The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
Jimmy and Sara Ackermann just may be the hardest-working couple in Vermont. They’re trying to do what many feel is nearly impossible in the 21st century: begin a new life working off the land.
When James “Jimmy” Ackermann was 19, in the fall after his graduation from Cabot High School, in Cabot, Vermont, he drove 45 minutes due west from the town in which he’d grown up. His destination was Johnson State College, where it was assumed that Jimmy would lead the Johnson State Badgers basketball team to glory on the court. It wasn’t a flawed assumption: In high school, Jimmy had been one of the Cabot Huskies’ star players, racking up more than 1,000 points, once scoring 35 points in a single game. He wasn’t tall, but he was tough and strong, and despite his muscular frame, exceptionally nimble. Obviously, he could score. Yeah, he was good.
“I wanted to play ball something bad,” he told me. We were driving in his big GMC pickup, floating down a rural Vermont road on a halcyon September morning. The truck’s radio was tuned to Froggy 100.9; a male singer was drawlin’ about fast trucks and slow women. Or maybe it was slow trucks and fast women. Jimmy was dressed in a gray T-shirt tucked into shorts of a heavy canvas weave. He wore a pair of tattered work boots on his feet. His dirty-blond hair protruded from his head in an unruly fashion that looked as though perhaps he’d stuck his head out the open window of a moving vehicle.
But Jimmy didn’t play much ball in college because, as it turned out, Jimmy didn’t much like college. Oh, sure, he’d drunk his first beer at JSC, and that was kind of fun. And there were pretty girls everywhere, and that was pretty cool. But when it came right down to it, Jimmy had to admit that college was, well, a little too slow for him. “The thing I didn’t like about college was that it wasn’t busy enough,” he told me. “I’d wake up at 6:00 and I didn’t have class until 10:00, and everyone’s walking around in sweatpants hanging off their ass. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do?” He offered a little sideways grin, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole situation.
So what he decided to do, after two of the most physically lazy and interminable weeks of his young life—weeks that he largely spent gazing jealously through classroom windows at the men atop shiny John Deere machinery mowing the college’s expansive grounds—was to leave school to the ass-hanging sweatpants wearers. And get to work.
Earlier that day, after morning milking on the dairy farm he runs with his wife, Sara, an unpretentiously pretty woman of 24 whom he’d married less than three months before, I’d helped Jimmy load the bed of his truck with literally hundreds of gallons of the sundry liquids used by dairy farmers: teat dips, acid cleaners, laundry detergents. The Ackermanns distribute the products to other farmers throughout the region; it’s a fairly recent undertaking, and their nascent system for managing inventory was being tested.
“Give me an iodine five,” Jimmy called to Sara, using verbal shorthand for a five-gallon pail of iodine teat dip. Sara looked up from the stack of orders she was flipping through and scanned the “warehouse,” a cramped room just off the milking parlor. Barrels were stacked atop barrels, and a trio of kittens flitted about underfoot. Just outside, a sign advertising pure Vermont maple syrup swung gently in the breeze. Across the road, about 50 cows grazed tufts of rich late-summer grass.
“We don’t have it,” she called back.
“Damn,” replied Jimmy. And then, to a kitten upon whose tail he’d just trod: “Oops. Sorry, little guy.” He picked up a 15-gallon barrel of cleaner with one arm and carried it across the floor toward the truck. As he lifted it into the bed, I caught a glimpse of the label, where the weight was printed: 149 pounds. “Got a load,” said Jimmy, eyeing the rows of 149-pound barrels he’d one-armed onto his truck, a shiny white GMC he’d bought only a few weeks prior. He looked happy. “Yeah! Load this thing!”
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.
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