It’s never too late to reinvent yourself or change your career.
Just ask Laurie Reese, a 53-year-old grandmother who left her office job in Oregon and drove cross-country to learn how to become a farmer at the University of Vermont.
The decision wasn’t one that Reese made lightly, but she knew it was the right path to take. Reese was picking apples one evening last fall on Sauvie Island near Portland when she decided she needed to shake up her life.
“It really hit me and I thought, if I have 30 good years left, what are they going to look like?” she says. “I have four kids and five grandchildren. What do I want to do with my life? I decided that I really wanted to do something with farming.”
That same night, Reese searched online for college programs, came across UVM’s Farmer Training program, and applied on the spot.
UVM Farmer Training is a six-month program that offers students the opportunity to manage their own growing site at UVM’s Catamount Educational Farm, take classes from professors and expert farmers, and learn on diverse farms in the Burlington area.
Switching Careers at the Age of 53
Last spring, Reese resigned from her office manager job in Oregon and drove 3,000 miles to Vermont with her 76-year-old father. In the midst of all of the change, she started a crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo, which helped her raise money for tuition. (Watch Laurie’s video on YouTube.)
“It was a rollercoaster ride. But my friends and family were so supportive, and it was a whole team effort to get me here to UVM Farmer Training,” she says.
The Farmer Training program offers students hands-on training and oversight of a personal farming project. The program also includes a weekly rotation day at farms in the area – including Bread and Butter Farm, Intervale Community Farm and Half Pint Farm – which gives students exposure to many different farming styles.
Most students in UVM’s Farmer Training program are in their early to mid-20s, but that didn’t discourage Reese from entering the program.
“I’m one of the oldest people here with the least real experience in farming,” Reese says. “But everyone is welcome, and all it takes to succeed in the program is a willingness to learn.”
UVM Farmer Training students are also encouraged to volunteer and be active in the local community. Reese volunteers at the local food pantry and at the Family Cow in Hinesburg. She also plans to volunteer at Two Grandmas Farm in Richmond this summer.
“For me, I really need to get involved in the community with volunteering. It helps me feel connected. I give but feel like I get so much more back. It’s very gratifying,” she says.
She’s also working part-time at a local bed and breakfast to help her learn more about hospitality. One of Reese’s goals is to learn about farming and innkeeping so she can eventually run her own B&B and farm, where guests can eat local food grown on Reese’s land.
A Career Path to Farming
While Reese’s long-term plan may not involve running a traditional farm, her vision and passion made her a successful candidate for the program. “Farming is such a broad field and there are many ways to be a successful farmer,” says Catamount Farm Manager Laura Williams, who works with UVM Farmer Training students in the field and teaches. “Instead of squeezing into one mold, it’s so important to figure out what your skills are and pay attention to what you really want to do.”
The Farmer Training program helps students develop a business plan to establish their own operation and learn how to use a SWOT analysis (strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats.) Reese is giving herself a two-year window to work her B&B and farming project.
“I feel very cared for in this program, and we’re all supported every step of the way,” says Reese, who plans to return to Portland when she completes the program in October. “Every single person here is so accessible.”
Pursuing a Dream
In many ways, farming has always been in Reese’s heart. The granddaughter of a California almond farmer, Reese grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, where her parents had chickens, gardens, and goats. Her own children grew up with horses, gardens, and other animals. At the age of 53, she finally decided to take it a step further.
“That night when I was picking apples in Oregon, I could have easily brushed the farming plan off as a whimsical idea. But then I would have eventually looked back and realized that I really wanted to farm and never did anything about it,” she says. “This is my dream, and I now know it’s never too late to realize it.”
Want to learn how to become farmer? Find out more about the UVM Farmer Training Program at learn.uvm.edu.