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|Not Yer Average Farmer : Champlain edition : Sunday, 18 February 2018 14:57 EDT : a service of The Public Press|
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Not Yer Average Farmer
by Stephen Morris
Even though Fat Rooster is at the northern fringe of the Green Living distribution territory, the tale of Kyle and Jennifer is typical of the folks who are brave enough to choose "the other path."
You've heard the old joke about the Vermont farmer who wins the lottery: "What are you going to do with the money?" he is asked.
"I dunno," he says as he strokes his grizzled chin. "Guess I'll keep farming ‘til it's all gone."
Fractured and re-set to fit what is going on in farming in Vermont these days, the joke might go: "What does a young, articulate (not to mention good-looking), hard-working, highly-employable, energetic couple with two Masters degrees, and a passion for farming do for a living?"
Answer: "Whaddya got?"
Kyle Jones and Jennifer Megyesi, the farmers at Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton, are not grizzled. Frazzled? Yes, occasionally. Only seven years into their chosen trade, they are simultaneously stretched thin and almost famous. Their lives have been chronicled in Harvest: A Year in the Life of an Organic Farm (The Lyons Press, 2004), a handsome, coffee table book that romanticizes their chosen hardscrabble life by virtue of its good writing and beautiful photography. Too bad they don't have time to read it.
They are not, however, almost prosperous, but rather perilously close to the financial bone. Their car died recently, which was not part of the plan. It was enough of a bump in the road to cause them to scramble at a time of year when cash flow from the farm is at its lowest. Kyle's vehicular strategy is to buy a used vehicle and drive it into the ground. Their well-traveled Subaru, however, died before its time, and there is no financial cushion to absorb the blow...
Life could be a whole lot easier. After getting his Masters in Wildlife Conservation from the University of Massachusetts in 1995, Kyle continued working full-time for the National Park Service in forestry management and resource planning. Jennifer, with a Masters of her own (Wildlife Biology), is equally employable. Her passion, however, is farming. To make it happen, she works part-time at a local veterinarian clinic that gives her the flexibility to meet the endless demands of farming, mothering, and animal husbandry.
Kyle, meanwhile turns out handcrafted bowls and pens from hardwood in his modest workshop. With the Christmas season passed, however, there is not a lot of present demand. And then there is also the school bus. He calls it his "personal response to 9/11," because he wanted another way to engage with the community. He earns $25 for spending half a day hurtling down Vermont's back roads with 72 screaming, unsupervised kids. (As an additional benefit he was recently notified that traffic fines will be doubled for persons who have a bus driver's license.) Oh well, with bus driving, as with farming, it's not about the money.
Kyle and Jennifer have chosen a life on the financial edge over the security of a company-contributed 401-k. In addition to their aforementioned professional titles you could add giant pumpkin grower, ecologist, intern supervisor, C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) manager, pig breeder, and farmers' market vendor.
It's what you do to make a livin' in Vermont.
The prevailing stories in the news are about the demise of the family farm, but there is a counterbalancing trend as represented by Kyle and Jennifer. While it is true that the independent, family-run dairy farm is an imperiled species, small, diversified farms are booming. According to NOFA, a non-profit association of farmers, gardeners, and consumers working to promote an economically viable and ecologically sound food system, Vermont has the highest number of organic farms per capita in the nation and has the highest percentage of its cultivated acreage in organic crops. Founded in Putney, Vermont in 1971, NOFA is one of the oldest organic farming associations in the US and has seen its membership swell to over 1000!
The difference between family farms, the endangered species, and family farms, the growth phenomenon can be reduced to one word, "diversification." Farming operations dependent on a single revenue source find themselves on a slippery slope to compete with larger and more efficient operations producing commodities that generate smaller and smaller margins. Add in the political factors of subsidies and price controls, and the farmer's fate is no longer in his or her own hands.
The enterprising start-ups make up with diversity what they sacrifice in efficiency. A quick scan of NOFA's nifty website reveals small-scale agricultural enterprises that demonstrate an infinity of revenue stream combinations: viticulture (wine making), bed and breakfasts, sleigh rides, pick your own berries, farmstead cheese. In other words, within the world of small scale, organic farming, the owners of Fat Rooster are the rule, rather than the exception. Some even combine their farming with politics. Chair of the state agriculture committee, state rep David Zuckerman, is a poster child for working boutique farms. When the legislative session ends, he hops on his tractor to tend to his strawberries and corn.
But diversity does come with a toll, a thought that crosses Kyle Jones's mind whenever a spitball hits him on the back of the head. He has learned the hard way that there can be too much of a good thing. Initially, the plan had been to work the farm with a pair of draft horses, but that proved too time-consuming. Likewise, pig breeding has gone by the boards. They are figuring out how to make Fat Rooster work, one success and one mistake at a time.
Like many of Vermont's newest farmers, Kyle and Jennifer had a world of options and opportunities, and the one they select is hardscrabble life on a small farm in Vermont. Because they, and others, have the courage to choose a close relationship with the land over personal financial welfare, Vermont is a healthier, more colorful, and tastier place for the rest of us. Next time you are in the general store, buy a lottery ticket for your favorite local farmer.
Stephen Morris is the publisher of Green Living and the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com). This article appeared originally in Livin': The Vermont Way, and is used by permission.
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