On Farm Ownership
SHANNON VARLEY, BELLA TERRA FAMILY FARM
Farm ownership: it’s a farmer’s dream and often difficult to attain. My project about women farmers started and blossomed with one such farmer with a fierce dream.
Shannon Varley is a woman with a strong vision of owning and working her own farm, and she’s been on a mission to realize that dream for years. Her story is one of persistence, hard work, luck, tragic loss and renewal. I feel so fortunate to know her and to witness her dogged struggle to achieve her dream of being a land-owning farmer. She is a generous and warm person with a genuine heart, and she is an inspiration. It’s Shannon who one day said to me, “Lise, you should start a blog.” So, here we are. Thank you, Shannon.
In the five years that I’ve known and have been photographing her, I’ve seen her family go through many challenges in the quest to own their farm. Shannon has faced them all with inspiring grace and tenacity.
It took Shannon eight years of “searching and working and dragging animals up and down the East Coast” before she and her family found and purchased their own farm in Knoxville, MD—the farm, she laughed, out of which she’ll be carried feet first.
The appeal of a farming lifestyle
Shannon is married with two children. In the time I’ve known her, she’s lived in four different places and had a variety of farm animals: pigs, steer, chickens, sheep and rabbits (hope I’m not forgetting any) and two different gardens. Farming was never on her radar as something to do with her life, but over time she arrived at a place of knowing that farming was her true calling. She now feels that her role in growing and raising healthy food for people addresses many of the problems that we face as a country; at the same time, a farming lifestyle is how she wants to live and raise her children. Despite its hardships, a farming life feels right to her. At this point she can’t imagine doing anything else with her life, even though she often toys with the idea of returning to some kind of 9 to 5 job, because “Lord knows we could use the extra money!”
But a 9 to 5 kind of life doesn’t feel intuitive to her, and Shannon listens to her intuition. She’s learned through the years that when she approaches the world with a heart of love, warmth and trust, things materialize the way they are supposed to.
But how did she arrive at this point of knowing?, was my question. She didn’t grow up with farming as a model, so how did she find her way to it? Did she choose her path, or was she led to it? How did she know it was her calling?
The birth of a farmer
From an early age Shannon noticed how food affected how she felt, mentally and physically. By the time she got to college, she realized how important it was that people be growing healthy food, but it never crossed her mind that farming would be a viable option for her. What seemed viable for her, instead, was to focus on policy and lawmaking as the way to have an impact. After researching a project at Denison University on organic standards, she became curious about farming and took a post-graduate internship at Malabar Farm in Ohio, where Louis Bromfield, considered the father of the sustainable farming movement, had lived. It was her first exposure to farming, and she felt attracted to its vibrancy and deepness. And its chaos.
After about six months of interning on the farm and working part time as a naturalist, she made what to me seems like a remarkable decision for a young woman. In 1999 she approached an older man with a vacant farm and asked if she could lease the farm and make a go of it.
She stood on his doorstep and explained that she wanted to grow organic food and start a CSA, but Shannon could tell he clearly wasn’t listening to anything she was saying. He scrutinized her and said, “You’re not going to grow wacky tobbacky, are you?” After explaining that she would not be growing marijuana but was, indeed, just interested in growing vegetables—and after explaining what “organic” meant—he agreed to lease her the farm. Once she won him over (which I can imagine didn’t take very long), he became a huge supporter, loaning her equipment, plowing her fields. She had free range of his greenhouses. Whatever she asked for, he gave her.
Shannon quickly realized, though, that even with his help she couldn’t do it by herself, so she convinced a girlfriend from Malabar Farm to come join her. They farmed two acres, started a CSA in Columbus, sold to restaurants, and both had part-time jobs. For two years they worked their butts off, and Shannon enjoyed it. But she was young, was living in the middle of nowhere, and still wanted a social life, so she and her friend decided to move away from the farm.
Choosing a life’s path
Shannon left her two-year stint at farming without a clear idea of what to do next. So like any good child of teachers, she returned to school. She had always felt that meaningful change in our food system would come about on the policy level, so school was the natural place for her to be. While at Vermont Law School working on her master’s degree in environmental law, she was unhappy being stuck inside. She was aware of the changing seasons and would think, “this is when I’d be planting such-and-such.” She was constantly distracted from her schoolwork by spending time outdoors, by a desire to watch the changing light and the sun’s position in the sky.
Shannon realized that all her time pursuing academic work was like checking off boxes (undergraduate: check; master’s: check), and she felt disconnected from what was intuitive and natural and right for her. After law school, feeling more lost than she’d ever felt, she returned to her parents’ in Pennsylvania to start job searching, hell-bent on finding a policy position in DC, even though that kind of work didn’t quite resonate with who she felt she was. She sees now that she just wasn’t listening to herself.
