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  • Ryan Demarest

Cover Story: Scaling Back - For Me, the Family and the Beets

By Ryan Demarest

Greenhouse at Naked Acre Farm, VT

Since the beginning of my farming career in 2014, I have always sought to scale up. I began on a small half-acre of leased land and roughed it for a season as I cut my teeth on vegetable production. I was single and have always had a deep well for discomfort, so living “rustically” was easy as I learned how to grow food. The following year, with the permission and blessing of the land owner, I opened up another half acre of sod, doubling my production. I learned the importance of making lists and prioritizing and improving my methods. Eventually, I moved my operation up the road to a different land. There I produced on a field that brought the total area in production to roughly an acre and a half, and then in my fourth year, I opened another half acre.  

When I met my wife in 2016, we immediately began looking for land in a quickly developing yet slow-burning, unquestionable love affair. Genica and I came together with established businesses that we jokingly referred to as our “step-businesses.” Her gardening and floral business would benefit from getting established on farmland and she could pursue her dream of creating a plant nursery and expanding into the floral industry. On a cold February day, we found some property in Hyde Park, Vermont that had recently gone on the market. We trudged through the snowy woods to discover a hidden, rolling, beautiful meadow that we would later find out had a touching history of love and agriculture. We fell in love immediately as we dug through the snow to peak at the dark brown, fertile soil and imagined how our lives would shift if our offer were accepted. It was, and 6 months later, after the lengthy process of securing a federal loan and thanks to the patience of the sellers, we owned 40 acres in Northern Vermont.

With more land available, I decided to bite off a big chunk that first year to start the farm. Adding on a busy Sunday Farmer’s Market to my already burgeoning wholesale accounts meant that weekly time and energy would be continually depleted as we also juggled developing infrastructure on raw, vacant land. To say that the first year on the property in 2018 was stressful would undoubtedly be an understatement. However, this challenging year also further solidified the relationship between my wife and me as partners and with the land as stewards. It also taught us some hard lessons on prioritizing time, caring for ourselves, and saying “no” to specific endeavors. It instilled the idea that time is our most valuable resource. Taking our lessons to heart, the following season - year six of farming - we dropped the farmer’s market mid-season because we had too much on our plates.  We were apologetic to the vice president of the market - who had been initially responsible for getting us the spot - but the instant relief was blissful. 

In 2020, as we all know, everything changed. As a result of the pandemic, markets shifted, restaurants closed or pivoted, grocery stores barely kept up with demand, and people were eager to support and consume local products. My previously small CSA of 13 members, more accurately named an intimate “veggie club,” expanded by 260% that year - a decision prompted by massive demand for local produce and conversations with close chefs uncertain about their future. To meet this demand and feeling ready to expand, I opened some new land that had been in pasture, increasing my total acreage six times what it was when I first started out. We had been building infrastructure on the property and adding high tunnels yearly, but this was a big jump.  Now, I was farming three acres and managing seven high tunnels and a heated greenhouse without employees. Eventually, I hired two part-time employees thus began the adventure of managing people - a personally trying skill that created a new fold in the farm.

2021 was a welcomed plateau with no expansion in land production or employment. The farm continued with two part-time employees completing wash and pack duties for the 50-member CSA and wholesale production on about three acres. The amount of labor and management needed to operate a small-scale farm at this size with limited help began to get the best of me. Due to poor planning, lack of experience, lack of help, and exhaustion, I was in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed and panicked. The farm felt like it was constantly on fire with nothing available to put it out. The daily pummeling of acute stress and feelings of failure had me considering my future in agriculture. I felt utterly unhealthy. I barely slept because of my racing mind and would pop out of bed from cycles of mental anguish only to limp into another day on the farm. 

