Shannon Varley, Bella Terra Family Farm, Washington, Maryland
On Farm Ownership
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. 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.
I’ll be telling her story in small pieces over the course of many posts. It’s a story of a dream, of persistence, hard work and luck, of tragic loss and of renewal.
In the four years alone 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 laughs, 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 4 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. It’s a life that is very hard, but 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 really 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 on organic standards at Denison University, 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. What a nice situation in which to learn farming!
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.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in Shannon’s life, when her intuition really calls to her. But does she listen? You can go directly to that post here.
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.