I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling of being lost in our lives and not knowing how to proceed. I think often about the question of whether we determine the course of our life or whether we are led to discover our path. When I listen to Shannon tell her story, I definitely feel she was led. So does she.
Shannon trades in her power suit for Red Wiggler
While helping a neighbor look for a program for her son, she came across Red Wiggler Community Farm in Maryland, a program that integrates farm work and job training for developmentally disabled adults. That same day—really, the same day—she noticed an opening on Idealist for a farm manager at Red Wiggler, and despite the fact that the job didn’t entail wearing a suit in the corridors of power in DC, something about it felt right to her. You can guess what happens next, right? She gets the job and moves to Maryland in 2003.
Shannon loved her job and was able to take part in all aspects of the small operation, greatly expanding her skill set. She worked on the farm for five years. During that time she met her future husband, BJ, and pretty quickly they had a daughter. She was able to bring her daughter to work with her, which was a joy, and her job duties shifted into grant writing and other administrative tasks. By the time her son was born two years later, she was doing contract work for Red Wiggler from home.
By now she knew—deeply knew—that she wanted to be farming. Screw the corridors of power! She felt that farming was something she could do with the kids in tow, and it would be a life that was right for her family. BJ had a business restoring barns, and Shannon felt sure that being the frugal people they were, they could live on BJ’s salary and get a farm going.
So what, exactly, does that look like? Starting a farm from scratch seems like an overwhelming and heroic proposition. Even more so when you have the responsibility of raising children. I’ve learned, though, that like everything else in life, you take it one step at a time and you learn as you go.
First step for Shannon: find some land.
Moving to Vermont
After Shannon’s children were born, she again felt the strong pull to farm her own place. She knew it was the lifestyle that she wanted for her family, but she wanted to be having it on a farm she owned herself. She and husband BJ decided that they’d have a better chance of finding a large farm in Vermont, and it would be a more suitable place in which to raise their kids. They moved the family in the summer of 2008 but soon found that they were mistaken about the likelihood of affording the 100-acre farm to which they aspired.
Instead they bought a cottage with four acres. Shannon grew vegetables and started a farmer’s market in an open public space in town, inviting other farmers to sell there as well. That market is still going strong. From what I know about Shannon, I would have thought that the life she had in Vermont would have been her dream. And in many ways it was, but as her kids grew older, both Shannon and BJ missed having immediate family around.
Shannon uses her Volvo to bring feed from the barn down to the pigs
Back down the East Coast
BJ’s gift is restoring timber barns, and before they had moved to Vermont, he did a large restoration project for a family in Maryland. (I’ve seen the barn, and it’s a spectacular restoration.) That family contacted Shannon and BJ in Vermont to see if they might be interested in renting a neighbor’s 15-acre farm. The farm wasn’t far from where BJ’s family lived, so in 2010 they packed up and moved back down.
Once back in Maryland, Shannon called her farm Bella Terra Family Farm and grew vegetables and raised pigs, steer and chickens. She started a local CSA and also sold at three farmer’s markets.
It was during the time Shannon was renting the Maryland farm that I first met her. She spoke often and passionately about the importance of connecting willing farmers with good farmland, and about how hard it is for farmers to afford land.
A Thanksgiving tradition
Farm Ownership: the Dream Remains
Shannon liked her little farm, but her dream for eight years had been to own her own place, not rent, and she couldn’t let the idea rest. Some people argue that a long-term lease is a viable option to get farmers on the land, but Shannon says she’ll never back down from her belief that from the point of view of financial sustainability and land stewardship, it’s essential that ownership be a possibility. She is passionate about this topic.
Finding good, affordable farmland is a challenge, though, because at least in this part of the world, land is sold at development prices, not farm prices. The part of affluent Montgomery County where Shannon was renting had once been rural farmland, but over time the farms were developed for people wanting the feel of the country only 40 minutes from downtown Washington, DC. In came the McMansions. Shannon’s little house and gently sloping property lay nestled among them, practically swallowed up.
The desire to own her own place was palpable, she told me, and sometimes it kept her up at night. But how on earth could they afford a place?
Buying a Farm
Shannon and husband BJ visited, walked, and mulled over many, many farms for sale in Maryland, but nothing was quite right. Little did Shannon know that one particular trash-heap of a place they visited would end up being her farm. On her first visit to the property, Shannon wouldn’t even get out of the car. All she saw from the car was a neglected, run-down property that had been completely trashed. Apparently whoever had most recently lived there had not believed in garbage cans but chose instead to throw trash anywhere around the yard. Months after buying the property, Shannon was still finding empty cake cartons in the woods behind the house.
