The Story Of Deep Roots Farm

January 15, 2021

I have loved my family’s land for as long as I can remember. When I was younger I had a fort literally over the river and through the woods. I used to go there and build things every day. Cutting pine branches, stacking more logs, making it more weatherproof. I remember one day crossing the pasture and seeing a cow giving birth. She was standing up and the birth liquids pooled around the baby’s head. The birth sack didn’t rip when the baby fell out. I ran over and tried to rip it off. The calf was suffocating. The birth sack was so much more sturdy than I expected and I struggled. The baby was dying. But eventually I was able to rip it, and the calf survived. I remember the day years later when I went to check on a laboring cow on my way to my fort. I was carrying a bucket of water and a flake of hay. I got close to her and saw her still, glassy eyes. The flake of hay dropped to the ground and so did the water bucket. I learned life and death in those carefree days.

 I remember running through the woods barefoot as free as a bird. Every day after school I would whistle to the dog down the lane, Trixi, who would be sitting at her lawn’s corner waiting for me. She would gleefully charge up the driveway and she, myself, my dog Herb, and my wild pony, Stormy, would gallop off into the woods together. I was always told how lucky I was to have this childhood. And I was. I see that privilege more and more as I age. But peppered into those memories. Buried deeper perhaps, are all the times I was told how stupid I was, how I ruined every relationship my father had been in because I didn’t want him to be happy, how my Grandpa would tell me I couldn’t farm because I was a girl. The shame I had felt after I told my Dad I would call the cops on him if he ever hit me again. Those memories are buried deeper.

Deeper than the kayak paddles with my dog Herb, and learning how to drive the hay truck when I was five. I have loved my family’s land for as long as I can remember. I was always told, you can’t make a living farming and I grew up knowing two things for certain. I wasn’t smart enough and you can’t make a living farming. I got straight A’s in AP calculus and graduated with honors from Northeastern University with a bachelor’s degree in International Business. I used to sit through class terrified to speak in case someone would notice I wasn’t smart enough to be there.

After college I moved to California. From 3,000 miles away I would argue with my Dad. Please don’t plant roundup ready Alfalfa on those fields. It will ruin them forever. Please don’t let the town drill wells and pump water out for town water, you don’t know what the water situation will be in the next 200 years. I would stay up at night worrying about that farm. About roundup ready alfalfa and the fact that the farm didn’t have a person to guide it into the next generation. 

I had a dear friend out there who spent a lot of time telling me how smart I was. For the first couple of years I just thought she was trying to be nice, but slowly I started to believe her.

One night in San Francisco I was airing my farm worries out to this same friend. But it wasn’t just worries, it was dreams too. I dreamed of having a bed and breakfast in the empty 4 bed-room farmhouse, I dreamed of a blueberry patch, and of rotating cows through the fields. I dreamed of twinkly light dinners and of bringing life back onto that land. My friends sat there, transfixed, listening to my worries and my dreams. And then they told me. Katie. You need to move back home and do this! Yes! I thought. Yes. 

 A few days later I called my Dad, elated. Dad! I want to move back home and bring the farm back to life. “No. You can’t do that. It will never work.” Maybe I should have listened. I don’t remember how that phone call went but I know it ended with me in tears. But the thing is, I have loved my family’s land for as long as I can remember. And so I made a plan. I was so sad to leave the West Coast. And before I did, I wanted a grand goodbye. I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. While I was hiking I would apply for the coveted Polyface Farm internship and then I would intern there the following summer. Following that, I would move home to build out the farm of my dreams. This, of course, was a “some day” plan. Some day, when I have enough money. Some day, when I have enough time. But then I stumbled across a TED Talk. It was called “Making Hard Choices” by Ruth Chang, and she spoke of letting fear guide your life and drifting through it. 

I quit my job in commercial banking the next day. That summer I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. And as I walked I told people my plan. I earned the trail name “WonderWoman.” Every step I took and mile I walked I became more and more sure that this plan was what I was meant to be doing with my life. 

