By Sarah Tuff Dunn
A few years ago, Burlington’s Lara Dickson was living high on the hog in graphic and web design, feeding off 20 years of freelance and independent contract work.
Today, the 46-year-old is literally living with the piglets as the one-woman wonder behind Next Chapter Farm, a 15-acre enterprise in West Berlin, Vermont, that she began to help erase irresponsible consumption—and, in its place, frame a healthier food system. Greener acres would be the place to be; farm livin’, the life for Dickson.
“The economies of scale make buying something organic or humanely raised at the co-op or Costco affordable for regular Joes like me, but it traveled many miles to land in my basket or on my plate at a restaurant,” says Dickson. “If I can try to help narrow that gap in some small way by being part of those options, that might be enough, or all I could possibly do. I’d feel good about that.”
While working in the design world, Dickson found herself daydreaming about owning her own farm. “There wasn’t really an ‘aha moment,’” she says, “but I found myself so interested in a variety of aspects during the past five years that I went looking for a space to actually do something, and it presented itself.”
Becoming a Farmer at Next Chapter Farm
That space is, of course, Next Chapter Farm, a place near the Dog River that teems with chickens, tractors, barns, and “Babe”-like piglets. How best to transition from the graphic design world to the very graphic world of dirt, mealworms, and manure? A five-month UVM Extension course that covered holistic farm management helped, as did charcuterie and butchering courses at Sterling and a Whole Systems Design permaculture camp in 2014.
“I attend any nearby NOFA [Northeast Organic Farming Association] conference and agriculture workshop or intensive that I can make time for,” says Dickson, who’s also enrolled in several online courses. “There’s just so much that interests me, and diving into a variety of fields has helped me decide what I want and can—or can’t—do with my time and resources.”
Other lessons have come from simply grappling with the morning-to-midnight (and beyond) life of a farmer. “I wasn’t under any illusions that this would be easy, but even at the start-up level I’m amazed at how many hours are not in a day,” says Dickson. “Or how one’s entire wardrobe can be ruined in mere weeks just by having chickens. Or how a small tractor can move mountains—of anything.”
Dickson continues to work full-time as an independent contractor and freelancer in the design world, which “lends itself to marketing the farm as it blossoms,” she says. But she can no longer head out the front door and walk down the street to meet with friends at the drop of a hat, she says; animals are a-calling instead. “Instant gratification had to go,” she says.
The biggest physical challenges, reports Dickson, include pulling up trees, tires, and fencing, along with pulling out enough funds to keep everything running. But then there are the rewards—fresh eggs still warm from a nest, dunking into a river on a 90-degree day, and peepers in the spring. “As scrappy as this farmstead is,” she says, “I love coming home to it, weeds and all.”
Want to become a farmer? Learn about UVM’s Farmer Training Program.
-Sarah Tuff Dunn is a freelance writer from Shelburne.