The Romance of Farming, Revisited

James Maroney & Suki Fredericks of Oliver Hill Farm

Vermont’s economy depends in large part on tourists who associate the state with farming and farming with a calm country life, those who visit dreaming of eating fresh eggs, strolling through verdant fields, and porch swinging on summer nights. Two New Yorkers who discovered the lesser-sweet reality of farming for themselves keep the dream alive for others nonetheless, offering tourists a taste of rural Vermont — without the work.

Image for post
Image for post

James Maroney remembers dairy farming as one wild, overwhelming ride, especially in comparison to the much steadier, predictable work of running a bed and breakfast today.

“I remember lying in bed one night and counting up the number of souls that I had under my care and it came to over 300, with cows and chickens and turkeys and farm help and the kids and dogs and cats…and I’m thinking…What am I doing?” asks James, who admits that more often than not, farming felt like a bite of more than he could chew.

James and his wife Suki moved to Leicester, Vermont from Manhattan, New York in 1986 to pursue a quiet, rural life. They were tired of raising their two-year-old son in the city, where family time was always strained.

Suki explains, “I had to choose between working and having someone else take my kids to the park, or go to the park with all the nannies…it was a strange child society there. You didn’t have families who were spending time together.”

Although they began looking for farms in Westchester County and Connecticut, they soon discovered that the only viable dairy farms with the necessary infrastructure were farther north, in Vermont. James and Suki were drawn to Leicester because of its nearness to Middlebury, a college town that offered a local food co-op and an independent elementary school.

After a one year search, they settled on their current property, which then encompassed 775 acres and was home to 250 cows, 125 of which were milking cows. Although Suki was not attached to large-scale dairy farming in particular, James had helped a dairy farmer as a young boy on Martha’s Vineyard and had harbored dreams of raising cows ever since.

He admits, “Suki had envisioned a farmette and I had envisioned an empire. If we had done it her way, we probably would have been better off.”

Image for post
Image for post

Despite minimal farming backgrounds, James and Suki embraced their new lifestyle with earnest.

“Basically we signed the papers, the guy handed us the keys and he drove down the road. So on Friday morning we were city slickers and on Saturday morning we were milking 125 cows,” says James.

The abrupt transition from city to country life was eased only somewhat by six farm hands who lived on the property and helped with daily chores.

“Virtually everything as new,” says James. “We had to learn how to make crops, we had to learn obviously how to milk cows, how to breed cows, how to look after and pick up after cows, and field work and machinery and all the rest of it.”

On top of simply managing the farm, James and Suki pursued a three-year organic certification process. Although they were both dedicated to producing organic milk, organic methods added an additional layer of complexity to their work. Suki felt particularly strongly about gaining certification as soon as possible. Not only had she eaten organic food throughout her childhood, she had also worked at a natural foods restaurant while studying at Colorado College.

“I grew up with a mother who bought organic food in the 70s and late 60s, so she was ahead of her time,” says Suki. “I was not going to do a farm that wasn’t going to be organic. That was my feeling.”

In 1990, Oliver Hill Farm became the third organic dairy in Vermont and arguably the biggest, producing two million pounds of organic milk annually.

Image for post
Image for post

During his first ten years in Vermont, James split his time between the farm and Manhattan, where he maintained a part-time business as a private art dealer. He would wake up at 3:30 every morning to either work in the barn or make the five-hour commute South.

“The separation was important because I could feel my brain turning around on the trip,” he says. “As I left the farm and all the way to Albany I’m wondering if that particular cow had a calf and remembering I have to call the tractor repair…and as I got closer and closer to New York I would pick up on the things I was doing in the art business, so by the time I reached New York the farm was behind me.”

Suki and their son Cook often joined James for the commute in the early years, but when Cook started kindergarten and a daughter, Annabelle, was born, Suki and the kids spent most of their time in Vermont. Suki managed the office work and field care, grew a big vegetable garden, and raised sheep, pigs, turkeys, and chickens for the family. She also delivered organic, free-range eggs to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op.

“It was very stimulating,” Suki says. “I loved doing my gardening, having the kids be directly involved. It was just a quality change that I liked.”

Image for post
Image for post

Not long after the family settled into country life, however, their entire farming venture came to halt. In the middle of a February night in 1994, a spark in their utility shed caught the milking barn on fire. James and Suki were asleep, but a neighboring family saw the flames on their way home from a wedding. With their help, James was able to push his cows out of the barn and saved all but two calves and a cat.

Without a milking barn, though, the business was caput. Local farmers agreed to house the displaced cows for a few weeks before James and Suki could hold an auction to sell them.

“I had to get on the telephone in the middle of the night and call all the farmers that I knew in the area — and some that I didn’t know — and get them out of bed,” says James. “By 4:00 AM all our cows were gone to various different places. We were just left with the smoldering ruin.”

Although raising kids in a beautiful, safe setting was gratifying, James and Suki’s split farming life had also proven stressful and expensive, a far cry from the romantic Vermont existence they once envisioned. The burning of their barn both epitomized their disillusionment with farming and saved them from it.

