Winter Reading

February 27, 2014 § 26 Comments

Fresh pig's blood for blood sausage. Pretty, eh?

Fresh pig’s blood for blood sausage. Pretty, eh?

One of my favorite magazines to write for is Yankee. I love writing for Yankee because of their focus on a region (and the people of that region) that’s important to me. And I love writing for Yankee because I have a great editor who gives me almost complete autonomy over my stories. Finally, I love writing for them because there are not a whole lot of periodicals that run 5,000-word feature stories anymore (oh, sure, The New Yorker, but I have about as much chance of snagging an assignment from them as I do of getting trampled by a marauding elephant in our woodlot).

Anyhow. If you’re interested, I have a couple of stories in recent issues of Yankee. The first is about the proposed Northeast Kingdom Development Initiative, which is basically a mammoth economic development project in Vermont’s least financially prosperous county, funding largely by foreign investors who, through a program known as EB-5, can essentially “buy” a green card. I find rural economic development stories fascinating and nuanced, and this one was no different.

The second, which is not yet online, but is probably at your local newsstand, is about our friends and neighbors, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann and their efforts to make a life for themselves and their new baby daughter Allie Rae on the same dairy farm Jimmy’s grandparents farmed. Jimmy and Sara milk about 50 cows, have a 2500-tap sugaring operation, plow driveways, sell about 50-cords of firewood each year, and hire out for various logging and landscaping tasks. I love this story because it’s about people I care about, but also because it’s about people who, outside their immediate community, work in almost total anonymity (or who did work in almost total anonymity, until I wrote about them). Since it’s not online, I figured I’d give you a short teaser, in hopes you’ll all rush out to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy or 10.

When James “Jimmy” Ackermann was 19, in the fall after he graduated from Cabot High School, in Cabot, Vermont, he drove forty-five minutes due west from the town in which he’d grown up. His destination was Johnson State College, where it was assumed that Jimmy would lead the Johnson State Badgers basketball team to glory on the court. It wasn’t a flawed assumption: In high school, Jimmy had been one of the Cabot Huskies’ star players, racking up more than 1,000-points, once scoring 35 points in a single game. He wasn’t tall, but he was tough and strong, and despite his muscular frame, exceptionally nimble. Obviously, he could score. Yeah, he was good. 

 “I wanted to play ball something bad,” he told me. We were driving in his big GMC pickup, floating down a rural Vermont road on a halcyon September morning. The truck’s radio was tuned to Froggy 100.9; a male singer was drawlin’ about fast trucks and slow women. Or maybe it was slow trucks and fast women. Jimmy was dressed in a grey tee shirt tucked into shorts of a heavy canvas weave. He wore a pair of tattered work boots on his feet. His dirty blonde hair protruded from his head in an unruly fashion that looked as though perhaps he’d stuck his head out the open window of a moving vehicle.

But Jimmy didn’t play much ball in college because, as it turned out, Jimmy didn’t much like college. Oh, sure, he’d drunk his first beer at JSC, and that was kind of fun. And there were pretty girls everywhere, and that was pretty cool. But when it came right down to it, Jimmy had to admit that college was, well, a little too slow for him. “The thing I didn’t like about college was it wasn’t busy enough,” he told me. “I’d wake up at six and I didn’t have class until ten, and everyone’s walking around in sweatpants hanging off their ass. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do?” He offered a little sideways grin, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole situation.

So what he decided to do, after two of the most physically lazy and interminable weeks of his young life, weeks which he largely spent gazing jealously through classroom windows at the men mowing the college’s expansive grounds atop shiny John Deere machinery, was leave school to the ass-hanging sweatpants-wearers.  And get to work. 


But it wasn’t so much the sheer volume of work that intrigued me as the simple fact that, beyond a small circle of customers, family, and friends, they toil in anonymity. Although they produce food (milk and maple syrup), they have not ridden the wave of recognition bestowed by the local/artisanal/sustainable food movements upon many of the region’s producers. They do not sell their products at farmer’s markets; they do not tweet or blog about their farm and its offerings; you cannot “Like” the Ackermann Farm on Facebook, because the Ackermann Farm is not on Facebook.  In fact, the scope of their marketing efforts can be summed up in that “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup” sign flapping in the breeze at the edge of the barnyard.

