Editor’s Note: This story by Frances Mize was first published by the Valley News on Nov. 24.
SOUTH ROYALTON — Geo Honigford refurbishes old houses now. It’s like meditation.
“I buy houses that are uninhabitable, and then I tear them completely apart, and then I put them all the way back together,” he said.
Honigford owned Hurricane Flats, a 37-acre vegetable farm in South Royalton that he grew from scratch on the banks of the White River in 1995.
His new line of work, picked up after selling his family’s farm, is nothing compared to his time running the farm, he said, which also had to be put “all the way back together” in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene leveled his crops. But harsh growing conditions that have only gotten worse in the last decade have also required their own sort of disaster response.
Honigford is one of nine members of the Farmer Peer Network, a relatively new group run by Farm First, an organization focused on farmer health and safety funded through the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
The peer group is aimed at “making it easier for farmers to both reduce stress by talking to a trained peer,” and to train its members to better connect farmers in crisis to resources that Farm First and other agriculture support groups offer, such as financial advising as well as mental health counseling, according to its website.
Farmers face a quiet crisis: Vermonters who work in agriculture are three times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, according to data collected by the state’s Department of Health.
The Farmer Peer Network completed its first round of training last spring and will begin again this December. The sessions paused during the growing season.
Honigford was inspired to join the group after getting to know another farmer who had sent out a distress signal on a vegetable and berry growers Listserv. The farmer had just retired and was struggling. “He was really hurting,” Honigford said. The retirement process had been hard on Honigford too.
It felt like quitting, he said.
“I was like, ‘This is getting harder and I don’t think I want to do this anymore,’ but I felt guilty. I’m the kind of person, when the fight gets going you put your head down and just weather it,” Honigford said. “Most farmers are like this.”
But the job was getting notably harder, and not because Honigford was approaching 60. The demands of the work itself were changing.
“There were new insects coming in, new diseases coming in,” Honigford said. “The weather used to be more predictable, and now you have these big swings. There are four weeks when it doesn’t rain and four weeks when it rains every day.”
Still, as conditions change, the business remains ripe with old adages. Honigford said that an older farmer once told him that farming “all comes down to three days. You’ve got three days between when you know there’s a problem, and when that problem has got to be solved.”
The issue becomes squaring old advice with new conditions, and problems that might not be solvable in three days.
Farm First’s Peer Support network, fueled by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is one of a number of similar groups that have cropped up in recent years to connect farmers to one another. The support groups are meant to allow farmers to break through the isolation of their workplaces and talk to farmers elsewhere in their communities, or in their state, who are struggling with these same issues, and maybe share a new strategy or two.
“Farmers learning from farmers is gold,” said Seth Wilner, an agricultural business management specialist with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. But just talking to “someone who gets it” isn’t enough, he added.
“When I came in 20 years ago, producing a very good quality product and simply selling it for whatever the farmers around you were getting, you could do OK,” Wilner said, who started working for the university’s cooperative extension branch in 2000. “Today, absolutely not. If you don’t know what your cost of production is and you choose what other farmers around you are charging, more often than not you’re losing significant money.”
Changing climatic conditions and testy supply chains mean that farmers increasingly need to think like business owners, but ones whose products are largely at the mercy of systems beyond their control.
Farm First and UNH Cooperative Extension offer financial advising services, but they are trying to go further. Like the Farmer Peer Support Network, UNH Cooperative Extension is offering financial assistance to its farmers for up to 12 mental health counseling sessions.
“When is the garlic going to be ready? When should I pull the straw or the mulch off of the strawberries to get ready for the growing season? The traditional rhythms are being thrown off,” Wilner said. “That really adds significant stress to farming, an already stressful job.”
An industry built around an almost reflexive sense of timing is now trying to keep pace with an erratic clock, and its leaders are suffering.
If farming is one of the professions “where what you do is who you are,” as Honigford said, Valerie Woodhouse then is becoming, in a sense, who she is. And now of course is an especially difficult time to become a farmer.
Woodhouse and her husband, Eli Hersh, took over what is now called Honey Field Farm in Norwich from Jake and Liz Guest in March 2020. The 35-acre parcel of land, formerly known as Killdeer Farm, at the top of Butternut Road off Route 5 changed hands at a particularly hellish moment.
But taking the reins at the outset of Covid-19 didn’t mean things would get easier for Woodhouse and Hersh as pandemic restrictions and demands slowly abated.
“This was our third season here at Honey Field, and despite starting during the pandemic, it was somehow our most challenging year,” Woodhouse said. “That was difficult to reckon with because we thought, ‘Hey we’re supposed to be getting the hang of this by now.’ ”
The Upper Valley weathered historic drought conditions this summer, and Woodhouse’s produce took a hit. Facing fickle weather patterns, the learning curve now for beginning farmers is more like a zigzag.
“The younger generation of farmers is looking 10, 20 years down the road, and they’re trying to figure out how to keep offering consistent, high-quality products when there are all of these things that are out of our control,” said Olivia Saunders, a fruit and vegetable production specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension.
“It used to be that you could expect a level of consistency. Yes, there would be unanticipated weather challenges, but now it’s reliable that the weather is unreliable.”
Saunders said farmers now should expect acute drought along with extreme rainfall, that floods or has some dramatic effect on soil quality.
