Culturing a Rural Livelihood: A Young Dairy Farmer’s Determination
By Lily Massee
Lisa Marchetti’s life as a farmer has been nothing short of nomadic. Over the past decade, she has worked on ten different farms with a few homesteading gigs sprinkled in. This assortment of agricultural experiences has endowed her with a wealth of knowledge. Lisa knows and loves all facets of farming, from growing and harvesting vegetables to breeding and milking goats. Her true passion, however, is cheese. When asked why she prefers dairying over vegetable farming, she replied, “I love getting my hands in the dirt, don’t get me wrong, but getting my hands in curd is so much more satisfying…there is magic in the cultures of cheese.”
Lisa has dreamt of owning and operating her own dairy farm for over a decade. However, as is the case with so many young up-and-coming farmers in the Northeast, the lack of affordable and secure land and housing has prevented her from making her dream a reality.
Lisa’s farming career began in 2012, during which time she worked on a variety of organic farms across the state of California. Her first stop was a biodiverse farm where she got her first taste of dairying. “Every morning, I’d wake up before the sun and go down to the barn,” Lisa explains, “I’d sit with the goats as I milked them, listen to them breathe, and be with their warmth. For my first farming experience, that whole routine was so nourishing.”
Before coming to California, Lisa had been living in Brooklyn, struggling to make rent each month and only getting enough to eat because she worked in restaurants. Thinking back on this time of her life, Lisa says she feels angry but also grateful for those hardships that fed her love of food and farming. Going to California and working with the land and the animals only cemented that passion.
In 2013, Lisa moved to Canaan, Connecticut, taking a job at a CSA farm. The farm had roughly 120 CSA members and sold produce at a few local farmer's markets. However, as time went on it became increasingly clear that the business was taking a financial and emotional toll on the lead farmer and his family. As the farm was going under, Lisa and a few other farm workers were in discussion about succeeding the farmer, starting a cooperative farm that could also serve as a food access hub. Lisa was making preparations to raise dairy animals and start a raw milk share. “But eventually,” she says, “the funds and the resources…everything didn’t come together.”
Lisa left the farm in Canaan and embarked on a six-year-long journey, working on a myriad of farms and homesteads in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires. Susan Sellew’s Rawson Brook Farm, whose Monterey Chèvre goat cheese is renowned in Berkshire County and beyond, was one of these places. There, Lisa’s passion for dairying was reignited and so too was her desire to have a cheesemaking business of her own.
For Lisa, this particular branch of agriculture, which encompasses the breeding, raising, and utilization of dairy animals for the production of milk and milk-based products, enriches her mind, body, and spirit. “I love being in the barn,” she says. “These animals have so much personality that I can really relate to them. There is this motherly side of me…I want to take care of others…and my work with the animals nourishes that. Then to be in the cheese room is a whole other experience that exercises my organizational, multitasking, and time management skills. Having to be responsive to time, temperature smells… and everything…gets me excited.”
Lisa stayed at Rawson Brook Farm for three years. “I loved it,” she says, “and working for Susan felt like such an honor, but I eventually had to move on.” Lisa took on each new job, hoping it would bring her closer to her dream of starting her own dairy, whether through succession or partnership. What she needed the most to realize her vision, however, was greater financial stability. “I didn't have anything to start on… no family wealth or land to be passed down to me, nor any savings from my previous life living in the city,” she admits. Despite her best efforts to build some semblance of a nest egg while bouncing between farms and homesteads, Lisa’s primary concern was surviving, not saving. Her living situation was unstable, subject to change depending on where she was working and how much money she was making. “Sharing a house with seven other people has by far been the most normal housing I’ve had in the past decade,” she says. “Aside from that, my living situations have been trailer campers, off-the-grid cabins, and rooms in other people’s houses…all these strange scenarios where I didn’t have my own space because I couldn’t afford it.”
Lisa’s experience is like that of a hamster on a wheel. She is chasing her dream of stewarding a piece of land and starting her own dairy farm. What’s keeping her stuck is the harsh reality that land is expensive and so is starting a farm. Owning a small farm business, let alone just working for one, is not lucrative. In light of this, Lisa has historically opted for jobs that pay very little but give her the opportunity and joy of helping a struggling farmer-owner live out their passion.
Lisa lived and worked in Northern Vermont through the pandemic for another cheesemaker. She eventually left because, once again, she felt as though she had hit a wall. “There was no opportunity for succession or space for my creative input. Plus I felt like there was nothing more for me to learn.” Lisa has recently taken up a new dairying job at Cedar Mountain Farm and Cobb Hill Cheese in Hartland, Vermont, which she says is wonderful so far. “Although I still am not in a position where I’m building equity, it is a place where my experience is valued, they welcome my creative input, and I feel like I can grow with the business,” she notes. The two sites are located at Cobb Hill, an intentional cohousing community. “That community aspect — the shared responsibilities, consensus decision-making, and horizontal rather than top-down organizing — makes me feel like I’m a part of something. It’s satisfying to feel like I have something more stable and I’m hoping that it stays that way. This could be a place that I stick with for a while.”
Lisa says that although she finds herself in a healthy place at the moment, there is still a lot of sadness and grief from “having been without all these years.” Not only has she been without the ability to realize her dream of running her own dairy farm, but over the years, Lisa has been without food, steady housing, and a secure job. Steep land and housing costs in the Berkshires prevent local farmers from starting their own businesses and from living. How can anyone be expected to feed their community if they can barely feed themselves? In Lisa’s words, “A farmer deserves a life where both they and their business are thriving, not just surviving.”
Recently, Lisa has received word that her current housing in Hartland will no longer be available as of July because the homeowner has decided to sell. “The saga for affordable housing for farmworkers continues!” she writes, “but at least I’m loving my job!”
Lily Massee, she/her, is writing on behalf of Farmsteads for Farmers, a program of the Berkshire Community Land Trust.