In a sense, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann are throwbacks. I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, but rather with the understanding that their lives exemplify a deeply historical New England work ethic that seems to be evolving inexorably away from the land to align itself with our nation’s cultural embrace of digitized technology. It is not that Jimmy and Sara are dismissive of technology, and they own both a computer and cell phones. But if these items were to suddenly disappear from their lives, very little would change for them, and their work would be essentially unaffected. I’m struck by how rare this is.

It may be obvious by now, but in Jimmy and Sara I see something both humbling and hopeful. I am humbled by the sheer scope of their commitment to their work and the good-naturedness with which they go about it and I am I hopeful because I cannot help but wonder how many other young New Englanders are leading lives of similarly quiet, purposeful intent. There are times it seems to me as if it cannot be many, but then I remember that the very nature of Jimmy and Sara’s relative anonymity suggests there could be an awful lot.

And yet, it must be said there are times when I see in them a certain naïveté. It’s not merely their youth (although that might be part of it), and I suppose it is best explained by their assumption that if only they work diligently and conduct themselves with integrity, they will be afforded the life they dream of. In short, that hard work is all it takes. Can this be true? I want it to be so, not just for Jimmy and Sara, but also for myself and for my children, if only because I wish for my sons to inhabit a world in which the honest integrity of hard work is justly rewarded. In this sense, the story of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann is not merely the story of a young couple eking a living from the land. In this sense, it is the story of us all. 


§ 26 Responses to Winter Reading

  • Kent says:

    I’m off to the news stand to “meet the Ackermanns!”

  • Eumaeus says:

    Lot in there. Look forward to reading the online piece. Your Yankee countryside, my Hoosier countryside – yep. Look to those people living there, in anonymity as you say, and what attitude do you have before your eyes focus on their lives. that says a lot. your attitude determines what you see, right? but you look with admiration and respect. Lots of folks don’t do that.

  • tteclod says:

    Do they ship syrup? It’s hard to find Grade B in the south, and the flavor is better than Grade A.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      I’m sure they would. I don’t know if they even made any B last year… everyone was making light syrup almost all season long. Probably have some dark amber, tho.

      Want me to find out?

  • davidnhale says:

    Well written work. Makes me want to meet the Ackermanns, even if it is to just buy a bit of good syrup from them.

  • Laura Degroot says:


    Sent from my iPhone

  • ellen says:

    I loved the Ackermann piece. Especially the bits about the sugaring. They seem like fabulous people.

  • Bearpaws says:

    Read the article last week. It was great. Looking forward to your upcoming books. Sorry to hear that Claire’s is closing. Bummer.

    • Doug W. says:

      Claire’s is closing? Changes at CAE, and the founder has left Highfield’s Composting. Ben, it would be interesting to hear an update on what’s going on in Hardwick, and your take on it.

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Yup, Claire’s is shutting down. Far as I know, the changes at CAE and Highfield’s are natural evolution, nothing out of the ordinary for any non-profit.

  • vpfarming says:

    Beautiful – and what a treat to have them as neighbors. Now looking for 10 copies of ‘Yankee’ in Michigan.

  • jules says:

    “…if only because I wish for my sons to inhabit a world in which the honest integrity of hard work is justly rewarded. ”

    I’d like to believe that this could be true in the future. Honest hard work and integrity should be something to be admired and rewarded. I’m only 54, and know this to be true when I was growing up, but will this be true in the future for your boys? I’ve seen, in the recent past, that folks that work hard, with their hands, get marginalized and put down by folks that can’t be bothered with that, make six figure salaries doing something I can’t see, and don’t get dirty. Folks that get admired these days are the ones who make a lot of money doing not much of anything, not the honest worker-bees that actually get things done. Seems to me this is the norm these days out in the world. I believe there is a campaign going on to bring folks back to physical labor jobs and to remind folks that these people are to be admired and it’s not a bad thing to be a welder or what have you. I believe Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs)is heading this ad campaign. We see his commercials here in Alabama.

    Any one have thoughts on this?

    I like how you write. You alternately make me smile, and make me think…hard. Thank you.

    • sonja says:

      In the corporate world its just the people who know how to play the game who end up getting the success. Believe me there are people who work very hard with integrity in the corporate world because they believe that hard work brings success. It doesnt … only a-holes get the success.

