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The Hardest-Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks

Jimmy and Sara Ackermann are trying to do what many feel is nearly impossible in the 21st century: begin a new life working off the land.

By Ben Hewitt

Mar 24 2014

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Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe
When James “Jimmy” Ackermann was 19, in the fall after his graduation from Cabot High School, in Cabot, Vermont, he drove 45 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 gray T-shirt tucked into shorts of a heavy canvas weave. He wore a pair of tattered work boots on his feet. His dirty-blond 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 that it wasn’t busy enough,” he told me. “I’d wake up at 6:00 and I didn’t have class until 10:00, 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 that he largely spent gazing jealously through classroom windows at the men atop shiny John Deere machinery mowing the college’s expansive grounds—was to leave school to the ass-hanging sweatpants wearers. And get to work.

Earlier that day, after morning milking on the dairy farm he runs with his wife, Sara, an unpretentiously pretty woman of 24 whom he’d married less than three months before, I’d helped Jimmy load the bed of his truck with literally hundreds of gallons of the sundry liquids used by dairy farmers: teat dips, acid cleaners, laundry detergents. The Ackermanns distribute the products to other farmers throughout the region; it’s a fairly recent undertaking, and their nascent system for managing inventory was being tested. “Give me an iodine five,” Jimmy called to Sara, using verbal shorthand for a five-gallon pail of iodine teat dip. Sara looked up from the stack of orders she was flipping through and scanned the “warehouse,” a cramped room just off the milking parlor. Barrels were stacked atop barrels, and a trio of kittens flitted about underfoot. Just outside, a sign advertising pure Vermont maple syrup swung gently in the breeze. Across the road, about 50 cows grazed tufts of rich late-summer grass. “We don’t have it,” she called back. “Damn,” replied Jimmy. And then, to a kitten upon whose tail he’d just trod: “Oops. Sorry, little guy.” He picked up a 15-gallon barrel of cleaner with one arm and carried it across the floor toward the truck. As he lifted it into the bed, I caught a glimpse of the label, where the weight was printed: 149 pounds. “Got a load,” said Jimmy, eyeing the rows of 149-pound barrels he’d one-armed onto his truck, a shiny white GMC he’d bought only a few weeks prior. He looked happy. “Yeah! Load this thing!” He was clearly pleased to be putting his new truck to the test. We climbed into the cab and swung out of the barnyard. It was nearly 10:00, which meant that Jimmy and Sara had been up and working for almost five hours. Jimmy looked at his watch and stepped on the accelerator. Only seven hours until chores came around again. We had to get moving.