In retrospect, Shannon now likes to say, “sometimes great opportunities are missed because they are dressed in overalls.” Despite her resistance, BJ had a hunch about the trash-heap place and kept bringing it up to her. (Hmmm, there’s that intuition thing again.) Except whoops…opportunity gone. Someone else had made an offer and the property went off the market. Soon, though, it reappeared at a reduced price, and Shannon agreed to at least have a get-out-of-the-car look at it. This time the yard had been cleaned up—a little—at least to the point where she could get her head wrapped around the idea and start to establish a vision for the place.
What the property had going for it was a large barn in back that was in great shape. There was some fencing in place, a lovely little pond, and enough land for livestock. She thought that making a good farm out of it was conceivable, and they decided to go for it. They bid low, knowing how much work they’d have to put into the place. Eventually, after lots of back and forth, they secured the property at a reasonable price. That was in April of 2012.
The barn. Notice the McMansion neighbor.
Most important, and what made the deal even possible, was that they were able to finance the purchase for the value of the land alone, because the 1820 house was considered a tear down. “A dump” and “uninhabitable” was what the appraiser called it. The original house was a log cabin, with a stone addition added sometime after, all of which was covered with filthy layers of plaster and drywall. But BJ, whose specialty is restoring timber-framed barns and old houses, suspected that underneath the grime lay a sweet treasure.
But good grief, how would they tackle a job that Shannon said was “overwhelming and more overwhelming”? Shannon described what needed to be done as “the extraction of every inch of plaster, drywall, moldy insulation, flooring, snakes, and anything else that happens to fall out of ceilings or walls. It involves the extensive use of respirators and thick work gloves. It’s a nasty, nasty dirty job.”
And not exactly spending time outside tending to animals or vegetables. But still, a farmer has to have a place to live.
Most of the disgusting plaster has been removed from the original log cabin
Shannon and BJ had poured all of their money into the purchase of the farm, so they relied on friends and family for help. They had work parties, and on the first weekend alone, a generous group of folks got more done than Shannon and BJ could have accomplished in a month of weekends.
I wish I could say I was at that party to help and to document the process, but I wasn’t. I didn’t reconnect with Shannon until they were three months into the renovation. While they worked on the house, they lived in a trailer parked just up the driveway. The first time I went into the trailer, to use the bathroom, my thought was “Bless you, Shannon. I don’t think I’d last two days in here without losing my mind.” It was, of course, small and cramped, and they were two tall adults and two children. But to their everlasting credit, they survived 21 months living in that thing.
The house under renovation and a trailer to call home
This was the dining room during renovation
A dream come true
They moved into the renovated house right before Christmas in 2013. In Shannon’s words, “I will never, ever, ever take for granted again: living space over ten square feet, indoor plumbing, an HVAC system, and the pure bliss of being able to close a door.”
And was BJ right about the house? Was it indeed a sweet treasure? Yes, absolutely and completely. Shannon credits BJ with taking “decades of neglect and transforming it into a work of art.”
Fortunately I was able to be at the grand housewarming party in January of 2014, and I couldn’t believe the transformation. The original log cabin had been revealed; there was a huge and inviting kitchen with stone walls and a deck off the back that overlooked the barn; BJ had rescued a fabulous claw foot bathtub from a hospital in West Virginia; and the bedrooms upstairs were lovely and snug. It had become a dream house. And it was featured in the October 2014 issue of This Old House.
The quote from Rumi written above the back French doors perfectly reflects Shannon’s spirit
Shannon’s dream had finally, thankfully, gratefully come true. Eight years of slogging through moves and renovations and mud and dirt and hard work and raising kids and animals and all of it—so much determination and grit. It was a joy to behold.
Now she could finally turn her full attention to her farm and building up its infrastructure.
I visited Shannon a few times after they moved into the finished house. I got to see her give pedicures to her sheep (meaning: cut their toenails and get covered in sheep dung), watch a sheep shearing done by a traveling woman shearer, watch Shannon put in her family garden (a larger market garden would be planted the following year), and generally hang out with the pigs and sheep and chickens and listen to Shannon’s plans for the farm.
But on December 12, 2014, exactly 11 months after the grand unveiling of the remarkable renovation, the house burned down in a raging fire.
photo courtesy Shannon Varley
As in: burned…to…the…ground. As in: everything lost. Their clothes, the kids’ toys, the furniture, Shannon’s grandmother’s china stored so cozy in the cabinet, the Christmas decorations the kids were making. Everything. Including their dog and cat.