“I mean we had this dream. I bought into some kind of myth about American farming without really realizing it,” James says. “We began to realize that the reality of farming was a lot of dirty non-stop work. And I was really into that, but after a while it begins to wear on you. That there’s no such thing as a weekend, there’s no such thing as a holiday, that very often farming work needs to go into the night…And there’s this sense that you never get anything done…because one project and then the next, they just keep coming.”

Image for post
Image for post

Although they continue to raise chickens and sell eggs on and off to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op, James and Suki consider their serious farming days firmly behind them. Today, the couple rents their land to neighboring organic farmers who use it for hay, feed, and pasture. The owners of an organic beef cow operation, Mountain Meadow Farm, house their cows in James and Suki’s heifer barn and have won a very high rating for their beef at Whole Foods.

James and Suki are particularly grateful that the farm has become useful to those who share their dedication to organic methods. Suki partnered with the Vermont Land Trust to ensure that over half of the property was conserved for farming, and the entire acreage has remained certified organic for 24 years.

“When we bought this farm I was very committed to having it preserved as farmland in perpetuity as best we could,” Suki says.

Now that they are no longer bound to their own cows, James and Suki have more time to pursue other passions. James continues to sell art, although he travels much less than he used to. He also installed a regulation shuffleboard court in the front yard, which has become popular among family and friends in the area.

“I got up at 7:30 this morning and when we were farming I would have done half a day’s work already,” says James. “It’s kind of amazing when you think how people with a normal life throw away the first three hours of the day.”

Suki takes care of paintings at the Shelburne Museum and in various private collections throughout Vermont. She also manages the farm fields with the neighbors who use them, and has become active in community debates about a natural gas pipeline that could run directly through Oliver Hill Farm if approved.

Up until recently, Suki and James offered their empty farmhand cottage as a year-round rental. The families who came to stay, however, were often transient people who kept to themselves. Over the past two years, Suki and James have offered the cottage as a bed and breakfast, and welcome guests by filling the refrigerator with local, organic produce and batches of homemade granola and jam.

“People are now coming to the farm that really want the experience of being here and they all really appreciate the beauty of it,” says Suki.

Ultimately, the space allows visitors to indulge whatever romantic notions of farming they might harbor, removed one degree from the actual farm work.

Managing the bed and breakfast has also allowed James and Suki to experience Vermont in a newly romantic way. Freed from the day-to-day distractions of farming, they take long walks, cross-country ski, and simply indulge in the peace of knowing they are only responsible for a few traveling souls now and then.

The following two recipes call for Oliver Hill eggs and will satisfy hungry vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. The Morning Glory sandwich is a little lighter and the Pillow Talk is a little richer, but both make breakfast something to look forward to.

Image for post
Image for post

2 fresh eggs

½ tbsp olive oil

1 plain bagel

1 small handful of arugula

1 ripe avocado, sliced

Crumbled goat cheese

Salt, pepper and fresh herbs to garnish

Pesto Mayonnaise

2 tbsp basil pesto

2 tbsp mayonnaise

Heat ½ tbsp olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Break eggs and slip into pan, one at a time. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook eggs until whites are completely set and yolks begin to thicken but are not hard. Flip each egg over and cook the second side to desired doneness. Set fried eggs aside.

Make pesto mayonnaise by mixing pesto and mayonnaise together. Set aside.

Slice the bagel in half, toast it, and place on a baking sheet. Divide the pesto mayo between each bagel-half and spread evenly to cover. Layer each bagel-half with arugula, then avocado slices, then one fried egg. Top with goat cheese crumbles. Bake for 5 minutes or until goat cheese is tender. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Serve warm.

Makes two open-faced sandwiches.

Image for post
Image for post

2 fresh eggs

1 tbsp olive oil

1 plain bagel

4 slices bacon

1 small handful of arugula

Cheddar cheese slices

Fresh herbs to garnish

Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp maple syrup

Sautéed Onion

½ onion, sliced thinly

1/2 tbsp olive oil

Heat ½ tbsp olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Break eggs and slip into pan, one at a time. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook eggs until whites are completely set and yolks begin to thicken but are not hard. Flip each egg over and cook the second side to desired doneness. Set fried eggs aside.

Sauté bacon slices with ½ tbsp olive oil in a small saucepan until crisp and brown. Remove bacon from pan and drain on paper towel.

Make maple balsamic vinaigrette by whisking balsamic vinegar and maple syrup together in a small dish. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, sauté onion with 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-low heat. Cook until onion is soft and golden, 10–15 minutes.

Slice the bagel in half, toast it, and place on a baking sheet. Divide sautéed onions between each bagel-half. Follow with a layer of bacon and then arugula. Drizzle maple vinaigrette on top. Add a fried egg to each bagel-half and then cheddar. Bake at 350 F for 5 minutes or until cheddar is melted. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve warm.

Makes two open-faced sandwiches.

Written by

Elvis-obsessing, tree-hugging, poetry-reading foodie.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store