LAURA & VANESSA
STARK HOLLOW FARM
Oakland, California to Danville, Vermont
To get to the lush pastures of Laura Smith and Vanessa Riva’s Stark Hollow Farm, you wind along country roads, through quiet Vermont forests, up through the tree line where the landscape transforms to wide open pastures and generational family farms. A white farmhouse stands proudly alongside an apple orchard and fields of roaming livestock. Looking at their farming operation, it is hard to believe these hardworking ladies have only been on this land for a little under two years. Laura and Vanessa’s journey to the country began in 2006. The couple was living in Oakland, California and had been working in corporate America for over a decade. They felt very unhappy and unfulfilled with their lives in the city and both envisioned leaving the rat race and learning to farm. This yearning for a different kind of life led them east to Vermont, where Laura had grown up. They started small, with a modest farmhouse, a little plot of land attached, three Icelandic ewes and a brood of chickens. By 2010, they had run out of space so they decided to move to a hillside rental with more land to start a breeding program to expand their herd of sheep. In late 2014, feeling confident that this new life was what they wanted, Laura and Vanessa planted permanent roots and purchased an old farmstead with 78 acres in Danville, Vermont. They now maintain a flock of 55 Icelandic Sheep, along with a small sounder of Tamworth pigs, a brood of heritage breed laying hens and two milking cows. In addition to running their wool, fiber and breeding operations, along with their Animal Welfare Approved lamb and beef business, Laura still works several jobs. She helps supplement their farm income by workings as an Archetypal Dreamwork Practitioner, artist and civil servant. Vanessa, with a masters degree in civil and environmental engineering from MIT, just recently stopped doing contract engineering jobs so that she can focus on farming full time. They hope to continue to slowly scale and expand their farm businesses so eventually they won’t need to rely on other income streams, all while remaining true to their mission of managing a small diversified farm in sync with nature, producing sustainable farm products from animals whose quality of life is their top priority. Each of their animals receives individual attention and love from these two shepherdesses. Laura grew up on a farm in Vermont and Vanessa grew up in Italy, spending her weekends and summers tending to the animals on her uncle's farm in the Italian countryside. Although they both spent many years jumping from one city to the next, returning to rural life felt very much like coming home. Laura and Vanessa have a long list of future initiatives for Stark Hollow Farm, including animal welfare certification, organic certification for their fields, and building educational workshops and webinars. At the end of a long day, Laura and Vanessa love to take their dogs on a walk through their fields and gaze out at their happy animals and at the fulfilling life they are building together in high pasturelands of Vermont. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Laura: Desire to slow down, connect more to nature, and find our way back to a deeper sense of self in connection to the land.
Vanessa: I grew up very close to nature - I was the kid always outside, fascinated by animals, bugs, leaves, etc. Almost all of my free time was spent on my aunt and uncle's farm where I could be outside; experiencing the animals and the growth and harvest of crops. When we were living in Oakland, California, I began trail running to unwind myself from my consulting engineering job and I loved it. We lived very close to the East Bay parks, which run along the hills on the west side of Berkeley and Oakland. These parks are wonderful havens of wild nature, somehow stuck between these urban environments. There are trails, but that's about it as far as civilization is concerned. Trail running in the mornings, and evening sometimes, brought me back face-to-face with the natural world. Some of the runs were long, some wet, steep, at times muddy, and a few times resulting in a twisted ankle; miles from the road. So fighting the urge to go back “home”, to a warm, cozy, comfortable couch with my partner by my side, maybe a beer before getting ready to go out to a new good restaurant, was not easy during some of my daily runs. But nature kept calling me. It kept dragging me back into its mysterious and powerful web that I used to know so well when I was younger. There was a connection to the natural world that I had forgotten; lost in the world of college achievement and career ladder climbing. So one day I decided I needed to go back to nature and farming. That was my world, the world I knew where I felt really at home... and the adventure of moving back began first by picking Vermont, where Laura is originally from.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Laura: The hardest part of the move was actually picking where we were going to live. I was born in Vermont and had lived in rural Maine but we were also drawn to northern California. So it became a west coast/east coast dilemma. It was hard to give up our beautiful victorian home in Oakland, but the conditions there had become unsustainable and we ultimately knew we needed to leave.
Vanessa: At first having a place in the country in California was extremely appealing -- it's just beautiful. But then, as we began to get serious, it became apparent that the cost of owning a piece of land in California wasn't going to be easy. In addition, and probably even more strongly for me, was the fact that in California I missed the seasons so so much (I grew up northern Italy and the season are about the same as in Massachusetts). Laura grew up in Vermont and she didn't really want to go back at first. But it made sense and we would have a nice bridge where we could live with her family before figuring out exactly what and where we wanted our place to be. The hard part was living with her family while trying to pick the right thing for us. I love her family, but leaving under the same roof isn't always easy. We felt pressure to move to our own place, but at the same time we didn't want to rush it and not understand what we really wanted.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Laura: I was fearful that people would not be friendly or accepting of us, that we would experience homophobia as a couple. I was pleasantly surprised to see how welcoming people have been, how quickly we made connections and how supportive people have been of us and our farm.