About three years ago, I began collecting the waste milk produced by the Ackermanns’ 50-odd milk cows to feed to our pigs, and, as a result, I began to see Jimmy and Sara on an almost daily basis. The more I saw them, the better I got to know them, and the better I got to know them, the more I began to realize that they just might be the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. They milk cows, run a 2,000-tap sugaring operation, sell more than 50 cords of firewood each year, plow driveways, hire out for various landscaping and tractor-related tasks, and operate the aforementioned distributorship. It adds up to an almost stunning amount of work, with days off as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth. Indeed, of the 365 days that made up calendar year 2012, the only day they took off from work was the day after they wed. 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 haven’t ridden the wave of recognition bestowed by the local/artisanal/sustainable food movements upon many of the region’s producers. They don’t sell their products at farmers’ markets; they don’t tweet or blog about their farm and its offerings; you can’t “Like” the Ackermann Farm on Facebook, because the Ackermann Farm isn’t 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. Their lives exemplify a deeply historic New England work ethic that seems to be evolving inexorably away from the land to align itself with our nation’s cultural embrace of digital technology. It’s not that Jimmy and Sara are dismissive of technology, and they do own a computer and cell phones. But if those 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 that is. It may be obvious by now, but in Jimmy and Sara I see something both humbling and hopeful. I’m humbled by the sheer scope of their commitment to their work and the good-naturedness with which they go about it, and I’m hopeful because I can’t help but wonder how many other young New Englanders are leading lives of similarly quiet, purposeful intent. At times it seems to me that there can’t be many, but then I remember that the very nature of Jimmy and Sara’s relative anonymity suggests that there could be an awful lot. And yet, it must be said that at times I see in them a certain naïveté. It’s not merely their youth (although that might be part of it), and I suppose it’s best explained by their assumption that if only they work diligently and conduct themselves with integrity, they’ll be afforded the life they dream of. In short, that hard work is all it takes. Can that 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 that sense, the story of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann is not merely the story of a young couple eking a living from the land. In that sense, it is the story of us all. One morning I climbed atop the four-wheeler with Jimmy to prepare a fresh paddock for the cows to graze. It was early, maybe 7:00, and we rode due west, chasing our shadows. Jimmy drove and I hung on the front rack, my feet dangling into the lush, dewy grass. Ahead of us, the field unfurled to the forest’s edge; beyond that, visible over the treetops, a jawbone’s worth of toothy mountain peaks: Vermont’s Green Mountains. It was warm and getting warmer by the minute, the sort of morning that promised the sort of day that could make you forget that summer would ever end. I’d arrived at the barn nearly two hours before, to find Jimmy and Sara leaning against the big stainless-steel bulk tank, drinking coffee and talking quietly, and for a half-second or so I could see into their future, to a morning 20 or 30 years hence, on which they’d be leaning against that same tank, once again drinking coffee and talking quietly. It was ridiculous, I knew, because of course much can change in 20 or 30 years, but there was something in their postures and in the low murmur of their voices that suggested permanence. True, they’d been married for only a few months, and known each other for not much longer than three years, ever since they’d been introduced in the bleachers of a local high-school basketball game and Jimmy had reached into his pocket to pull out his phone, dislodging a cascade of hay chaff in the process. Sara had been raised on a dairy farm a couple of towns to the north; she knew what that cascade of hay chaff meant. She liked what it meant. “They say you always marry someone just like your dad or totally the opposite,” she told me once. “Well, I always thought my dad was pretty great.” The field that Jimmy and I rode across doesn’t belong to Jimmy and Sara; it belongs to Jimmy’s grandmother Betty, and was farmed by Betty and her late husband, Al, along with Jimmy’s father, Pete, and Pete’s brother Walt. Jimmy and Sara lease the land from Betty, paying $2,000 each month for use of the barns and equipment, as well as the farm’s 300 acres, a patchwork of lush pastures and hayfields and stands of ash, maple, birch, and fir. Along old fencelines, rows of dead and dying elms stand sentry over the grazing cows. Jimmy started farming in 2008 with his brother Ian, who’s four years younger, and whom he calls “Fred.” (When I asked Jimmy how Ian had come into the nickname, he shrugged his broad shoulders: “It used to be Henry.”) With a $150,000 loan, the brothers bought a herd of 60 cows and became the third generation of Ackermanns to farm the same piece of land. Still, it wasn’t nostalgia that motivated Jimmy. “When me and Ian filled out the business plan to buy the cows and saw that bottom line, you shoulda seen the grin on my face,” he remembers. “I said, ‘We’re gonna be rich!’ A year later, I knew what it was all about, and there ain’t no ‘rich’ involved.” Still, Jimmy and Ian worked well together, having spent the previous four years co-running a landscaping and odd-jobs business that had earned them a reputation as the go-to, jacks-of-all-trades guys in town. Truth be told, it was rare to see one Ackermann brother without the other, either driving from job to job in Jimmy’s truck, or on a job site, chainsaws or brush trimmers in hand. Two years after they’d started milking, Jimmy and Ian bought a 2,000-tap, 25-acre sugarbush situated a half-mile up the road from the barn. A few months after that, while Jimmy and Sara were visiting Sara’s aunt and uncle in Connecticut, Jimmy’s cell phone rang. It was Ian. He wanted out. “I got off the phone and just started bawling,” Jimmy says. For the next four months, Jimmy ran the farm by himself. Seven days a week, he’d start milking at 5:30, finish up at lunch, cut firewood for a few hours, start milking again at 4:30, and get home around 9:00. It didn’t take him long to recognize that he couldn’t maintain that schedule indefinitely, and, after a handful of hired hands failed to materialize into long-term prospects, he and Sara decided that she’d join him on the farm full-time. This marked a profound shift in Sara’s expectations regarding her professional career. True, she’d grown up on a small dairy farm in Albany, Vermont, a half-hour’s drive north of the Ackermann place. And true, her maternal grandfather had founded Sterling College, a small liberal-arts school in nearby Craftsbury, with a strong focus on environmental and agricultural education. But, like Jimmy, she’d been something of a jock in high school, and, as she puts it, “I was never in the barn, because I was always playing sports.” After high school, she’d earned a degree in business management and seemed destined for a career that would be conducted in the air-conditioned comfort of an office building. Indeed, early in their courtship, when it became clear that Jimmy and Sara’s future together might someday include wedding vows, Jimmy had asked her if she would ever consider working the farm full-time. “I said no. I had it in my mind that I’d gotten this degree and I was going to do something with it,” Sara says. “It was Dad who made me feel like it would be okay to farm. He said, ‘You know, you need to follow your heart.’” She smiled, almost imperceptibly. “So that’s what I did.”

