The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
He was clearly pleased to be putting his new truck to the test. We climbed into the cab and swung out of the barnyard. It was nearly 10:00, which meant that Jimmy and Sara had been up and working for almost five hours. Jimmy looked at his watch and stepped on the accelerator. Only seven hours until chores came around again. We had to get moving.
About three years ago, I began collecting the waste milk produced by the Ackermanns’ 50-odd milk cows to feed to our pigs, and, as a result, I began to see Jimmy and Sara on an almost daily basis. The more I saw them, the better I got to know them, and the better I got to know them, the more I began to realize that they just might be the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. They milk cows, run a 2,000-tap sugaring operation, sell more than 50 cords of firewood each year, plow driveways, hire out for various landscaping and tractor-related tasks, and operate the aforementioned distributorship. It adds up to an almost stunning amount of work, with days off as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth. Indeed, of the 365 days that made up calendar year 2012, the only day they took off from work was the day after they wed.
But it wasn’t so much the sheer volume of work that intrigued me as the simple fact that beyond a small circle of customers, family, and friends, they toil in anonymity. Although they produce food (milk and maple syrup), they haven’t ridden the wave of recognition bestowed by the local/artisanal/sustainable food movements upon many of the region’s producers. They don’t sell their products at farmers’ markets; they don’t tweet or blog about their farm and its offerings; you can’t “Like” the Ackermann Farm on Facebook, because the Ackermann Farm isn’t on Facebook. In fact, the scope of their marketing efforts can be summed up in that “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup” sign flapping in the breeze at the edge of the barnyard.
In a sense, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann are throwbacks. Their lives exemplify a deeply historic New England work ethic that seems to be evolving inexorably away from the land to align itself with our nation’s cultural embrace of digital technology. It’s not that Jimmy and Sara are dismissive of technology, and they do own a computer and cell phones. But if those items were to suddenly disappear from their lives, very little would change for them, and their work would be essentially unaffected. I’m struck by how rare that is.
It may be obvious by now, but in Jimmy and Sara I see something both humbling and hopeful. I’m humbled by the sheer scope of their commitment to their work and the good-naturedness with which they go about it, and I’m hopeful because I can’t help but wonder how many other young New Englanders are leading lives of similarly quiet, purposeful intent. At times it seems to me that there can’t be many, but then I remember that the very nature of Jimmy and Sara’s relative anonymity suggests that there could be an awful lot.
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.