Vanessa: When we moved to our own first house in Starksboro, Vermont we pretty soon realized that it wasn't what we wanted, even though it was so so nice. I guess what surprised me is how little I knew about what it takes to understand a piece of land. It's not just the look and soils (from a USDA map for example), but it also includes geology, topography, plants, weather, and the community that surrounds it. In New England weather is a big one. After Starksboro, we leased in Huntington, Vermont to have access to more pasture for the sheep. What I had begun to understand in Starksboro, became even more apparent after a year in Huntington, Vermont. Having studied and worked as civil and environmental engineer and having farmed at my aunt and uncle's place, I thought I knew what to look for and what I wanted/needed for me and my animals. But I soon discovered, this assumes a place, or homestead, has already been set-up. If you start from scratch you really need to look at what you want/have (my sheep and pigs) and how this matches with what's out there. This is when all those factors I mentioned above begin to matter a lot.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Laura: It was hard to get used to how dark it was! But what I miss most about the city is the ethnic diversity.
Vanessa: The hardest thing to get used to was having to ensure that your vehicles were always in good running condition, because everything is far away, including neighbors. Also making sure that everything is readied-up for Winter before the snow flies. In the country is much harder and (a lot, a lot) more expensive to fix or do something in Winter. As far as what I miss most: ethnic diversity in people and food.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Laura: If I found myself alone again later in life, needing easier access to resources, but otherwise probably not.
Vanessa: No. No way. I really don't think I could...even if I had to sacrifice certain things, I'd still live in the country.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Laura: Sense of self-sufficiency and community within a small town.
Vanessa: The connection with, and the dependency from, the natural environment. Also, small town living where everybody kind of knows everybody and what they do - it's good and bad sometime!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Laura: Explore why you really want to leave the city. Know that there is an idealized vision of country living and then there is the reality. It can be hard work.
Vanessa: Don't buy right away. Because of what Laura said, and my experience, your needs and likes will most definitely change within a few years from the move. Most likely you'll love it, even if the love is about something you wouldn't have ever thought. Also, you will have to learn patience and slowness, as these are actually very good things, that open up doors to so many other experiences you never even knew existed.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Laura: I go to New York once per year. I see a broadway show, I visit a museum and I eat at some great restaurants. I go to the Bay Area once per year and I visit many old friends, I eat great food and I visit the Pacific Ocean.
Vanessa: 1.) Make sure my visit is short and I have a set schedule as when I get to go “home” (I usually can't wait to get out). 2.)Eat something that I can't get back home (even within 100 miles). 3.) Walk around to see what civilization is up to - since most humans live in cities I want to know what are their latest interests/values are, what foods they eat and care about, what clothes/shoes are in fashion (not that I care too much nowadays, but it's interesting to see what people can get caught into).
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Laura: As a dream-worker, I draw a lot of inspiration from the archetypal realm which intersects with the natural world in many ways. A tree, an apple, a lamb, a wild deer...each carries the beauty of its being and a whole mythology that is both personal and collective. What does it mean to “return to the garden?" To bite into the apple. What meaning does Venus convey when held in the belly of a crescent moon? What message does the flicker of fire flies hold? And, what of the sacrifice of plant and animal in service of our lives?
Vanessa: Knowing, because I am experiencing it every day, where my place in the natural world is, how I fit in (I am another being of the world, just like another animal and/or plant), on what I depend on (the seasons, the weather, livestock, and edible plants), and what depends on me (my sheep, my pigs, my cows, and my dogs). That provides me with a sense of peace and guidance as to what I need to accomplish each day.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Laura: Yes, I got sober a year after moving to Vermont. I began working with dreams in 2010 and have found a deep spiritual connection to the land. I think it was calling me and I am grateful I heeded the call. We also notice that our lives have aligned more with the cycles of nature, the great spiral of life that is inherent in being so close to the natural world through farming.
Vanessa: When we first moved back, I still worked as a civil and environmental engineer, but we did have a few animals, sheep and pigs, so things were beginning to shift. Then, I got laid-off and took the plunge into farming full time. We said we would give it a year to see if it was profitable. But, after a year, it became 2 years, then some more time, and then we were farming... that was it. We came to realize how important this work is for us, for the community and fellow humans, for domestic animals, for wild animals, for the environment, for plants and trees, and ultimately for the whole planet. Not much profit rolling in, but profitable in so many other ways. I have also learned that things really do always work out, even if not in the way you'd expect. Fore example, we've experienced 80+ mph winds with snow on the ground, no barn, trees falling around us, and the house shaking, but somehow we, and all the critters, made it through okay. Actually, we learned to make really nice shelters that I still use over 5 years later! I knew Nature is strong, I didn't know the creatures of Nature are too!
