February 27, 2014 § 26 Comments
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.