The next summer, the summer of 2016, I interned at Polyface Farm. I learned how to back up a truck and trailer like a boss, how to sort through a herd of 300 cattle, how to heal the land with animals. I took to the farming like a fish takes to water and I also learned I do not belong in a conservative Christian community. And then. I moved home. To my family’s land, land that I have loved for as long as I can remember.

I bought twelve pigs on Craigslist, 200 day-old chicks off the internet, and four cows from an old farmer down the road. And like a smack in the face, those memories that I buried deep, they came reeling back. Because suddenly after ten years of being gone, I was being told on a regular basis how stupid I was. That none of my ideas would ever work, that I was selfish and stealing other people’s dreams. That I was a bitch just like my Mom. I said some ugly things back, I gritted my teeth, and I farmed. 

I had just come off of hiking 35 miles a day on the PCT and working 80 hours a week at Polyface. I felt like I could do anything. So I got two jobs off the farm to keep me afloat and went to work. That winter, I built fences in white-out snow storms, almost burned down my chick brooder, and gained the confidence to move my cows half a mile down the driveway by myself.

As my animals danced their way across the fields, the land sang its way back to life. The sparse weedy pastures grew lush and green, the purple clovers exploded across the fields. I crossed paths with all sorts of wildlife on a daily basis and customers began showing up seeking out meats they could trust to feed their families. Meanwhile I could feel my ancestors stirring, I could feel their hope, their whispers of excitement.

I also lived in a tent, in the promise that a little cottage would be built for me to live in. I would often be walking to the tent in the dark after finishing work for the day. And always I would glance up and the big dipper would be sitting there waiting for me in the sky. Just there. I remember one particular night walking home to my tent. It had been such a long, hard day. It was dark and warm. I turned a corner in the driveway, looked up at the stars, and I swear to god that entire farm hugged me. It was a hug from my ancestors.

But the family that was still alive was clashing mightily. When The Providence Journal came to do an article and asked my Dad if he was happy one of his kids came home to work the farm, he told them about his Grandson who he thought would take over the farm some day. But still I kept farming. Because I have loved my family’s land for as long as I can remember.

 About two years in, in the summer of 2018, just when I was spending a lot of time thinking about whether the farm was more important than my happiness, an old man showed up on my farm store doorstep. 

He was a farmer, worn and stooped, by too many years milking cows twice a day. He had read about my farm and wanted to come see it. After a while of chatting, he came out with what he really came for that day. “Come by and see my farm and I’ll show you all the things you could do there.” I laughed and said I would probably never leave this place but he left his phone number. He continued talking about how he didn’t have any kids, he didn’t want it to go to his neighbors or his nephew, and he wasn’t going to be around forever.

That afternoon I was moving cows across the farm, about half a mile down the driveway, through a field, and down another stretch of driveway. As they filed out of the pasture, one of them stayed behind. Snowflake, notorious for causing trouble, and getting out, but a “pet” of my Dad and his girlfriend. As the rest of my animals trotted off I had no choice but to leave her.

I got the cows settled into their new spot, and then headed back to retrieve Snowflake. I came upon my Dad and my Uncle with Snowflake about halfway back and they started right in on me. I explained that I couldn’t just leave the rest of the cows trotting down the driveway because she wasn’t coming and that she was a danger to the herd and should be gotten rid of. “You better believe that you’ll be off this farm before this cow is off this farm” were the words my Uncle said to me.

I’ll never forget the town meeting where my Dad took credit for all of my work. It was a meeting to discuss accessory uses for farms. For example if you’re a farm you don’t need to get permits to hold classes on your farm. It’s a way to help small farms cover their land costs. My Dad was up there talking about how he’s a farmer and his full time excavating company is his “accessory business, if you will.” The town planner said, “Look Buster I see everything you have going on over there. I see the cows and the chickens moving around the fields. I see all the work you do.” I looked to my Dad expecting him to clear up that error and say that those were his daughter’s cows and chickens. Instead his chest puffed out, his chin popped up, and he said, “Thank you.” I felt like I had been slapped and when I confronted him about it later he said, “Katie that wasn’t the right place to say anything.” Well, I’m actually here to say that I don’t think there’s EVER a right place to take credit for someone else’s work.           

