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Katie Steere looks out over her farm with the bright-eyed optimism of a recovering Californian replanted in New England: eyes wide, animals in tow, a crumpled bunch of freshly picked lilac in hand. She loves the land—respects it, reveres it, craves it—so much so that she traded the salty, fog-hung air of the Bay Area for the plowed-up earth of rural Rhode Island in 2016 to reopen her family’s shuttered farm, which had operated for over 200 years. Instead of spending the hours of 9-5 at a Silicon Valley job, she moves chickens, collects and delivers eggs to nearby business owners, and listens to the sloppy, distinct sound of piglets slurping up watermelon scraps at Deep Roots Farm.
Later that day, we pass a Tractor Supply, and Katie tells me that she received a gift card to the store for her 29th birthday—her favorite this year. "I couldn’t be happier." But her favorite farm store, she clarifies, is the Chepachet Hardware Store back in town. More times than she’d care to admit to, Katie has flopped herself onto the shop’s counter in a haze of far-flung, harebrained desperation: Another one died. I took the cows today. Nobody wants to pay for my eggs. The owner, a bit of a shaman for the young locals feeling their way through farming, never judges young farmers when they come in like this. He doesn’t say much either, only offers a neutral presence, and a pacifying invitation to the greenhouse out back to let things settle: “Wanna come fluff some dirt?”
There’s been a resurgence of young adults abandoning typical professional paths to return to land-based work. Today, the average age of a US farmer hovers somewhere around 58, but organizations like the National Young Farmers’ Coalition are actively working to bring that number down and create an industry that’s inspiring and hospitable to young farmers. A rise in residential farming programs and competitive farming apprenticeships across the country; urban community garden programs in major cities; a return to craft-based trades and artisanship; and ubiquitous CSA efforts in metropolitan areas suggest that people are more interested in cultivating their own bounty than ever before. Whichever way you slice it, handmade and homegrown is in.
I visited Katie to get a sense of what running a farm on your own looks like at 29 (or any age, for that matter) and am shocked by the serene quiet of the farm, and the determination of its keeper. Gifted with a moment away from the constant whirr of New York City, I dozed off in a farmhouse bed upstairs while Katie collected eggs, fed pigs, and herded cows—all before 7 a.m. By 7:45, I know that I would never make it as a farmer. But I did manage to talk to Katie about her new career at a nearby (farm-to-table) bakery.
Megan Shepherd: Resuscitating a farm is no easy task. How did you do that?
Katie Steere: [The Farm had] been in our family for seven generations. It used to be a dairy farm and there was even a saw mill on it that powered the town’s electricity in the early 1900s. The dairy farm went out of business in the 70's, and has been sitting mostly idle ever since. Now, I’m rebuilding it into a pastured livestock farm.
MS: Talk a little bit about your life before the farm.
KS: I was sitting in a great sea of cubicles, working in commercial banking, and the longer I stayed there, the more I saw how disconnected people were from their lives. They were just working to get to the weekends, and then you’d ask them how their weekend was, and they just watched TV all weekend. They were just waiting for retirement, waiting for this thing to happen that would make their lives good someday. I didn’t want to live my life like that.
MS: What prompted you to finally leave Silicon Valley behind? Was there something specific you felt like you were missing?
KS: I felt like I was missing a connection. I grew up on the farm—and I’m gonna sound like a little hippie child here, but I just love the earth. I love feeling connected to the earth, and I was living in the city and working at the bank, and on a deeply rooted level, I was missing that.
The farm was kind of like a someday, maybe dream of mine. Then I watched a Ted Talk on making hard decisions, and [Ruth Chang] talked about how when you make hard decisions based on fear, you end up drifting through life. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Up until then, my whole life had been laid out in front of me, and I realized I’d never made a big decision for myself and done it. I had always drifted along and done what came next. So I decided before the Ted Talk was over to quit my job and become a farmer.
MS: Your first stop after getting out of that role was the Pacific Crest Trail. What was that journey like for you? What was on your mind as you were walking?
