I got this idea to write about women in agriculture, and one of the first people I thought of was Vermont farmer Mary Lake, whom I’d learned about through the Vermont Sheep & Goat Association. I inquired with Mary if she would be amenable to an interview and post about her work, and she very generously agreed to take the time for me. We spoke over the phone and I was able to put together parts of her story, and we also emailed back and forth to fine tune the information. The following is my account of a person whom I believe is one of Vermont’s finest contemporary and notable farm women:
Mary Lake & her husband, Paul Smith, met on the first day of classes in their first (French) class at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, VT. They started out with the same majors, but Paul ended up graduating with a Political Science major. “We connected over being journalism majors. I was too cheap to have my own New York Times subscription which was a requirement in the major. He offered to share his subscription with me.”
Mary grew up in South Hero, VT, in the Champlain Islands and was the youngest of 5. They didn’t farm, but were surrounded by dairy farms & apple orchards. They would walk to one of the nearby dairy farms regularly to fill up one or two milk jugs. Mary remembers being lifted up to peer into the milk tank. When she was just starting school and attending half days of Kindergarten, her mother went back to work, and she’d go to that very same dairy farm to be watched after. The farm was operated by the father and his son, and the son’s wife watched two or three children in addition to her own. Mary recollected playing around the farm, chasing kittens and jumping over cow pies. The cows were enormous to her back then– they were Holsteins.
Mary had also studied Sociology and upon graduation, she worked for the Burlington Free Press for a little bit, and did freelance writing and photography from time to time. On the side, she’d worked at a vegetable farm, seasonally, that she’d worked at one summer during her college years. She eventually stopped doing freelance work to work full time at the farm. She learned that she liked farm work more than sitting at a computer and started a search for full time farming positions.
She decided she’d also like to work with livestock. “I thought sheep would be a good animal to start with because of their size and affordability. I thought it wouldn’t cost too much to start a flock, as opposed to a herd of cattle.” Not long after, Mary started thinking about getting back to writing, using her degree, so she contacted the Vermont Sheep & Goat Association to ask if she could help with their newsletter. Not only was she granted the opportunity to help with the newsletter, but also invited to take charge of the entire project. This new responsibility allowed her to write articles about whatever she wanted to learn about, calling on farmers and asking questions. It was a marriage of enthusiasm, interest, intellect & opportunity.
After college, Mary & Paul moved from the Burlington-area to Waitsfield, Vermont. She Googled ‘sheep farm-Waitsfield’, and learned about Knoll Farm and the farm’s owner, Helen Whybrow. When she inquired about working at the farm, Helen invited her to help out with their upcoming shearing day. It was during that event that Mary met shearer Jim McRae who became a mentor for her.
So off Mary went with her college degree, journalism & vegetable farming skills honed, and started a new adventure as an intern at Knoll Farm, in Fayston, VT. This experience allowed her to develop skills and knowledge, and she worked there for 4 years. She even became farm manager when Helen & her husband went on a sabbatical for a year. Knoll Farm raises purebred Icelandic sheep for breedstock, meat & wool and Mary eventually got her own ram from them.
Jim McRae told her about the ‘Shearing School’ he ran which is a day long, held during different times of the year. In the next year after she attended her first shearing school, “it was like a fire got lit and (she) went to every shearing school” she could fit in, even a longer, more unique experience held in Washington State. A few of her shearing mentors planted a seed in her head for her to build up her own business more and become full time, allowing her to create her own schedule. She’s now been shearing for 5 years.
Husband Paul’s upbringing was in Saugerties, NY, in the Hudson Valley, near Kingston. He’d grown up around homesteading with his family, splitting wood, in the midst of fiber arts and raising rabbits.
Now when Paul gets home from the Sharon Elementary School where he is a behavioral interventionist, he helps to take care of the logging & forest management of the property they rent. The farmer that owns their property is busy raising approximately 60 head of cattle, Red Devons, that he crosses with Angus, for a gentle, calm beef cattle, sold as livestock to other beef producers as well as he is also the owner of “The Royal Butcher.”
Paul pitches in by helping to managing the forests, which are protected by the Vermont Land Trust, as well as has he & Mary have pursued interests of their own, such as sugaring a small lot of trees in the past year. They’ve been able to have a more reasonable rent in exchange for the work, and they hope to save up to be able to buy their own farm someday. Their landlord has given them a lot of freedom and encouragement to try things out while they’ve had the opportunity to take on small projects that interest them and to improve certain features of the farm.
“Our landlord is also my boss… I think he was happy to have us in the area and give us an opportunity to work some land and figure out our farming goals.”
Since Mary & her husband moved to their new home, for 2 years her farm business has been raising Icelandic and Horned Dorsets for lamb, wool & breedstock which she’d acquired through bartering. Her plan was to raise both breeds and also cross them.
She’s hoping to stay in their present location for a couple of years more, eventually finding some land through the Vermont Land Trust that she could have her own farm on.
In addition to managing her own flock and the business of selling lamb, shearing and working at the Royal Butcher, Mary also does on-farm butchering for small-scale producers and homesteaders who want animals processed for their own consumption.. Her farm business, right now, basically pays for itself, but doesn’t pay her anything. Shearing & butchering allow her to make a living working in agriculture without having her own farm or agricultural business.
