Together they have almost 40 years of farming experience, three degrees from UVM, and an incredible wealth of knowledge in how to produce amazing food, foster healthy communities, and have fun even when the work is hard.
Rachel Stievater (pictured above, right) is the new Catamount Farm Manager for UVM, and S’ra DeSantis (left) is the new Program Coordinator for the UVM Farmer Training Program. Read on to find out about their farming heroes and why they are still in love with farming after all these years.
When did you first fall in love with farming?
S’ra: I am not sure this is the moment I fell in love with farming, but it was the moment that I decided that I was committed to farming. The first year that I farmed at Riverberry Farm in Fairfax, Vt., the farmer, David Marchant, handed me a flat to be transplanted. I asked him, “You transplant grass?” He frowned and replied, “Those are onions.” From that moment on, when my face turned a crimson red, I wanted to prove to him and myself that I could learn this peculiar business of farming. It has since been a learning experience.
Rachel: My first experience growing food was in college when a couple of friends and I came up with the idea of a garden that college students and townspeople could come together and work collaboratively on. There was very little experience among the four of us. We had a great turnout when it came time to turn ground and plant the garden. Then we left for the summer, leaving caretaking in the hands of our one dedicated community member and a student who was living in town for the summer. We came back in September to a jungle of weeds. The sight didn’t dampen our spirits. We waded through the weeds and found onions, tomatoes, and basil to harvest. With our bounty we created a meal. I remember thinking to myself as we ate, “This is what food is supposed to taste like!”
Who are your farm heroes?
S’ra: Joe and Anne Tisbert who own Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vt. They have a son who is physically-challenged and cannot walk. They have retrofitted tractors and other equipment so that their son can help with tractor work, field work, and in the greenhouse. It is so amazing to see how close their family is and what they have done to make sure everyone can do what they love — farm.
Rachel: My heroes are the amazing farmers who I’ve worked with and for. I spent two seasons in Maine working for Jill Agnew, who owns and manages Willow Pond Farm. I also spent a season working at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville, N.Y. Steffen Schneider was the farm manager at the time. I have worked most closely, and for the longest period of time, with Chantal Deojay, farm manager at Farm & Wilderness in Plymouth, Vt. She also runs a small farm in her “off time.” She is one of the strongest, most dedicated, and most resilient people I have ever met. She knows and understands animals in a way that I never will, which I admire tremendously.
Farming is full of tough moments. What makes you stick with it after all these years?
S’ra: Farming definitely has its tough moments — strained back, flooded produce, stiff knees. But I love to eat the food that I have grown and feed it to my kids, especially vegetables that we have canned, froze, or fermented in the winter. It is so much fun to bring my kids to the farm and show them what a carrot looks like before you harvest it and see the smiles on their faces when you pull it out of the ground. They think you are a magician, what a great feeling! And of course I love driving tractors around — especially with my son, Arlo, on my lap. He is an aspiring tractor operator. And feeding our community — to know that people are eating the produce you grew all over the city is pretty cool.
Rachel: I like work that is tangible. To be able to see what you have accomplished at the end of a day is very satisfying. I also like the dynamic nature of farm work. The weather, the insects, the weeds, and soil quality keep you on your toes. Each season is its own, and there is more to learn every year.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a career in farming?
S’ra: First, take care of your body! Learn how to farm ergonomically from the beginning and make sure that you have time to stretch and exercise outside of the farm. It will help you to be able to farm for decades to come. Second, experience working on the kind of farm that you think that you want to have. See if you actually like farming this way before you make large investments. Third, have fun. Remember farming is fun! From getting dirty in the soil every day to having people come to farm for a tour, make it fun and then you will always want to farm.
Rachel: Do it. But come through the Farmer Training Program first to get a solid foundation.
If you were stranded on a desert island, but could bring an endless supply of one vegetable, what would it be?
S’ra: Depends if we had maple syrup there or not. If we had maple syrup then brussel sprouts, I love them sautéed with maple syrup. If not, then kale, lots and lots of kale, preferably lacinato!
Rachel: I’ve had a similar question asked of me before, but I was told I could choose 5 instead of 1. I’m going to go with 3…potatoes for their versatility in the kitchen — assuming I had some sort of kitchen; garlic, to keep me healthy; and kale because I love it, cooked or raw.
Susie Walsh Daloz is the Director of the UVM Farmer Training Program.