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
Laura/Vanessa: We arise early to the sound of our rooster crowing and/or the sun starting to show some light. We take coffee together on the couch and talk about the day's plans. What animals need to be moved and where, who is to be bred or to give birth and what preparations are necessary - whether it's for harvest, winter readiness, or spring lambing. We have a nice breakfast and Vanessa heads out to take care of chores. Laura, has a home-based job and goes to her office, over looking the apple orchard, to work. We take lunch together and check in again about various farm projects and activities. Dinner is usually around 8pm. There is always something else to do before the end of the day, such as finding a chicken that's gone broody, or unexpected weather that requires attention to shelters or fences. Often Laura will work with dreamwork clients in the evenings. Then we might read, watch a Netflix movie, work on updating websites, writing blog posts, or simply chatting before heading to bed. Sometimes Laura will work in her art studio on dream inspired paintings. Often Vanessa falls asleep on the couch with her English Shepherd, Machias.
When we lived in the city, our life was taken up with the rush around full-time jobs. Laura was the Deputy Director of a large non-profit in the Bay Area dealing with young people who were emancipating from foster care and Vanessa worked as a civil and environmental engineer at a large oil refinery. Several hours a day were devoted to commuting to and from work. There was a high level of stress. We mostly ate out, or ate take out, which we rarely do now. Much of our earnings went into the cost of living, especially housing.
Not to say there isn't stress with the farm, but it is a totally different stress.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Laura: I think Vanessa leaving the Engineering field for the farm fields was a big hurdle. We couldn't have considered living on one income while in the Bay Area for any extended period of time. This was required to launch the farm and to grow the farm. Farming does not pay what an engineering job would pay, though the products produced are perhaps most likely even more valuable. We also leave the vehicles unlocked! Not something we could do in the city. In fact we needed wheel locks and steering wheel locks in the city!
Vanessa: Falling soundly asleep on the couch, with only the sound of our older dog snoring and maybe some coyotes in the fall. A whole day of physical labor helps immensely with a good-night sleep. In the city I could hear so many sounds, I often wore ear plugs. Also, my brain was constantly reminding me what I had to do for work; a report, a data collection, a meeting, a presentation, etc. In more seriousness, being responsible for a full life-cycle of beautiful creatures - caring, feeding, housing, breeding my sheep, my pigs, my cows and my chickens (both fathers, mothers, and babies). Also, becoming part of this wonderful little community.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Laura: In the fields, woods or in my painting studio.
Vanessa: Wherever I have been in Vermont, I have always found a little island-like spot with tall, older conifers and maybe bedrock outcrops surrounded by water (either in the form of a stream, a wetlands, and/or boggy areas). These places are magical to me.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Laura: A common misperception might be an idea about the bucolic or idealized version of country living. There is less access to resources and a need to do more with less. There is more reliance on community for support.
1) Farms are bucolic pastures with grazing animals
2) life in the country is easy and peaceful
3) Farmers are not very smart and are uneducated.
Farms can certainly, and often are, bucolic places. However, their bucolic nature cannot exist without the hard/dirty work behind it. There are chores to be done every day, in any weather (including weekends and holidays). You have to deal with weather extremes messing up farm plans. Just when you think you're done for the day, a fence is down and you have to fix it even if it means being out until 10 pm or later. You manage manure, accept crop loss (not recovering until at least a year later), deal with sick animals and death (no matter how many things you do right), etc.
Life in the country brings great joy, pride, and happiness, but this is not because it's an easy life or a peaceful one. Living in the country means everything you need to do depends on self-reliance, the weather, and the community. Money does not always buy everything. Sometimes contractors cannot get to you or are just not providing the service you need. The weather can put a limit on your access to services and contractors. Your closest neighbor could be miles away from your house. The town most likely won't provide your water or sewer and the fire department consists of a few volunteers. The challenges of country life mean that one must learn to do a lot of things for oneself, must accept the power of the weather, and must become an active and good standing member of their community. These pillars are the foundation on which the peaceful country-life rests.
Farming is probably one of the hardest job out there, not just in terms of physical requirements, but also cognative abilities. A farmer needs to understand the life-cycle of plants, the life-cycle and the needs of their animals and the life-cycle of the seasons and weather. In addition, nowadays they probably need to also understand sales, marketing, accounting, customer-service, health-and-safety, equipment maintenance and repair, building and construction and carpentry.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Laura/Vanessa: Continue building the barn, with an addition on it. Grow our flock of Icelandic sheep and our heritage breed pigs. Expand our meats into the Boston market. Obtain our Animal Welfare Association certification and the Paleo Approved certification (both currently in application). Obtain an organic certification for our fields. Expand our value added wool lines.
As we move forward, Laura hopes expand her dreamwork practice and transition to self employment, contributing more to the farm expansion as well.