KS: I decided to hike the PCT because I love the woods and hiking, but part of me was really sad to move away from the West Coast. I felt like I fit into the food culture and the adventure culture and the social culture of the West Coast... and that I’d be missing out on a lot [by leaving].
So I decided to hike the PCT [before leaving]. And it solidified my decision to farm because as I hiked and told people what I wanted to do, they got so excited, and validated that this was something that needed to be done.
I also think the PCT prepared me for life as a farmer because hiking is really, really hard. You wake up every day and hike for 10 or 12 hours whether it’s raining or snowing or 100° out, and you just have to do it, because you have to make it to Canada before winter hits. And that’s kind of like farming. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, how sick you are, what the weather is like—you have to get up and do your thing.
MS: Did your relationship with food change at all when you were on the trail?
KS: Food on the trail was so bad. By the time I was finished I was getting crazy heartburn from the packaged food, which you have to eat because it’s lightweight. I don’t think it changed so much on the trail as it did when I started interning at a farm and realized the special connection you have with your food when you’re involved with raising it.
MS: You interned with Joel Salatin at Polyface this summer in Virginia. How did that experience reinforce or complicate your food philosophy? Your work ethic?
KS: Interning solidified my decision to become a farmer. I felt so surrounded by life every day, even through the hard parts—like when a calf died. Having that connection to life felt so special. I felt lucky to be outside with the animals and the fresh air every day. It’s just life for me.
MS: You seem to be a fairly avid animal lover.
MS: And you’ve said that you used to be a vegetarian?
KS: Yeah, a vegan.
MS: How does livestock farming challenge or serve that relationship?
KS: So I was a vegan for four years, and in that time I became pretty unhealthy. My hair was falling out and I developed a binge eating disorder—I think because my body was never satiated, and I was deficient in vitamins and minerals. So I finally admitted to myself that I had to start eating animal products again. I knew I couldn’t go back to eating factory-farmed meat, so I started researching and learned about Joel Salatin and how his rotational grazing farming approach actually heals the land, sequesters more carbon from the environment than it emits, and lets the animals live a respected life. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons that I’m a farmer, because I do love the animals so much. Almost too much not to be a farmer.
MS: In what way?
KS: I just think they deserve to be loved. They feel it, you know? My cows love and pigs love their back scratches, and everybody who comes to the farm that I feed knows the name of the cow that they’re eating. That gives their life meaning. If you’re raising an animal and making the decision to kill it and turn it into meat, I think you need to have immense respect for that.
MS: Can you give us an overview of rotational grazing and the pastured philosophy?
KS: On my farm, the fields have been hayed for generations, conventionally, and without animals on them. They’ve been cut and fertilized with commercial fertilizer, and that has made for really tired fields. The grass doesn’t grow that well.
So now I’m putting the animals on it, and the best way to do that is to put the cows on it first. The cows move every day, and only get enough grass to eat for that one day, so they’re not trampling on it and pooping on it and eating it inefficiently.
Then you move the cows onto a fresh piece of land, and put the chickens on the field after that. Then the chickens spread out the cow patties. There’s actually a ton of vitamins and minerals that are essential for chickens in those cow patties, and they also eat the bug larva, which provides great protein. So they’re spreading out the cow manure, they’re putting down fertilizer of their own, and they’re reducing bugs. It’s just a magical combination for the earth.
Then the pigs come in. They’re great. I’ll be using them for the edges of my field—which are kind of grown in about 20 to 30 feet or so—to kind of clear and rototill the land and create beautiful pasture for the cows.
MS: So what’s the alternative approach?
KS: I feel like, right now, there isn’t really any alternative, because the alternative is to cut the hay and spray it with commercial fertilizer, and our fields are just at the point where that’s really not working for them anymore. It’s driving them into the ground, and they aren’t productive. So that’s the alternative, but it’s just not sustainable.
MS: Now that you’re doing this, what’s happening with the fields?