In hindsight, that season proved to be a significant turning point in my farming career.  I began developing a personalized stress management plan that involved breathing and mindfulness techniques paired with meditation and a healthier diet with supplements that enhanced mental positivity.  I created the plan by reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's books and Zen meditation and utilizing resources at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.  That winter, a new mission statement during a “vision quest” affirmed the same choice: “I am strong in my resolve to continue farming, to figure out better, more efficient ways to grow, and to improve my skills as a grower.” My “vision quest” was a personal retreat centered around improving particularly harmful mental patterns through focused intention and aided by the use of psychedelic compounds. The shift in vision from expansion and competition to “reduce and refine,” a phrase written in multiple places around the farm, has led to mental peace, improved farm aesthetics, a deeper, more harmonious connection to the land, and much better sleeping at night.  With my mind and body more settled, 2022 was a much better season mentally. While plant health and productivity improved, most importantly, approaches to balancing labor and production size continued.

That brings us to the present season. During the slow, dark winter planning months, I decided to scale the farm back for the 2023 season. I could see now that the amount of stress and farm-wrangling needed to manage my operation had reached an unhealthy level, and I wanted to ensure my future in raising food, a vocation I have come to love so well. There are more employees here this season, but the goal in scaling back even further is to manage fewer people, rely less on labor, and more on efficient systems since I would prefer to do the work myself than manage staff.

The ultimate reason why I decided to scale the farm back this season and next is because my wife is nine months pregnant. I am still determining the future and how the farm will evolve to meet new family priorities since the farm has been my top priority for so long. I hate to think of neglecting the farm or that another baby could replace my [farm] baby; however, I also understand that with a finite amount of time and energy, something will have to give. The farm will be an amazing place for our child to grow up. Life lessons abound in the perennial ebb and flow of the seasons: birth, life, death, disease, competition, and strength are annually witnessed events that apply to our understanding and reconciliation of life. Not to mention the amount of character-building, hard work, and discipline it takes to raise food, which I hope will be foundational qualities of my offspring. 

As we move towards fall, I am wrapping my mind around what these shifts in my time will look like. I remember discussing balancing children and a farm with a well-respected grower who many consider a pioneer in organic vegetable production in Vermont. As expected, he explained the challenge of striking that balance. However, the lasting impact of his story was his deep regret for trading time for the farm instead of his family. He said you can never get that time back and our conversation has remained at the forefront of my mind as I think about scaling the farm to meet my every need.

I had a moment recently, as I often do on my daily field walks of the farm. The devastation that most farms suffered during the extreme rain events of July 2023 has forced us to examine our role as growers and the resiliency of certain crops in the face of catastrophic weather events. My farm has needed more nurturing this season than in any prior year. After the rains of mid-July subsided, I walked around the farm slowly to assess the damage. Recent plantings of baby greens and carrots had been washed away, and certain low areas of fields had eroded to the point it looked like a creek bed. The recently planted succession of beets had been in the wake of the cross-contour “stream” had not survived - They did not have the time before the rain to develop roots that would hold them in place, that would offer them strength to combat the unyielding force of moving water. Although somewhat exposed due to erosion, the older beets made it through almost unfazed. They were established and formed and as a result, resilient. 

I thought about that word - resiliency - and about how to make my farm more resilient in the face of nearly certain similar weather events in the future. And then I thought about my future child. Will we bring a vulnerable life into an often violent and harsh world where, like the young beets, they will have no strength to manage? My job as a parent - formed, weathered, and strong - is to protect that life until it has its own roots and can stand alone in the face of any hardship and to ensure that its roots are vital and healthy by creating the most optimal environment for growth. This is, of course, the ultimate goal of any worthwhile vegetable grower.

And at that moment, next to the beets, I saw that scaling back has to be the priority to raise a healthy child and beets. I must “reduce and refine” what and how I grow and also scale back the amount of mental space and daily time devoted to the farm. To efficiently offer my knowledge to my child and my skills as a grower to my plants, having the appropriate amount of time for both will be paramount. Although I still have no idea what we are in for as new parents, I know there will be a significant shift in every aspect of our lives. I also know that in 20 or 30 years, I don’t want to be having a conversation with a new vegetable grower in my driveway, explaining to them that I wished I had spent more time with my family.

Ryan operates a diversified, organic vegetable farm called Naked Acre Farm in Northern Vermont.

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