Jimmy and Sara live in a trailer they bought for $5,000 from Sara’s brother. Someday, the trailer will be replaced by a house that Jimmy and Sara will build with their own hands, but that day is possibly many years away. Their temporary home is tucked into a stand of mature sugar maples, on a 10-acre parcel (which they own), carved off the farm a couple years back. As the crow flies, it’s barely a quarter-mile from their front door to the barn; by car, it’s about double that. Across the driveway from the trailer is a small shed that Jimmy and his father built to house a pair of Harley–Davidsons, which serve as the Ackermanns’ primary form of recreation. That means they’re rarely ridden. The inside of the trailer is decorated with evident care; framed pictures are propped up on most available surfaces, and the walls are adorned with hand-painted signs. One reads: “What happens in the barn stays in the barn.” Another, featuring a Holstein cow: “Welcome. Friends gather here.” Still another: “Wish upon a star.” It was mid-December when I visited, although it occurred to me that the sign might not be season-specific. The past couple of months hadn’t been easy for the Ackermanns, primarily because Sara was suffering the side effects of early-term pregnancy. “I was puking in the gutter this morning,” she told me brightly, referring to the gutter that conveys the cows’ effluence to a manure pit across the road from the barn. I’ve found that farmers are generally comfortable casually discussing the sorts of bodily functions that many Americans avoid mentioning, and Sara seemed no exception. Her daily nausea was frequently coupled with debilitating migraines, and the combined maladies meant that there were mornings she simply couldn’t make it to the barn. “I feel terrible about it, because it means more work for Jimmy,” she said. She glanced up at her husband in silent apology. Jimmy just grinned and shrugged. Indeed, I wondered whether perhaps Jimmy actually enjoyed the increased burden, which had included processing the last of the season’s firewood on Thanksgiving Day. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that Jimmy and Sara—and in particular, Jimmy—didn’t endure the work because it was what they needed to do to make a living. In fact, they didn’t endure the work at all; they reveled in it. “I’m at peace when I’m working,” Jimmy told me later that evening, after we’d settled into a local pizza joint. “I’m most happy when I’m working and especially when I’m working outside. I love being outside.” He lifted a fresh slice off his plate; we’d ordered Jimmy’s favorite, a house special called “The Carcass,” topped with pepperoni, meatballs, sausage, and, in a half-hearted nod to dietary diversity, mushrooms. He finished it in two bites that were so close together they might have been counted as one. He chewed a full four or five times, swallowed, then continued: “When I was a kid, I’d spend the whole day outside playing with my tractors and stuff. It didn’t matter what the weather was. They had to beg me to come inside.” That sort of work ethic and passion for the outdoors had been instilled in Jimmy and his brother by their parents from an early age. “Dad is a bullin’ f**kin’ idiot, and I was right there with him all the time,” he said. At first I was a little taken aback, but Jimmy was grinning widely, and I realized that in Jimmy Ackermann’s vernacular, “bullin’ f**kin’ idiot” is a compliment. By the time he was 9, Jimmy was driving the big Case tractor that’s still on the farm today, pulling loads of firewood logs out of the woods, with the front wheels lifting off the ground and his father shouting instructions at his side. “Dad always believed that the best way to learn was to do, and the best way to get things done was to do ’em,” Jimmy added. “And I guess I got some of that. I always figure it all has to be done, so I do it. I don’t really mind any of it.” He bent over his plate and inhaled another slice.