KS: Right now, there are two fields that have cows on them for the first time ever. I put them on this past fall for one season, and the chickens weren’t even out there yet. Now, there are tall, dark, green patches of grass coming directly from the cow patties. It’s like watching magic happen. It’s been less than a year and you can already see a huge difference in the fields.
MS: If it works so well, why don’t more people use this approach?
KS: I think we’ve been led astray by big agriculture companies who have a lot of control over the government. And I think that people—consumers—just don’t have as much of a connection to their food as they used to. They go to the grocery store, and they’re not really thinking where their food came from and how it was farmed. I think that combination of needing to produce more food easily and cheaply has led us to where we are now.
MS: How do you feel employing the pastured farming model impacts taste or quality of the your food?
KS: The pastured farming model results in food that you can taste and see the difference in—the golden yolks of the eggs, the deep, red color of the beef, the thick, beautiful bacon from the pigs. I love hearing customers who are trying pasture-raised meat or eggs for the first time talk about how amazing they taste compared to what they buy from the grocery store.
MS: A big theme or your work seems to be regenerating and rebuilding the land, returning it to its intended purpose. Do you see your peers embracing that same call to work the land for food?
KS: Definitely. I live in a tiny little town in Northwestern Rhode Island, and in the past year alone, there have actually been four new farms started in Chepachet by younger farmers that don’t even necessarily have a background in farming. Like me, they just kind of quit their jobs and decided that we need more farmers and better food, and are implementing the same sustainable practices.
MS: Is launching a farm harder for a young person?
KS: I think it’s easier and harder at the same time. People that have been farming for a long time have had to deal with Big Agriculture coming in and putting lots of small farms out of business, and they’ve just gotten beat down. Now younger people are coming in during this huge movement of local food and sustainable food and pasture raised meats. We’re learning all we can about these farming practices and implementing them, and we already have this really excited group of people that want to buy these products. That’s the easier part.
The hard part is that farming is just really hard.
MS: On that note, what have you learned in your first year?
KS: I’ve learned that there are going to be people who are excited by your products and know what they’re worth, and then there are going to be people used to buying eggs at Walmart for 79 cents a dozen. And they’ll tell you your products are ridiculously priced. And you’re probably not going to change their minds, so you just have to accept people for who they are and what they know and continue trying to make your dent.
MS: Has your experience been what you thought it would be?
KS: It’s more special than I thought it would be. I get to wake up every morning and walk out onto the fields that my ancestors farmed for generations before me and see them come back to life. I don’t think there’s anything more special than that in the entire world.
MS: What do you most love to produce?
KS: The cows are definitely my favorite. They’re very peaceful and I feel like they’re good therapy. If I’m having a bad day, I just go outside and listen to them eating and walking up to me for their back scratches.
MS: How does food and cooking play into your work as a farmer? What do you like to make with your bounty?
KS: Since I've moved home to rebuild the farm, I have become somewhat of a local food freak. Since I'm a one woman show, I don't have a ton of time to cook. When I'm cooking for myself, that often means crock pot meals and lots of leftovers. But my favorite way to enjoy the food I produce is cooking for friends and loved ones. I don't think there's anything more special than cooking food you raised yourself for a table full of people you love.
MS: And how do you deal with the separation of the animal?
KS: Like bringing them to be slaughtered?
KS: I cry.
I consider becoming a vegan again. And then I remind myself that the earth needs the animals and we need the animals, and all I can do is raise them in the best way that I know how.
MS: Why are you doing this work? What keeps you going?
KS: I mean, I get to live this really hard but kind of wildly romantic life, and spend my days outside with animals. And I get to provide incredible food to my local communities and see how excited people get about it, and continue the story of this farm for one more generation.
MS: How do you think food should be enjoyed? Is farm-to-table the way of the future?
KS: I think food should be enjoyed slowly with people. Farm-to-table carries a pretentious air, but I think good food raised by local farmers who have a reverence for what they're doing will have tremendous power in moving our society forward in a positive way.