This is the part of Shannon’s story that is almost too painful for me to tell.
Here’s what happened. Shannon needed feed for the animals, so she and the kids made a trip to Frederick. BJ was at work. While they were gone, the dog knocked over a lamp inside the house, which started a fire. BJ arrived at the scene first, alerted by a coworker who had been driving by. By the time BJ reached Shannon on her cell phone and she made it back, fire trucks blocked the road and her access, so she had to circle all the way back around the mountain to reach the house.
When she arrived the house was engulfed in flames and all she could do was stand and watch. As she watched her house and dream burn to the ground, she says she began to laugh maniacally. “After all we’ve been through, this happens? How fucking hard does it have to be to have a farm?”
Grief and gratitude
After the maniacal laughter, the shock and incredulity, the tears came. Shannon says she cried a lot (who wouldn’t?) and had many, many sleepless nights. But here’s the inspiring thing about this truly remarkable woman. She says that 10% of her crying came from loss and grief, but 90% of it came from gratitude.
Here’s the Facebook post that she sent out just five days after the fire:
“The enormity of compassion, kindness, love, and grace that has poured into our lives leaves us speechless. Tenderness has come from the most unexpected places. We are humbled. We have had to go down into our grief the last few days, which is the only way to go so that we can come up and out of it. It was just a house, yes, but many of you know it was so much more. It was our heart, our hands, the effort and time of so many people that love us and wanted to see our farm dream become a reality. After years of chasing it. This has become a cold, hard lesson in the art of letting go. It has also given us an unexpected gift. It has shown us over and over again, the beauty, grace, & selflessness of the human spirit: of so many of you. Words will never do this event or the range of emotions it has invoked justice. We have needed to know that you are there rallying around us: the calls, texts, e-mails, messages, hugs, thoughts–-we have needed them all. I am sorry we have not been able to respond. We will as soon as we can. I want to say “thank you” from the deepest places of my and BJ’s heart. We are ok. Life carries on. There are far greater griefs in the world. We wrap our arms around each other and give thanks.”
And we hold you in our hearts, Shannon.
Spending time with Shannon while she worked has been the start of my education about farming, and she has been tremendously generous with her time and knowledge. Just being on her farm with her has helped soothe some tough patches in my own life. She’s an inspiration to me and a dear friend, and I can’t read her words about the fire without crying all over again.
Moving on After Grief
After Shannon’s house was destroyed by fire, she said they received so many donations of clothes and household items that she needed help to go through them all. She said she now owned nicer clothes than she ever had before. I saw her about five weeks after the fire, and she said she felt deflated, ungrounded and untethered, but she also seemed philosophical and balanced about the experience.
She said that she felt the path was being laid out for them, yet she wasn’t sure yet where that path would lead. What they needed first, of course, was a place to live. After ten days staying with family, they moved to a fully furnished rental. After going back and forth with ideas of rebuilding (some days BJ wanted to, some days she wanted to), they made the decision not to rebuild, but to move on.
They listed the farm for sale (the house was gone, but the barn and fencing remained), and it sold within a week to a family excited about farming. They bought another dilapidated house (this one had been a crack house) right outside of Brunswick, MD, and BJ set to work renovating it.
They still owned their small place in Vermont, which they had been renting out since moving to Maryland in 2010. Their tenant moved out quite suddenly, and so the idea of moving back to Vermont entered the conversation. Over time they decided that once BJ had finished the renovation of the house in Brunswick, they would sell it, make a profit, and return to Vermont.
I asked her if she could see herself being happy if she weren’t farming, and she said that no matter what, she would always have animals and a garden, but the scale of the plan was up for grabs. She felt jaded about farming, and resentful. “We have worked harder than most people in their whole lives for this dream.
“Fate is a weird thing. You don’t have profound things happen like this without something coming out of it. But is this how the story ends? A two-acre little house? It has got to have a better ending.”
Back up to Vermont
Shannon ended up taking the kids up to Vermont in October of 2015. BJ stayed behind to get the Brunswick house sold and to finish a large barn project for a client, with plans to join the family when all of that is settled. (In typical BJ fashion, the renovation on the former crack house was stunning.)
She wrote me that she and the kids jumped right in and hit the ground running. The kids’ school “is amazing, and has been the best thing for both kids.” Shannon is coaching the school’s 5/6th grade girls’ basketball team, and both kids are taking part in the school’s ski program this winter. They love their community and have a good group of friends.