I asked Mary how shearing has been going for her: “Its so hard in the beginning – it seems impossible –how do they make it look so easy? And I had a hard time finding enough sheep to shear. I’d get done with three sheep and I’d think, ‘o.k. I think I’m warmed up.’ But that’d be all the sheep I had to shear!”
Last year, inspired by a the prospect of a visit to friends who’d had a baby, she went to Watertown, New York. She hoped that it might offer an opportunity to expand her shearing business and allow her to visit her friends each year. She posted for jobs-wanted on Craigslist ahead of time and she sheared her way there and back. Prior to that excursion, all of Mary’s jobs had been referrals from farmers or people she’d met more locally. The challenge of the road trip was that “you run the risk of maybe the check’s not good or maybe they won’t be there.” For instance, at one farm, the farmer wasn’t ready and asked Mary to come back later. Mary couldn’t since she wasn’t able to stay locally and had other farms to get to.
For two nights and three days, Mary sheared at a dot-to-dot of farms, including a visit to her friend who’d just had a baby, allowing a chance to help her out. On her second night, she stayed at the home of a farmer whom she sheared for that day. It was a successful journey, giving her opportunities to practice her skills, meet other sheep farmers and gain more employment.
I asked Mary about her work history of the past 4 years at The Royal Butcher in Braintree, VT. She described it as really “intense, physical work” which she loves. She likes to work with the farmers, helping them to fill out their cut sheets, helping out on the killing floor and in the cut-room. She likes to “wear a lot of hats. The hours are really long – they can be 7 in the morning to 6 at night and you can’t really leave at a specific time every day.”
“I spent about 2 weeks in the cutting room when I first started at the Royal Butcher. They gave me a knife and I cleaned off whatever meat the cutters had left on the bones and I’d add that trim to the meat to be ground. I might bone out a shank if it was going to be ground meat. I packed meat, which helped me learn cuts, but whenever I could I’d peek onto the kill floor to see what they were doing. I remember someone saying, “don’t worry, you’ll get your turn out there.” And soon enough I did. I was really curious about how the animals were handled and killed. I wanted to make sure they were treated well, and I also wanted to know what humane handling at a slaughterhouse was like, because it sounded like an oxymoron to me. After watching a coworker lead in a steer, shoot it and bleed it out, I remember thinking, that’s something I want to do, but it’s going to take a long time to learn how. The shot was very precise, the way the throat was slit was exact. Slaughter all of a sudden became really complex to me and the more I watched, the more I saw that slaughter was made up of hundreds of tasks and little skills. I couldn’t just watch someone do something and then do it myself, I had to be taught step by step. And even once I could do a task all on my own, I’d sometimes have to stop and really think about what step came next. It took a month or two before I felt like things were rolling. And the tasks were getting easier. I started taking on harder tasks, ones I thought I might never learn. Pretty soon, I could do anything on the kill floor. And then I took that excitement back into the cutting room and started from scratch there. Now I can work in either room and I feel really confident, which I just never imagined feeling that first week or two when I was just cleaning bones. It was really similar to learning to shear. Every stroke of the blades is precise and to do the stroke right, your feet have to be in the right spot, the sheep needs to held properly, the comb and cutter need to be set correctly, etc. Sometimes I feel like the best thing for the animal is for it to be sheared or butchered by a professional rather than by the human that loves them the most. Someone who really knows what they are doing can do the job the best because they can do it quickly, cleanly, calmly and confidently. I really think livestock know how to read humans and sense stress, fear, sadness and anger. You may love your animals more than anyone, but that emotional tie might cause them to freak out a little if you’re behaving differently than normal. I bring my lambs for market to the Royal Butcher, but any lamb I have for me and my family, I slaughter myself at home and cut up in my kitchen. I’m not emotional doing slaughter of my own lambs, because I’ve raised them for meat. I’m fulfilling the purpose of having sheep and reaping the benefits of raising them. I’m not less connected to my lambs than I am my ewes, so sometimes I miss certain lambs for a little bit after they are gone, but I know the life they lived was a good one and I did whatever I could to end it calmly and swiftly. Being able to slaughter them at home and cut them myself makes me feel really self-sufficient and like I’m doing something my ancestors did. I’m practicing an age-old skill.”
Her days and nights are soon to change, though. Mary is due on January 30th with their first baby, a little boy. She’s hoping to plan for a more structured schedule that would be easier for her, managing her shearing business more full time, butchering less. We agreed how much we look forward to shearing day, to putting heads together to assess the sheep, their health, share bits and notes about the season, the animals, the market. She is hoping to take her baby with her, though she does have a few child care options. Though this coming spring “could be a little tricky, she’s looking forward to it.”
When asked about whether she imagined she’d like to be a farmer, Mary offered that she really never thought about it as a career, “but growing up I respected farming and thought farmers were strong, hard working and good people. I admired them.”
Speaking for myself, I’m pretty sure I’d be thrilled to see my shearer, and her baby, arrive on shearing day. It is clear to me that Mary recognizes hard work, planning and support are necessary tools to success whether it be in the form of perfectly preparing conscientiously raised food for the table or harvesting fiber from healthy, well cared for animals. No matter what her future holds for her, it will be entered into by a tenacious woman who challenges herself and others to raise standards, work hard and use their gifts – all of these being elements of strength and caring, modeling admirable traits we can all learn from.