“It all has to be done, so I do it.” I can see the logic in that, and I have to admit, there’s an appealing simplicity to it. As rules-to-live-by go, it seems like a sound one. And in the case of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann, it isn’t just rhetoric; it is fact, because if they don’t do it, the ramifications will be severe: Cows will get sick and eventually die; the people in their community who depend on them for firewood will be cold. It’s sobering to consider how much of contemporary America’s working landscape comprises tasks that are, if not nonessential, then certainly lacking in urgency. If I miss a day or even three of writing, no one is likely to notice, and I suspect the same could be said for a strikingly large percentage of our nation’s labor force. But the majority of the work that Jimmy and Sara do really does have to be done. Oh, sure, part of why it needs to be done is simply to pay for the expenses that the work itself incurs. Just a single month’s grain bill for their cows runs $10,000, which means that it costs twice as much to feed their dairy herd for a month (not counting hay and forage) as Jimmy and Sara spend on the structure in which they—and soon, their baby—live. And the grain is merely the proverbial drop in the bucket: There are payments on the tractors, and there’s the $1,000-a-month electricity bill, and the farm lease, and $50,000 haying implements that die and must be replaced. There’s the mortgage on the sugarbush and the new firewood elevator, and Jimmy’s truck, and … “I used to ask Sara how much money we had left, but I don’t ask her anymore,” Jimmy told me once. “’Cause if I don’t ask her, she doesn’t tell me.” Sometimes I wonder whether Jimmy and Sara Ackermann truly appreciate how important their work is—if perhaps they lack context, having been raised in families and communities where such work isn’t the exception but the norm, and therefore can’t get quite enough distance from it to bring its full value into focus. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t choose to articulate this aspect of their relationship to the labor that defines their days. They’re both smart and talkative, but they’re also doers, faced with the persistent urgency of whatever task is before them. In other words, perhaps they simply don’t have time to sit around thinking about how critical their jobs are, and in those rare moments when they might have that time, they’re probably too damned tired. Yet I’ve also witnessed moments that suggest a degree of connection that belies Jimmy’s git-’r-done ethos. I remember doing chores with them one morning, listening to Jimmy’s near-constant murmur, as he gently coaxed the cows out of the barn and toward the big corral, where he’d stand for a few minutes and quietly watch, looking for a limp, or signs of heat, or anything abnormal. Or maybe just looking. “Git up, git up, come on girl, git up, gonna be a beautiful day, git up, that’s it.” He spoke softly, whispering almost, occasionally reaching out to place a hand against a warm flank. “Come on, let’s go, git up. It’s a nice one out there, come on.” I remember Sara leading me through the barn, to show me an hours-old heifer calf out of one of her favorite cows. The calf’s coat was still dotted with small whorls of wetness, and as Sara fed it from a bottle, she ran a hand absentmindedly over its back. And I remember standing with Jimmy one afternoon as he was splitting wood, and watching as he carefully split around a rotten section, cleaving off the sound outer wedges of wood, before tossing the punky length aside. To be sure, the effort of discarding the piece was minimal, and, to be honest, I might have missed it had I been looking away. But the few seconds it took Jimmy to cast it aside revealed to me something in his relationship to his work that was far greater than the simple effort of his actions. After all, the truck contained literally thousands of sticks of firewood; a substandard piece or two wasn’t merely something that might be excused—it was to be expected. No one was likely to notice that Jimmy’s firewood was absent that one slender length of porous wood. No one except Jimmy, that is. What I see in these moments is something that I believe transcends simple pride: affection. Not merely for the animals under Jimmy and Sara Ackermann’s care, or solely for the customers upon whose continued support they depend, but for something at once less tangible and ultimately more durable: affection for the work itself, and for the livelihood it provides. For the life it provides. To be sure, there are plenty of moments in their day-to-day existence when affection is probably the furthest thing from their minds. Like most young, working-class couples, they worry about money. Unlike most young, working-class couples, they grapple with the challenge of being both domestic and business partners. “When I first started on the farm, there were days I’d sit down in the feed alley and just cry and cry,” Sara told me. “I could see how things were changing in our relationship, how we didn’t have the opportunity to miss each other anymore, because we were always working together.” And not just working, but laboring: tired, cold, wet. Bruised from being kicked by a cow. Or all night feeding the sugaring arch, watching the sap slowly turn darker and thicker and sweeter. Or finishing the last cord of the season’s firewood on Thanksgiving Day, piece after piece after piece, slowly piling up in the bed of the truck like accumulating snow. I know Jimmy and Sara’s life well enough to know there are elements of it that are just plain hard, and if I’m to be entirely candid, there are times when I think they’re a little crazy. What happens if one of them gets hurt or sick, or simply burns out? What happens if, to borrow a phrase from Jimmy, it’s not enough to be a “bullin’ f**kin’ idiot”? What will happen as they grow older, their bodies less able to absorb the reality of 12-hour days, seven days a week? When I ask them these questions, they shrug their shoulders, and I wonder whether there might come a time when they’d wish they’d chosen a different path. An easier path. But then I remember something Jimmy once told me, when I asked him what his favorite thing was. I figured he’d say something about riding his Harley, or operating one of his beloved John Deere tractors. Or maybe it would be sugaring; I already knew that he loved to make syrup, that he had “the fever,” as sugarmakers like to say. Jimmy didn’t hesitate for a second: “My favorite thing is when it’s raining and cold, and I’ve been working outside all day, and it’s 5:00 o’clock, and it’s time to go to the barn.” For a moment, I thought he was joking, but the smile on his face struck me as sincere—as sincere a smile as I’d ever seen: “It’s just so warm and comfy in there, with all the cows.” And now Sara was smiling, too, and I could tell that she knew exactly what her husband was talking about. “Man,” he said, “I sure do love that.”

