The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
“I’m at peace when I’m working,” Jimmy told me later that evening, after we’d settled into a local pizza joint. “I’m most happy when I’m working and especially when I’m working outside. I love being outside.” He lifted a fresh slice off his plate; we’d ordered Jimmy’s favorite, a house special called “The Carcass,” topped with pepperoni, meatballs, sausage, and, in a half-hearted nod to dietary diversity, mushrooms. He finished it in two bites that were so close together they might have been counted as one. He chewed a full four or five times, swallowed, then continued: “When I was a kid, I’d spend the whole day outside playing with my tractors and stuff. It didn’t matter what the weather was. They had to beg me to come inside.”
That sort of work ethic and passion for the outdoors had been instilled in Jimmy and his brother by their parents from an early age. “Dad is a bullin’ f**kin’ idiot, and I was right there with him all the time,” he said. At first I was a little taken aback, but Jimmy was grinning widely, and I realized that in Jimmy Ackermann’s vernacular, “bullin’ f**kin’ idiot” is a compliment.
By the time he was 9, Jimmy was driving the big Case tractor that’s still on the farm today, pulling loads of firewood logs out of the woods, with the front wheels lifting off the ground and his father shouting instructions at his side. “Dad always believed that the best way to learn was to do, and the best way to get things done was to do ’em,” Jimmy added. “And I guess I got some of that. I always figure it all has to be done, so I do it. I don’t really mind any of it.” He bent over his plate and inhaled another slice.
“It all has to be done, so I do it.” I can see the logic in that, and I have to admit, there’s an appealing simplicity to it. As rules-to-live-by go, it seems like a sound one. And in the case of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann, it isn’t just rhetoric; it is fact, because if they don’t do it, the ramifications will be severe: Cows will get sick and eventually die; the people in their community who depend on them for firewood will be cold. It’s sobering to consider how much of contemporary America’s working landscape comprises tasks that are, if not nonessential, then certainly lacking in urgency. If I miss a day or even three of writing, no one is likely to notice, and I suspect the same could be said for a strikingly large percentage of our nation’s labor force.
But the majority of the work that Jimmy and Sara do really does have to be done. Oh, sure, part of why it needs to be done is simply to pay for the expenses that the work itself incurs. Just a single month’s grain bill for their cows runs $10,000, which means that it costs twice as much to feed their dairy herd for a month (not counting hay and forage) as Jimmy and Sara spend on the structure in which they—and soon, their baby—live. And the grain is merely the proverbial drop in the bucket: There are payments on the tractors, and there’s the $1,000-a-month electricity bill, and the farm lease, and $50,000 haying implements that die and must be replaced. There’s the mortgage on the sugarbush and the new firewood elevator, and Jimmy’s truck, and … “I used to ask Sara how much money we had left, but I don’t ask her anymore,” Jimmy told me once. “’Cause if I don’t ask her, she doesn’t tell me.”
Sometimes I wonder whether Jimmy and Sara Ackermann truly appreciate how important their work is—if perhaps they lack context, having been raised in families and communities where such work isn’t the exception but the norm, and therefore can’t get quite enough distance from it to bring its full value into focus. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t choose to articulate this aspect of their relationship to the labor that defines their days. They’re both smart and talkative, but they’re also doers, faced with the persistent urgency of whatever task is before them. In other words, perhaps they simply don’t have time to sit around thinking about how critical their jobs are, and in those rare moments when they might have that time, they’re probably too damned tired.
Yet I’ve also witnessed moments that suggest a degree of connection that belies Jimmy’s git-’r-done ethos. I remember doing chores with them one morning, listening to Jimmy’s near-constant murmur, as he gently coaxed the cows out of the barn and toward the big corral, where he’d stand for a few minutes and quietly watch, looking for a limp, or signs of heat, or anything abnormal. Or maybe just looking.
“Git up, git up, come on girl, git up, gonna be a beautiful day, git up, that’s it.” He spoke softly, whispering almost, occasionally reaching out to place a hand against a warm flank. “Come on, let’s go, git up. It’s a nice one out there, come on.” I remember Sara leading me through the barn, to show me an hours-old heifer calf out of one of her favorite cows. The calf’s coat was still dotted with small whorls of wetness, and as Sara fed it from a bottle, she ran a hand absentmindedly over its back.
And I remember standing with Jimmy one afternoon as he was splitting wood, and watching as he carefully split around a rotten section, cleaving off the sound outer wedges of wood, before tossing the punky length aside. To be sure, the effort of discarding the piece was minimal, and, to be honest, I might have missed it had I been looking away. But the few seconds it took Jimmy to cast it aside revealed to me something in his relationship to his work that was far greater than the simple effort of his actions. After all, the truck contained literally thousands of sticks of firewood; a substandard piece or two wasn’t merely something that might be excused—it was to be expected. No one was likely to notice that Jimmy’s firewood was absent that one slender length of porous wood. No one except Jimmy, that is.
What I see in these moments is something that I believe transcends simple pride: affection. Not merely for the animals under Jimmy and Sara Ackermann’s care, or solely for the customers upon whose continued support they depend, but for something at once less tangible and ultimately more durable: affection for the work itself, and for the livelihood it provides. For the life it provides.
To be sure, there are plenty of moments in their day-to-day existence when affection is probably the furthest thing from their minds. Like most young, working-class couples, they worry about money. Unlike most young, working-class couples, they grapple with the challenge of being both domestic and business partners. “When I first started on the farm, there were days I’d sit down in the feed alley and just cry and cry,” Sara told me. “I could see how things were changing in our relationship, how we didn’t have the opportunity to miss each other anymore, because we were always working together.” And not just working, but laboring: tired, cold, wet. Bruised from being kicked by a cow. Or all night feeding the sugaring arch, watching the sap slowly turn darker and thicker and sweeter. Or finishing the last cord of the season’s firewood on Thanksgiving Day, piece after piece after piece, slowly piling up in the bed of the truck like accumulating snow.
I know Jimmy and Sara’s life well enough to know there are elements of it that are just plain hard, and if I’m to be entirely candid, there are times when I think they’re a little crazy. What happens if one of them gets hurt or sick, or simply burns out? What happens if, to borrow a phrase from Jimmy, it’s not enough to be a “bullin’ f**kin’ idiot”? What will happen as they grow older, their bodies less able to absorb the reality of 12-hour days, seven days a week? When I ask them these questions, they shrug their shoulders, and I wonder whether there might come a time when they’d wish they’d chosen a different path. An easier path.
But then I remember something Jimmy once told me, when I asked him what his favorite thing was. I figured he’d say something about riding his Harley, or operating one of his beloved John Deere tractors. Or maybe it would be sugaring; I already knew that he loved to make syrup, that he had “the fever,” as sugarmakers like to say. Jimmy didn’t hesitate for a second: “My favorite thing is when it’s raining and cold, and I’ve been working outside all day, and it’s 5:00 o’clock, and it’s time to go to the barn.”
For a moment, I thought he was joking, but the smile on his face struck me as sincere—as sincere a smile as I’d ever seen: “It’s just so warm and comfy in there, with all the cows.” And now Sara was smiling, too, and I could tell that she knew exactly what her husband was talking about. “Man,” he said, “I sure do love that.”
Finally, sugaring time. On a Wednesday night in mid-March, we convene in Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse after evening chores. The sap has run hard all day, and there are thousands of gallons collected in the big gathering tank; the night before, Jimmy was up at Ian’s new sugarhouse until nearly midnight, helping his brother work the kinks out of his system. Ian had purchased the sugarbush only months before and had managed to assemble the house and rig with nary a day to spare, while maintaining a full-time work schedule.