Reciprocity: writing and farming in Vermont

By Hanna Wheeler

 

Julia Shipley grows 50 percent of her diet in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Photo by Hanna Wheeler

If chores were a car trip, instead of a process from one end of the barn to another, from full udder to empty, we’d be in Montreal by the time the milked cows were let out to pasture, the machines were rinsed, and the last toss of sawdust sighed to the clean barn floor. It’s dark when we start, but light by the end, as if milking made the morning. –excerpt from the poem “A Process” by Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley is a farmer and a writer in the small community of Craftsbury in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. “Process” is a featured theme in her writing as well as in her life. Leaving suburban Philadelphia to apprentice on farms and then buy her own farm was a process. Earning her MFA in Creative Writing and Literature and then really honing her writing craft at the Vermont Studio and publishing her work was a process. Through these processes, she realized her twin dreams and became part of a long legacy of writer-farmers in Vermont.

Shipley says there is a connection between her two crafts. “I find there’s a reciprocity. In some ways, the discipline of farming has taught me the discipline of writing.”

She says jotting down ideas in her journal is like planting seeds. Selecting some of those ideas for a fuller piece is like transplanting the healthiest seedlings. She nurtures, weeds and prunes her writing and her crops. The final product is something she can share, a pesto or a poem.

Spending all day only writing at a computer or all day only performing repetitive farm tasks can be “tedious,” Shipley said. “I need both.”

She lives in the right place for doing both. Shipley says that Vermont has more writers and more farmers per capita than any other state. Her article about Vermont’s farmer-writer legacy is featured in the latest issue of Vermont’s Local Banquet.

Some of those Vermont farmer-writers include Helen and Scott Nearing, Elliott Merrick and, of course, Robert Frost. A common theme in all of their work includes celebration of rural living, simplicity, and connection to the land. “We could use that advice today,” said Shipley. “It’s not obsolete.”

Julia Shipley reads from her chapbook, Herd. Photo courtesy writingonthefarm.com

Shipley sees her dual lifestyle as an almost patriotic duty. “The Jeffersonian Ideal is somebody who is both a farmer and a writer,” said Shipley. “President Jefferson had this belief that this country should be filled with gentlemen farmers, with people who are learned, who are using their intellects for democracy… but also using their muscles and their bodies to produce their food and have a connection to land.”

Shipley has served as the Director of Writing Studies and Faculty in Sustainable Agriculture at Sterling College, where the motto is Working hands, Working minds. Now she is a newspaper columnist and a freelance writer. Her chapbook, Herd, was published by Sheltering Pines Press and her poems and essays have been published in Alimentum, Hunger Mountain, Small Farmers Journal, Vermont Life, Vermont’s Local Banquet and Whole Terrain. She runs a writer’s retreat and facilitates writing workshops for elementary students and elders.

Much of Shipley’s writing takes the form of “braided essays.” When asked about the term, Shipley grabbed one of the ubiquitous pieces of twine in the barn to demonstrate. She teased apart a frayed end to show that rope is really a bunch of individual strands that form something new. Like rope, her life and her writing braid together things that one might not normally connect.

“I started writing essays that bring disparate things together,” she said. “A braided essay does the work of mending divisions that we’ve become used to between this and that. It does a little of repair work like this twine does. Akin to the life I’m trying to build,” she said.

Shipley farms six acres of fruits and vegetables. Usually, she also has sheep, dairy cows, and poultry, though this season she’s livestock-free due to some fencing improvements she has to make. Shipley said her goal isn’t to make all of her income from farming alone, but to grow at least 50 percent of her diet.

Even though she’s following in the shoes of Vermont’s farmer-writers, her own farming looks a little different. Before she had land of her own, she had to improvise. Her desire to farm became something of a town effort. In the parking lot for her apartment building, she turned a child’s playhouse into a chicken coop. She raised vegetables behind the coffee shop, raised milk calves behind the doctor’s office, grew potatoes at the studio. “What’s so beautiful about Vermont is the community really catches you,” she said.

Finally, she found property of her own. She compares her farm to a story, saying, “We’re just out of the first chapter.” In it, there are different characters including “not just human neighbors but animal neighbors” and a fantastical setting including a river that “swerves like a drunk through this town.”

Her farm is also a story of a barter system that is alive and well in Vermont. “I think smaller, more agricultural towns are apt to have the wherewithal to barter,” said Shipley. For example, she worked on a friend’s farm in return for two milk calves. She raised them up, then traded one of the cows in return for a year’s supply of hay for the other cow. And so on.

Everywhere Shipley looks, she finds connections between writing and farming. Even the alphabet shows a connection between the two. She says writing and agriculture came about around the same time since farmers needed to a way track their new abundance. If you tip over the letter A, it looks like a bovine face with two horns. This is how the first letter of the ancient Semetic alphabet was written and it gave rise to the upright Greek letter A we use in the English language. “Aleph is for ox. Bet is house. Aleph bet. Alphabet. You’ve got an ox house! These disciplines are not so far apart,” said Shipley.

In fact, for Shipley, the disciplines are interwoven. It all comes back to process. “When you make something with your hands, when you bring chaos into some deliberate order, an internal process is happening at the same time,” she said.

 

Julia Shipley is a 2010-11 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant recipient, completing a manuscript of braided essays about small scale agriculture. As both a professional writer and subsistence farmer she’s interested in the overlap and interplay between these two fields. Read more here.

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