“That all really sets someone’s bottom line,” she said.
But along with the economic impacts, there are strains on mental health. Saunders called these droughts and floods “interfering stressors.”
Vulnerable to issues so beyond their command, it’s important for “farmers to get to flock together, so to speak,” said Leanne Porter, who runs Farm First’s Peer Network.
Woodhouse and her husband made it through the most recent difficult growing season by relying on their own informal farm support network, she said.
“People need to have those folks that they can email at 6 a.m. on an August morning being like, ‘I don’t know how to keep doing this,’” Woodhouse said. “Or someone to call when the forecast told me it was going to rain for the hundredth day in a row and it didn’t, and my crops are dying and I’m not going to have anything to sell in the fall.”
“The group that we put together was amazing,” Porter said of the first peer cohort, which included Honigford and Woodhouse. “They were all different ages, from all different farms, and they all just wanted to give back. We were surprised at how much of a driving force that was.”
The curriculum is first and foremost providing a formalized structure to make it easier for farmers to talk about the stresses of their job, and to share the methods they’ve developed to cope. Farmers have an abundance of working strategies to parcel out to one another that extend beyond what happens in the field or greenhouse. Together, the group practices skills like active listening and de-escalation.
Farmers also have to manage their own perceptions of their work, including what they transmit to the public. Woodhouse issued a content warning of sorts to Honey Field’s Instagram followers.
“Everyone who follows us on social media sees the things that I’m posting, and of course those things that I’m posting, that’s what’s going well and looks nice. So it all seems really beautiful and rewarding,” Woodhouse said.
And she was quick to emphasize that yes, often, her job is beautiful and rewarding. But sometimes people join the crew at Honey Field who aren’t prepared for the reality of the work, perhaps duped by too much idyllic-farm-scrolling on Instagram.
“People come in with rose-colored glasses, thinking that they’re going to have this beautiful Vermont farm experience,” Woodhouse said. “Then they’re just like, ‘What the heck did I get myself into?’”
She attributed these cases of mismatched expectations in part to a kind of generational isolation that she feels in her job.
“As a millennial who’s working right now, there’s all this talk in our culture about quiet quitting,” Woodhouse said. “People saying they’re not going to break their backs over their jobs, and I’m going to have really good boundaries and not give too much. But with farming that’s really not an option.”
The proliferation of peer support groups and other mental health resources are a way to help relieve that emotional burden.
The other side of the field
As valuable as the support can be, it’s no substitute for what farmers need more than anything: a functioning economic model that allows them to invest in new infrastructure, said Saunders, the UNH field specialist.
“A lot of our irrigation systems are just undersized, because we’re seeing more demand for water to cool crops and to keep them moist in the production season,” Saunders said.
“You might have built an irrigation system based on climate normals, and now we have this extreme heat and your pump is not adequately sized for the demand that it will continue to see in the future.”
Saunders has increasingly heard from growers whose pumps break midseason because they’ve been running overtime.
“We haven’t really had significant infrastructure in a long time,” she said. “Yes, there’s the farm bill every five years, but so far there’s not been a meaningful investment in updating our farmers’ infrastructure.”
Strafford Organic Creamery processes and bottles the milk produced from its 50 Guernsey cows, and that control over production gives Amy Huyffer, who runs the set-up with her husband, Earl Ransom, unique autonomy in the dairy industry.
Their bottling model means that they have more “control over their destinies” than dairy farmers who sell their product wholesale.
“It’s not like we’re strangers to stress at all, but a stressful job that’s your own business is really different from a stressful job working for someone else’s business,” Huyffer said.
Thirty-five percent of surveyed visitors to the state went to farms or farmers markets in Vermont in 2017, according to the state’s Agency of Agriculture. Tourists want to see animals out to pasture and crops growing in fields. But the farming engine that powers the tourism machine doesn’t run on its own, and Huyffer said that mental health resources are just a sliver of the real solution.
Huyffer noted that she and Ransom, who was born on the farm that they currently work on, could make more money working at convenience stores.
“But then we wouldn’t have tractors, and we really like to have tractors,” Huyffer said. “This is how we want to live.”
In 2018, as milk prices plummeted, the dairy co-op Agri-Mark sent its wholesale dairy farmers suicide prevention materials in the mail along with their milk checks.
“But really, what they needed to do is send a bigger check,” Huyffer said. “Because it’s not like all of a sudden farming is so hard I want to kill myself. It’s more like, farming is what I really want to do. And I can’t make a living doing it. And the reason I can’t make a living doing it is because you’re not paying me enough.”
Huyffer, who lives with her husband and four sons 100 yards away from their barn, said that it’s challenging to set boundaries. They had just finished chores recently when they realized one of their milking cows was giving birth.
“Some people can go, ‘I’m not going to accept emails after 6 p.m.,’” Huyffer said. “But it’s not like I can refuse a calf after 6 p.m.”
The tangibility and immediacy that Huyffer described is what Honigford appreciated about his work at Hurricane Flats. But it was one side of a double-edged sword. That he could so directly see his progress also meant that he could see the failures too.
The fix-it-up game is easier than the grow-it-straight-out-of-the-ground game, he said. Now he can step away for two weeks without his whole business falling apart.
“These houses that I’m working on have already been left alone for seven years,” Honigford said.
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