The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
And yet, it must be said that at times I see in them a certain naïveté. It’s not merely their youth (although that might be part of it), and I suppose it’s best explained by their assumption that if only they work diligently and conduct themselves with integrity, they’ll be afforded the life they dream of. In short, that hard work is all it takes. Can that be true? I want it to be so, not just for Jimmy and Sara, but also for myself and for my children, if only because I wish for my sons to inhabit a world in which the honest integrity of hard work is justly rewarded. In that sense, the story of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann is not merely the story of a young couple eking a living from the land. In that sense, it is the story of us all.
One morning I climbed atop the four-wheeler with Jimmy to prepare a fresh paddock for the cows to graze. It was early, maybe 7:00, and we rode due west, chasing our shadows. Jimmy drove and I hung on the front rack, my feet dangling into the lush, dewy grass. Ahead of us, the field unfurled to the forest’s edge; beyond that, visible over the treetops, a jawbone’s worth of toothy mountain peaks: Vermont’s Green Mountains. It was warm and getting warmer by the minute, the sort of morning that promised the sort of day that could make you forget that summer would ever end.
I’d arrived at the barn nearly two hours before, to find Jimmy and Sara leaning against the big stainless-steel bulk tank, drinking coffee and talking quietly, and for a half-second or so I could see into their future, to a morning 20 or 30 years hence, on which they’d be leaning against that same tank, once again drinking coffee and talking quietly. It was ridiculous, I knew, because of course much can change in 20 or 30 years, but there was something in their postures and in the low murmur of their voices that suggested permanence.
True, they’d been married for only a few months, and known each other for not much longer than three years, ever since they’d been introduced in the bleachers of a local high-school basketball game and Jimmy had reached into his pocket to pull out his phone, dislodging a cascade of hay chaff in the process. Sara had been raised on a dairy farm a couple of towns to the north; she knew what that cascade of hay chaff meant. She liked what it meant. “They say you always marry someone just like your dad or totally the opposite,” she told me once. “Well, I always thought my dad was pretty great.”
The field that Jimmy and I rode across doesn’t belong to Jimmy and Sara; it belongs to Jimmy’s grandmother Betty, and was farmed by Betty and her late husband, Al, along with Jimmy’s father, Pete, and Pete’s brother Walt. Jimmy and Sara lease the land from Betty, paying $2,000 each month for use of the barns and equipment, as well as the farm’s 300 acres, a patchwork of lush pastures and hayfields and stands of ash, maple, birch, and fir. Along old fencelines, rows of dead and dying elms stand sentry over the grazing cows.
Jimmy started farming in 2008 with his brother Ian, who’s four years younger, and whom he calls “Fred.” (When I asked Jimmy how Ian had come into the nickname, he shrugged his broad shoulders: “It used to be Henry.”) With a $150,000 loan, the brothers bought a herd of 60 cows and became the third generation of Ackermanns to farm the same piece of land. Still, it wasn’t nostalgia that motivated Jimmy. “When me and Ian filled out the business plan to buy the cows and saw that bottom line, you shoulda seen the grin on my face,” he remembers. “I said, ‘We’re gonna be rich!’ A year later, I knew what it was all about, and there ain’t no ‘rich’ involved.”
Still, Jimmy and Ian worked well together, having spent the previous four years co-running a landscaping and odd-jobs business that had earned them a reputation as the go-to, jacks-of-all-trades guys in town. Truth be told, it was rare to see one Ackermann brother without the other, either driving from job to job in Jimmy’s truck, or on a job site, chainsaws or brush trimmers in hand.
Two years after they’d started milking, Jimmy and Ian bought a 2,000-tap, 25-acre sugarbush situated a half-mile up the road from the barn. A few months after that, while Jimmy and Sara were visiting Sara’s aunt and uncle in Connecticut, Jimmy’s cell phone rang. It was Ian. He wanted out.
“I got off the phone and just started bawling,” Jimmy says. For the next four months, Jimmy ran the farm by himself. Seven days a week, he’d start milking at 5:30, finish up at lunch, cut firewood for a few hours, start milking again at 4:30, and get home around 9:00. It didn’t take him long to recognize that he couldn’t maintain that schedule indefinitely, and, after a handful of hired hands failed to materialize into long-term prospects, he and Sara decided that she’d join him on the farm full-time.
This marked a profound shift in Sara’s expectations regarding her professional career. True, she’d grown up on a small dairy farm in Albany, Vermont, a half-hour’s drive north of the Ackermann place. And true, her maternal grandfather had founded Sterling College, a small liberal-arts school in nearby Craftsbury, with a strong focus on environmental and agricultural education. But, like Jimmy, she’d been something of a jock in high school, and, as she puts it, “I was never in the barn, because I was always playing sports.”
After high school, she’d earned a degree in business management and seemed destined for a career that would be conducted in the air-conditioned comfort of an office building. Indeed, early in their courtship, when it became clear that Jimmy and Sara’s future together might someday include wedding vows, Jimmy had asked her if she would ever consider working the farm full-time. “I said no. I had it in my mind that I’d gotten this degree and I was going to do something with it,” Sara says. “It was Dad who made me feel like it would be okay to farm. He said, ‘You know, you need to follow your heart.’” She smiled, almost imperceptibly. “So that’s what I did.”
Jimmy and Sara live in a trailer they bought for $5,000 from Sara’s brother. Someday, the trailer will be replaced by a house that Jimmy and Sara will build with their own hands, but that day is possibly many years away. Their temporary home is tucked into a stand of mature sugar maples, on a 10-acre parcel (which they own), carved off the farm a couple years back. As the crow flies, it’s barely a quarter-mile from their front door to the barn; by car, it’s about double that. Across the driveway from the trailer is a small shed that Jimmy and his father built to house a pair of Harley–Davidsons, which serve as the Ackermanns’ primary form of recreation. That means they’re rarely ridden.
The inside of the trailer is decorated with evident care; framed pictures are propped up on most available surfaces, and the walls are adorned with hand-painted signs. One reads: “What happens in the barn stays in the barn.” Another, featuring a Holstein cow: “Welcome. Friends gather here.” Still another: “Wish upon a star.” It was mid-December when I visited, although it occurred to me that the sign might not be season-specific.
The past couple of months hadn’t been easy for the Ackermanns, primarily because Sara was suffering the side effects of early-term pregnancy. “I was puking in the gutter this morning,” she told me brightly, referring to the gutter that conveys the cows’ effluence to a manure pit across the road from the barn. I’ve found that farmers are generally comfortable casually discussing the sorts of bodily functions that many Americans avoid mentioning, and Sara seemed no exception. Her daily nausea was frequently coupled with debilitating migraines, and the combined maladies meant that there were mornings she simply couldn’t make it to the barn. “I feel terrible about it, because it means more work for Jimmy,” she said. She glanced up at her husband in silent apology. Jimmy just grinned and shrugged.
Indeed, I wondered whether perhaps Jimmy actually enjoyed the increased burden, which had included processing the last of the season’s firewood on Thanksgiving Day. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that Jimmy and Sara—and in particular, Jimmy—didn’t endure the work because it was what they needed to do to make a living. In fact, they didn’t endure the work at all; they reveled in it.