And the dream of a farm? “It will work out. I hope. When we land on a farm, I will fling myself down and kiss the ground.”
Before even moving back to Vermont, they had heard of a farm for sale in their town, 178 beautiful valley acres complete with a big red barn, outbuildings and a farmhouse that was more than livable and only required some paint. They made an offer, which was immediately rejected by the owner. After moving back up in October, they made a second offer, which was also rejected. The owner raised the asking price to dissuade low-ballers (like Shannon and BJ). But Shannon is a determined person, so they pulled together every last penny they could come up with, and made their final offer, which was $100,000 more than their original offer. It, too, was rejected.
Farmboots, looking for a new home
At that point BJ said they had to just walk away from the deal, because the thought of that farm was just tearing Shannon up, and after all they’d already been through, their family needed to move forward. “I wanted that farm so badly,” Shannon said. “It was along my running route, and every time I ran past it…I can’t tell you how many times I cried, begging the universe to work with me on this. I was just so upset.”
There were endless conversations back and forth between husband and wife. “Whatever ended up happening, it was the end of the road for us. We’re done. We’re exhausted. We want to put roots down.”
So walk away they did. Shannon understood that that farm wasn’t meant to be hers. They bought another property in June, which sat on a mountaintop. It was a lovely, large piece of land (no house though, so they’d have to build one), but it wasn’t a farm. So Shannon retired her dream of owning her own farm and tried to embrace the idea of homesteading.
She regretted it every step of the way.
Will Shannon ever be able to raise pigs again?
What’s Going On Here?
The settlement of the mountaintop property was in July 2016. Two weeks later, the owner of the farm she had wanted so badly started dropping his price, by $20,000 a week. Everyone in town was talking about it—somebody’s going to buy that farm! Says Shannon, “I totally flipped my pancakes. Because now…now we’ve got two mortgages [the mountaintop property and the house], so how in the world could we buy that farm? I was pissed. It was just killing me.”
Shannon longed to get her hands in the dirt once again
She had met a couple the previous year who worked for a small investment company that invests in farmland for young people: Iroquois Valley Farms. “I called them and asked them to look at our numbers. We were holding on to assets that we could sell, so I told them that if they would just bridge the gap for us for a brief period of time, they would have no idea what they would be doing for us.”
No conventional finance house in its right mind would finance them at that point because they were mortgaged up to their eyeballs. But Iroquois Valley must have seen something promising, because they approved a bridge loan. The company was moving from its original model of buying farmland and leasing it to farmers and into a full finance model, and Shannon and BJ were their first finance client in VT; “we’re their poster children!”
Once the bridge loan was approved, Shannon and BJ made another offer on the farm. “We totally low balled it, because we were so tied up in other things. But the interesting thing to me was that as soon as we took our energy out of it, it was like a magnet—this guy wouldn’t leave us alone all of a sudden. After a year of running around in circles with him, he now was like ‘what will it take for me to sell this to you?’ The change was unbelievable. We ended up getting it for less than we offered originally.”
What does she think happened? “I think that he sat on it for ten years and no one was coming along to buy it, and finally someone talked some sense into him and said ‘take the money and run’. He did tell us at closing that selling it was really hard for him psychologically. It ended up being a really nice transfer of ownership, and he was a really nice guy. He was really excited that we were going to be on the farm. Everyone in town is so excited. A woman who was born on that farm--she’s 95--came and had tea with me. She’s so excited that we are there.”
Kismet? Miraculous Alignment?
So they got the farm! But they still had two properties that they needed to sell, as soon as possible. The thought kept Shannon up at night, because what if they couldn’t sell them? There would be no way to pay all those mortgages. “It’s impossible to move land in VT in the winter, so BJ and I just kind of stepped back from it and tried to come up with a plan.”
One day the woman who runs the general store mentioned that she knew someone who was looking for something like the house they were selling. Having been through that routine about ten times already, Shannon didn’t think much of it. But the next day the woman called and said she had driven by many times and really liked the house and would like to see the inside. She visited, and gave them a deposit the same day, which Shannon thought was a miracle.
The harder sell, though, was going to be that mountain property. They had a friend in town who wanted to start a maple sugar operation, and even though there are 30 acres of mature sugar maples on the property, Shannon felt he would never buy it. But, again rather miraculously, in early December he made—and they accepted--an offer. Within four months of settling on the farm--and during the winter--they sold both properties.
Shannon’s dream of a forever farm has been realized. Again. Maybe the farm in Vermont was where she was meant to be all along; it just took a long, dramatic, devastating ride to get there.