are from our farm.

For the first few years, Mark essentially worked two jobs, spending as much time on the farm as possible, talking to the manager every day, and poring over spreadsheets and grazing plans on nights and weekends. Our pillow talk turned toward cut lists for the slaughterhouse, corn prices, the advantages of square hay bales, and how to generate more retail markets. The herds grew and I learned how to corral goats, catch chickens and feed out the piglets in our farrowing barn. Summer evenings, Mark and I took a beer with us to the fields to count calves.

Two years ago, five years after buying the place, Mark quit his job in finance to be a fulltime farmer. The surprising thing was that it was me who made him do it. I had come to see the farm differently. I still loved the land as I had on the first day. I would still not have chosen to raise cows, pigs, goats and chickens. And I still didn’t want to move the family there year-round. But I now recognized that the farm might not be so far from my own dream after all.

It was an opportunity for a different life. Mark’s finance career had been lucrative but expensive in other ways. The inflexibility and intensity of his job—the travel, the long hours, the exhaustion—made us both miserable. I functioned as a de facto single parent for years. I wanted my husband to be happy and I wanted him home. That we might find more balance in a life in which he would still be gone several days a week, tending to the farm, speaks to just how bad it was. We both knew that actually walking away from his corporate job would be much harder and scarier than talking about it. Doing it successfully seemed to depend on what he was walking toward. The depth and fervor with which he loved his farm mattered. I thought us lucky that he knew where his passion lay. By then, I loved it, too. The farm rooted us in a common endeavor.

Now Mark splits his time every week. At the farm, he works from six in the morning (five if they’re loading pigs or steers for market) to late at night. The boys and I join him a few weekends per month holidays, andsummers, when the boys–who are big enough now to be handy with shovels and feeding–all work as farmhands.. Since they are now teenagers, or nearly, the boys are big enough to pick up a shovel or I claimed a small bedroom in the cabin and finished writing my last book there. In Brooklyn, I write downstairs and Mark works upstairs, cellphone to his ear, orchestrating trucking, generating sales, keeping the books. We take turns picking up the boys, attending their basketball games and helping with homework. More than ever before, I am more engaged in his work, my work matters more fundamentally to the family, and he is more present in the family. Shaking up the equilibrium of our lives did bring a little more balance.

Our herd of 65 Angus mothers had nearly the same number of calves last year and we sold more than 1000 pigs in 2014. At their most productive, our chickens lay nearly one hundred dozen eggs per week. The goats proved too labor-intensive and susceptible to illness so we kept only a few as natural brush control. Our biggest business is organic hay. We don’t just have tractors. We have balers, rakes and a tractor trailer for deliveries. It helps to be near the road.

Even with someyears of groundwork laid, though, farming is every bit as hard as advertised. The margins are small. Our biggest barn burned to the ground in an electrical fire. It poured with rain for weeks when we should have been baling hay. We found marijuana butts in the tractors and had to institute a drug policy and fire some farmhands. Getting paid means we are as dependent on the milk check as the dairy farmers who buy our hay. After years of day trading, Mark has had to learn patience, and to think seasonally.

I have, too. Last winter, when the cold came earlier than expected, I dragged the family up for twenty-four hours to put the garden to bed. Mark and I pruned the last of the raspberry bushes as a snowstorm blew in. The drive had been long and the weather was brutal, but the raspberries had been delicious and there would be even more the following summer. This was our farm and I was committed.