When asked to describe their typical day during the summer season, it starts at 6 a.m. and ends past 10 pm, traversing from kitchen to field to office to flower studio. We spoke to them in mid-October when Rita’s flower crew had already been trickling toward part-time as they wrapped up the season. From outside the window of Andrew’s office I could see the faintest amber glow from across a field.
How has your partnership supported or challenged your long-term visions? Did it take compromise to land in your current projects?
Andrew: We spend a lot of time together and have invested in learning how each other works, how our brains work, and how we’re unreasonable to ourselves and to each other.
How do you stay grounded in your deeper vision while satisfying all the daily to-dos, including staying afloat financially as small businesses?
Andrew: I have recently been thinking critically about what we do here, the way we accumulate capital and hold power. We have the opportunity to use our businesses to express our values. We don’t operate our own businesses just because we want to make money. We’re in business because they fill us and we believe they have positive value for the world.
Rita: Speaking of the flower operation specifically, it’s been strange coming from a very small-scale organic food background, because generally speaking, the global flower industry is a pretty toxic, destructive industry. We want to build the understanding that even if you’re not eating all these flowers that are covered in pesticides, farming without poison is also about treating the earth well and growing an agricultural product with integrity and high quality. Getting off my soapbox, if a client really needs a purple flower that I don’t have, I’ll buy in a purple flower. Our intentions are to build a renewable, regenerative farm business, and I also need to make my business work.
It makes sense that for practicality’s sake and in order to make your lives work you would need to find some sort of compromise.
Andrew: It is a hard thing to figure out the sweet spot though. There was a time when I also felt more convicted about doing things in more traditional ways—building furniture without fasteners, or doing everything by hand. I personally have let go of those strict ideals, which I now understand allows me to accomplish more of the things that I’d like to get done or learn about. That is my particular mania. Right now I feel pretty good about the compromises we make, but I haven’t always.
Rita: We’re getting old. (laughing) It used to be that hand-working the beds was really fun and now it’s like—(sigh) the tractor is really nice. We’re trying to stay healthy. With farming you only get one shot every year—very frequently it flops and you’re like “ah well, I’ll try that next year.”
Can you talk about your attitudes surrounding the perhaps less-profitable but seemingly very rewarding work of farm life—the tapping of trees, raising and processing of pigs, making of cider. Can you talk about what makes them worth it?
Rita: Our intention with being on the land is to do well by the land. We don’t overgraze, we rotate pasture, we cover crop when we can, we add in compost, and we don’t over-tap the trees. We care so much about how we tread on this land and in fact seek to improve its health and to regenerate neglected systems on the homestead and farm. If we wanted to have a big cider operation we could, but we delight in simply taking the time to connect with our land and the process of pulling its incredible resources from the trees at a family scale.
Andrew: These activities are life-affirming because the results are delicious but also because they incentivize care and add value. If I weren’t forced to be out in the woods in March to start tapping trees, I wouldn’t be in the woods in March. It’s cold and snowy and muddy and transcendently beautiful. The same goes for harvesting apples in the fall. The more time I spend out on the land the more I understand it—how systems are connected—and how I can be a better steward.
You all do so much there. How does courage factor into your work, and what risks did you take in order to build the life that you’re living now?
Andrew: We got really lucky with the land that we chose—it happened to be available when we were looking. Our decision to move nearly blindly from the Pacific Northwest was totally faith-based with a firm desire to make it work, and we have never once doubted our place. Nonetheless, we didn’t know anybody here and didn’t know much about Bethel or central Vermont, and we made the pretty big decision to move based mostly on feeling and intuition more than anything else. Is that courageous? Don’t know.
Rita: Neither of us came from farming backgrounds, or backgrounds that emphasized land stewardship to the degree that we do now. We’re also both business owners—to leap into all of those things was courageous I think. We were also privileged to have the support of our families. They trusted us to want to farm, and to engage in this (to my family) unconventional path of manual labor. I know it took courage to tell my family that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Once I got the support, love and acceptance I was lucky to receive, it felt like everything fell into place.
"These activities are life-affirming because the results are delicious but also because they incentivize care and add value."
In rural Vermont, building a farm as an event space and community hub seems like a beautiful place to create and nourish relationships. Do you struggle with isolation during the winter months? Do you ever wish to retreat back to that sense of privacy when things are more hectic during the busy season?
Rita: You don’t realize how many people are around and how chaotic it is until everything dies and everyone leaves or goes into hibernation and we realize—holy crap it’s just us, it’s just us right now. That song “I Think We’re Alone Now” always runs through my head. It really is nice to have the winter to recover, get antsy and get ready to do it all over again.
Andrew: I cherish the quiet of the winter months. We go hard spring through fall. I think something I’m learning is that we’re ambitious and don’t stop working and people are drawn to that. We do a lot of things here that don’t make financial or energetic sense on paper, like the lamb roast party we throw every spring that is open to our community. It’s at a really busy time of year, it’s at a really muddy time of year, it’s expensive, and it’s a ton of work. It’s an offering that we create because its fulfilling and it’s fun. Hundreds of people show up, including friends from all different corners of our life, and they all get to meet each other. These kinds of secondary farm activities that we prioritize in addition to the flowers and floristry are both exhausting and invaluable to the big picture vision of a Stitchdown Farm that is diverse, regenerative and community oriented.