Finally, sugaring time. On a Wednesday night in mid-March, we convene in Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse after evening chores. The sap has run hard all day, and there are thousands of gallons collected in the big gathering tank; the night before, Jimmy was up at Ian’s new sugarhouse until nearly midnight, helping his brother work the kinks out of his system. Ian had purchased the sugarbush only months before and had managed to assemble the house and rig with nary a day to spare, while maintaining a full-time work schedule. By the time I arrive at Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse, the fire in the arch is roaring, and steam is just beginning to rise from the pans. It’s still cool in the house, but it won’t be for much longer; every 10 minutes or so, Jimmy throws a few long sticks of wood on the fire, and slowly the temperature begins to rise. Slowly, the sap begins to simmer, and then boil. The steam in the room thickens until it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make out a face on the other side of the arch. Within an hour, Jimmy starts drawing finished syrup off the front pan, pumping it through filters and then into the canner, where Sara and her mother, Nancy, fill pint, quart, half-gallon, and gallon containers. The previous season was something of a bust, and the Ackermanns have a long list of orders already lined up. There’s serious money in that evaporator pan; over the course of the night, they might make 70 or 80 gallons, enough to ensure that the bank will get its annual balloon payment on the sugarbush mortgage, and maybe even a little extra to put away for the baby. As the arch grows ever hotter, the syrup begins flowing faster and faster, and Jimmy’s mood becomes as buoyant as the steam rising from the pan. “We’re rollin’ something wicked!” he calls out. “Now, I ain’t no sugarmaker, but I’m pretty sure that’s some fancy syrup.” Then, he breaks into song: “That’s fancy syrup, that’s fancy syr­uuuup!” Across the room, Sara might be rolling her eyes, but I can’t quite tell; the steam plays tricks on my vision. At midnight, I depart. There’s still plenty of boiling to be done, and it seems unlikely that Jimmy and Sara will be getting to bed anytime before 2:00 a.m., only 150 minutes before their alarm is set to rouse them for morning chores. They laugh about it and don’t complain; this is just the way it is during sugaring. They can’t boil during the day, because evening chores will almost surely interrupt the process, and the evaporator needs constant tending. So they boil at night and sleep during the handful of hours between the end of the boil and the early-morning urgency of their cows’ milk-swollen udders. As I exit the sugarhouse, I turn back for just a moment, and again I have that sense I had in the milkroom so many months before, when it felt as though I could see into Jimmy and Sara Ackermann’s future. Through the steam, I can see Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, monitoring the temperature and sugar content of the finished syrup. Sara stands beside him, close enough that her pregnant belly rests against Jimmy’s shoulder. Is it merely a trick of the steam that makes it feel as though 30 years from now, I’ll visit the sugarhouse only to find Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, with his wife beside him? Maybe. But I’m pretty sure not.