The Friends Like These series features people I know who are doing great things in sustainable and holistic ways.
“Here. Eat this,” four-year old Eli DeCoteau told my wife Sara as he handed her fresh mint from the herb garden, “It’s epidle [edible].”
For Annie and Bob DeCoteau, starting a farm has been a full family endeavor. Said Bob in an e-mail interview I conducted with them after visiting Harmony Circle Farm just outside Putney, Vermont: “Our kids are an extension of us, but yet individuals. I like to give them ownership of certain aspects of the farm. To develop something that they like to do on their own, all the while teaching them an ethical decision making process that they can take with them for whatever their adventure will be.” Annie concurred, “We are very lucky in the fact that our children love this way of life. They have been rooting for this all along.”
The Next Generation: I learn a lot about what to harvest, when to harvest it and how to harvest it. I really like the turkeys because they are very funny to watch. I like to visit the pigs because they seem to get bigger and fatter every day. I also like to help harvest. – Hannah DeCoteau, age 13
Annie and I went to junior high and high school together. We traveled with different crowds, but we did share the sweat-inducing White Rabbit costume while we each played the part in “Alice in Wonderland” during our senior year. Thanks to Facebook, we reconnected after sixteen years. Her postings continually referred to sustainability, proper food growing procedures, and Joel Salatin, the most vocal sustainable farmer in the United States. I was intrigued by these shared interests. At the time, she, Bob, and their five children – Hannah, Ethan, Libby, Eli, and Quinn – were renting a home in Greenfield, Massachusetts. When the house was sold by the owners, they decided to roll the dice and look for rental properties that would allow them to farm. Quite quickly, they went from suburban homesteaders to a family of seven farmers.
Starting a farm from scratch comes with challenges and the gestational period was quick for the DeCoteaus. Bob had been working off campus while Annie homeschooled the children and managed the household. When the economy took Bob’s job, their attention moved quickly to full-on farming. Annie wrote, “We decided that this year we would start small and just do a market garden. But when Bob was laid off back in January, we figured, what did we have to lose by taking ‘The Leap?’ I’m so glad we did.”
The Leap entailed working with their twelve acres of outdoor landscape and utilizing technology to create the infrastructure vital to any start-up venture these days. In the wet brown of winter and early spring, the DeCoteaus put up fencing, created produce beds, assembled their hoop house, procured animals, and built pens for them. Indoors, they worked on business plans, set up a website and blog, and pondered how best they could serve the community. The Leap created new connections, too.
The Next Generation: Eli, age 4, really likes the chickens. He does not like weeding because ‘once I was weeding and I accidentally pulled out a plant that we were going to harvest.’ He also said that he has learned about nettle: that most people think it is the leaf that stings, but it is really the stock that stings you.
“The universe, lord, serendipity, spirit… whatever… is bountiful and obliging, and it lets you know when you’re not on the right track,” Bob wrote to me, “But when you are, you manifest, and the doors just open, connections are lightning fast, and you just flow from the source. People and help show up exactly when and where you need them, and from places you’d never expect.” This aid has included some family members, friends, and members of their southern Vermont community, the folks they just met. Annie noted, “When we decided to have a CSA [weekly harvest shares], we had friends and family immediately jump on board. More mind-blowing than that was having folks from the community or people we’ve just met and told our story to jump on board, too. We’ve also had some wonderful farmers and farm/food business-minded people mentor us. It’s been unbelievable.”
Not that they haven’t met detractors. Some people who, as they put it, mark success by money and material possessions do not understand how they could make choices that extend their work hours without the promise of a significant paycheck. In fact, money can be quite tight for them. “We mock what we don’t understand. I don’t know who said it, but it’s true,” quipped Bob. “There will always be naysayers and ne’er-do-wells, but I choose to put my attention on those who bring positive energy to the circle.” Annie chimed in, “We have more supporters than people who think we’re crazy. Luckily.”
The Next Generation: Libby, age 8, enjoys taking care of the animals, seeing the pigs, and she feels like the farm is helping the environment around her.
In July, Sara and I had been visiting relatives in New England. We loaded our daughter Kalia and my parents, Don and Diane Webb, into the car and trekked over a few rivers and very much through the woods to find Harmony Circle Farm. Bob explained the concept of permaculture to us. My father called it the best description he ever heard of a concept not familiar to everyone – not too technical and easy to understand. I was out of earshot, so I had Bob write it down: “During one of life’s ‘resets,’ I stumbled upon a description of ‘permaculture’ online when searching for something to call what it was that I wanted to do. I wanted to become harmonious with the spot of land I was working, honor the natural world that had established itself there for millennia, and make it productive and fruitful to support human life sustainably. That was my ‘AHA!’ It was like someone describing an affliction or condition that you just couldn’t put into words, and realizing that’s what you had. Since then we have become farmers as part of our permaculture ethics based way of life – care for Earth, care for people, distributing a fair share. Farming and permaculture are who we are, not what we do.”
How did they get here? For Bob, it was a natural progression from an early age. At 16, I spent a lot of my free time on asphalt, trampling the dirt only when playing wiffleball or badminton. I was like a lot of boys my age. Bob was different. For his sixteenth birthday, he wanted a small plot of his parents’ yard to tend and the book, “Square Foot Gardening,” by Mel Bartholomew, a public television host. Bob wrote, “I was so surprised and happy to get some of his precious lawn space, albeit a six-by-six piece of shade sandwiched behind the pool deck and the property line under 60 foot oaks. I look back and think that those first plants grew on my will power alone…. It was my form of creative expression and the simple act of ‘making food’ from where there was none that really got me hooked.” While his school’s guidance department didn’t view “farmer” as a viable career option, he followed his passion to jobs as a landscaper and in garden centers. But, “It felt like I was just putting on a show, and there was nothing of substance behind it.” That’s when he discovered permaculture.