      • jules says:

        Sonja, I think that is the problem. Only the a-holes get the success, and the recognition. No one reports on the hard workers. That is backwards to me. Totally backwards.

    • Karen R says:

      My twenty-five year old son is going to college for his Master’s and is currently taking a Human Resources class. A recent class discussion focused on how businesses are having to placate and adapt to the Millennial Generation. Our son made the comment to his father and I that he was thankful for the way he was raised…that we had instilled in him a good work ethic. Seems hard work and integrity do have their rewards… some of which you can’t put a price on.

  • Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    I’m thinking about your piece about the Northeast Kingdom Development, and I am wondering…I admit I am naive about these things, but I do wonder what type of jobs will be created for the locals, and how much will the cost of land and cost of living rise? And will the locals be able to survive or will they be pushed out…and of course the ecological impact of it all…??

    It’s interesting because I was recently thinking about the “investments” you and Penny make and how your sons will have the land, with the good soil, and the fruit and nut trees…but what happens if everything around your land is developed and turned into rows of townhouses and condos and min-mansions?

    I see it here in northern Virginia, the suburbs of D.C., the farms were developed and it is hideous, just hideous…the spirit of the land is gone and the traffic problems that they can never keep up with…

    And if we move to the country, but will it still be country when we pass the land along to our children? Will it be developed ecologicaly and sustainably?

    Am I being cynical – or realistic, when I doubt that foreign investments will save the towns?

  • Peter H. says:

    I like the idea of “you can’t “like” me”, not unlike “you can’t touch that”.

    Secondly, I strongly suspect that hard work is not enough. NPR had a story on chance just this morning (using success in music as a template) . There are so many factors in our lives of which we are unaware. Unknown and thus definitely uncontrolled,about many things it seems much easier to say “better to be lucky than good”.

    If you are lucky, then you make unintentional actions which benefit, such as putting an “r” in the 3rd space of turmeric, that wonderful rhizome.

  • Doug W. says:

    Are Ackermann’s an example of back to the future as well as a throwback? They remind me of a piece John Michael Greer wrote a few years back about the Sound of Aunt Edna’s knitting needles, that in the long descent of a post carbon world, that people’s lives will be full of things that need to be done, that even past times will have to have some practical purpose….

  • Doug W. says:

    Just read the story on the Northeast Kingdom. I was up at Holland Pond last September, which is east of Newport. community, but can’t imagine more traffic. People up there shouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch. Things seem to be unraveling pretty fast. A lot of these changes may never materialize.

  • Dominique says:

    So….speaking of reading, I initially found your blog through Whole larder love, who I in turn found through Inked in colour, its a beautiful circle. Anyway I like your style of writing and the truth of what you say, so I took myself down to the book store and bought your book $aved, although, truth be told the price of it almost made me put it back, I did not however, and I am now reading it. So…thanks.

  • NeoNoah says:

    After you have read $aved, bet you will go and buy a bunch for friends…

  • ncfarmchick says:

    While “Yankee” is still a dirty word for many here in the South (I kid…well, not really), I will be on the lookout for a copy. I like to think the work ethic is a universal thing even if it is increasingly hard to find in our modern culture, at least in the physical, toil in the Earth sense. So glad I was raised to enjoy being covered in “honest filth” as my grandmother used to say.

  • Amy says:

    Well done, Ben. Now I’m hankering for a life sans ‘pooter and ‘phones and just my kids and my animals and my garden. The life of anonymity (that my parents’ generation still is content to live, for the most part) and hard work is becoming more and more attractive to me. I refuse to own a smart phone because I see how addictive they are to people.

  • Doug W. says:

    I managed to find a copy of the March-April Yankee Magazine with the story about the Ackermanns in it. Not an easy thing in our small town. There is a lot to admire about the Ackermanns and how hard they are willing to work. They are connecting to their community and supporting others, such as their grandmother with monthly rent payments. A couple things is how long can they do this. A young couple who lives near us is doing a CSA and selling a lot of veggies. A year or so they did a tour of their place. Before they showed people around they talked for an hour or so. One of the things they were wrestling with is if what they were doing was emotionally sustainable, and this was hinted at in the Ackermann story. The other thing that occurs to me is the amount of debt this young couple is incurring. Debt means fewer options and less independence in the long run. It is a tough way to start out.

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