The Next Generation: Recently we watched in awe as Quinn pulled up a rhubarb stalk, removed the leaves, removed the root end, and started chomping. What 17-month-old knows that is what you need to do to rhubarb before you eat it?!
Annie called their journey an evolution, from gardening to homesteading to farming. They always wanted to supply their family with food they’d grown. While living in suburban Colorado, Bob worked on a farm and formalized his experiences in permaculture via a certification course at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute. At home they tried to put their desire to grow their own into action, “complete with our own animals for eggs, meat, a vegetable garden, a larder, water catchment systems, the whole nine yards.” Despite limited success in denser neighborhoods, they soldiered on and acquired more space amid the Rockies for a while before returning east.
When I asked about Bob’s formal training, he reframed the question: “Funny, no one ever asks your formal training related to breathing, or perhaps walking. For me, these things come naturally, and you hone your techniques with practice and real life experience. I never knew how to do anything I’ve done, until the first time I did it. Most times I’ve gotten it right, and those time that I didn’t, I did it until I got it right.” For him, the institutional program was an extension of what he already knew, opening his mind to new threads of interest at which he could pull. He continued, “My training in permaculture has taught that rather than being an observer-prescriber-consumer, I have become an observer-deducer-conserver. Permaculture ethics influence a decision-making process at each step or any level of daily life, from pattern to details.”
Annie started young and actually dug into the dirt of her grandfather’s chemical-free garden, which he constructed on a city lot. She also spent warm months in Vermont at relatives’ farms, shadowing her cousins. Improving on that background, the DeCoteau kids have access to the farm right outside their back door. Though they do not like weeding, their joy as young farmers shows when they take you around the grounds. Hannah and Ethan accompanied us on our tour. They took time with us to explain how they tend the plants, Hannah jumped right in with the pigs to supplement their lunchtime, and Ethan showed off chickens and their health-promoting pastured eggs.
With this hands-on experience at such a young age, they might not need to devour do-it-yourself books like their mom. “Within the past 5 or 6 years I’ve also read as many books on homesteading, four season gardening, pastured animals, and homemaking as I can. I’ve learned how to make bread, grow and preserve my own food, make my own laundry soap, and just about anything else you can think of,” Annie wrote.
The Next Generation: Ethan, age 10, is in charge of the strawberry bed this year. Our first 100 plants were bad plants and didn’t thrive. So, in early June, we had to go and find new plants to get into the ground in hopes of just being able to have the plants and babies for next year. Well, Ethan has been tending the strawberries, weeding them, and watering when necessary. Much to our surprise, they produced! So he’s also been out harvesting the strawberries. And we’ve even been able to give members their share. This has made Ethan ultra-proud.
Prior to visiting Harmony Circle, my family had not been to a permaculture-centered farm. My parents hosted my grandfather’s garden for several years when I was small, but that was the extent of our experience. To see this young farm laid out, happy chickens cavorting in wide spaces with the fences to protect rather than trap them, pigs lazing between root-arounds that till the soil for Annie and Bob, a hoop house constructed from scratch at a fraction of the normal cost, and to hear the plans for moving the pigs into the forest, which they will love, is to see nature respected by the humans chosen to tend it. I noticed the absence of stench that you normally find when passing by on a country road. Even up close, the animals failed to turn our nostrils inside out! Days after our visit, my mom e-mailed me, “I knew there was good reason for the cost of fresh, healthy farm food. But it came to life for me listening to Bob and Annie and seeing the artistry of what they work on every day. Their “backyard” is truly a canvas come to life.”
My mother brings up a point that gets contested whenever farm-fresh products are brought up in conversation with folks new to properly grown food: cost. The DeCoteaus skirt by. Farming is a brown collar job. Farming ethically currently is barely working class for many people. Said Annie, “Money is super tight. I mean super tight. When you have to say, ‘Do I pay the electricity or feed the pigs?’ there’s not really any wiggle room. It tends to make things stressful.” This is backwards.
Food in the United States is upside down, inside out, pick your cliche. That which is least healthy and most devoid of nutrients, the prepackaged edibles that help spike up diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, cost very little. Big Agribusiness sucks up a vast majority of government subsidies. The people who are doing it right are oases in the vast morass of corruption and glad-handing. And they could use our support the most. A little extra money spent on food will likely reduce health care costs in the long term, a consideration our society needs to take, a change we need to make. We’re all a lot poorer because of the food industry as it stands today. Sustainable farmers should be richer and thanked for saving us from ourselves.
Often, the tough life discourages folks from going into this vocation. For Bob and Annie, this truly is a labor of love. Both expressed how happy they are to be working with the one they love at the alchemy and sorcery of bringing seed to fruit in tandem with nature. According to Bob, “Those who were always wishing for our ‘success’ in life – parents, close friends – realized by knowing who we are, that our measure of success wasn’t financial, knew we were following the correct path on our life walk.”
On that walk, Annie draws her inspiration by the partner she’s known for about a decade and a half. “I’d have to say my biggest inspiration is my husband,” she intimated, “Seeing his eyes light up when he talks about the farm, seeing how proud he is to show it off, is what makes this all worth it.”
Resources: Harmony Circle Farm wants to help get nourishing food to people who don’t normally have access to quality, farm-fresh produce. If you’re a person of means who can help people in need, you can visit the Harmony Circle Farm website to contact the DeCoteaus if you would like to donate CSA shares. Also, you can find them on Facebook.
If you don’t live near southern Vermont but find this story inspiring, visit Local Harvest to find farmers who honor the land and animals when producing their bounty.