The years went on. I went deeper and deeper down a dark hole of depression. With the help of a therapist, I finally acknowledged that I needed to leave that farm. Anyway I’m not sure I had a choice since my family had had enough of me. I moved most of my operation to Snake Hill Rd but my cows remained at the old farm. In November of 2019, the landowner of my new farm asked if I wanted to move into the now empty farm house. I knew if I did that I would probably never move back to my family’s farm. I cried for hours, I wrote a goodbye letter to my farm, and I moved. Into a house with heat, electricity, and hot water. Into a home that I was welcomed into.

Moving into my new house was the first big Goodbye to my family’s farm. But I still had these deep down hopes that things would improve. In the summer of 2020 the time had come for one of the family farms to transition down to the next generation. I found out months later that this had happened. That it had happened without me being included in the conversation at all. Because in my family the land doesn’t go to the farmer, it goes to the man. Despite the fact that I had nursed that very land back to health over the past four years, mowed the brush back from the field’s edges, spread manure, cut the hay fields. My brother got the farm. He is not a farmer. He told me “life isn’t fair.” I cried for 48 hours. Ugly gut wrenching sobs. Gutted that my family thought so little of me. Gutted that I was being shut out and shut off of the land that I love so much.

And then I realized that it was over. What I was most afraid of had already happened. I was going to be left out of the legacy of the land that I loved so much. And because of that, in that moment I stopped being a pawn that my family could insult and abuse.

A week later my Dad was supposed to help me with something. He had actually been supposed to help me with it for over a month but I needed the particular piece of equipment on my tractor to unload a big hay delivery that was coming. He told me to put off the delivery, something I was in no position to do. We had experienced a severe drought all summer and I desperately needed that hay to keep my cows from starving to death over the winter. It was the last hay that this farmer had and he could have sold it to 20 other people on the same day. I told all this to my Dad and he pulled one of his famous tactics, “Well, why don’t you take some responsibility and go to the hardware store and figure it out?” This is something he commonly does when he feels guilty about something. He turns it around and insults me instead. “Why don’t you grow up and… Why don’t you do some work and… Why don’t you take some responsibility and..?” 

I was angry. The thing is, I found out a couple of years ago that I have another sister. She’s my older half-sister’s half-sister, or that’s what we were told. They share a Mom. Except we all took DNA tests and it turns out we definitely all share a Dad as well. My Dad refused to take the DNA test because “he doesn’t need to, she’s not his daughter.” So to hear him tell me to take responsibility for something was a little ironic.

I arrived to my Dad’s farm to feed my cows and he was waiting in the driveway for me. I was boiling mad and as soon as I got out of the car he said, “You better just calm down right now.” And that was the end for me. “You want me to take responsibility? Like you took for Tracy?” 

“This is the problem with you. You come over here and treat me, and Melissa, and Uncle Randy terribly.”

I told him they were all extremely abusive people. And then he started in on me, “You are a fucking moron!! You’re an idiot!! Get the hell of my land, I never want to see you again! You’re a bad person, you’re a low life!” 

He was saying some of the exact same phrases my Uncle had said to me a week before when I said “No” to him. I can only assume that some fights with their father resulted in the same blows being thrown. 

What has followed since that day in October, I can only describe as a very ugly divorce. I have had the police called on me for “stealing” my cows, my winter hay supply has been held hostage, I have been unable to take thousands of dollars worth of my equipment off the farm. I have been sick to my stomach, curled up in a ball crying on the bathroom floor, I even considered closing Deep Roots down and just running away. Yesterday some of my hay supply was moved, not all of it, but enough to keep my cows alive for the winter. And just like that it’s’ over. Not just four years of abuse, but 32 years. I’m walking away from years of work and a rather devastating amount of money but what I have is much more important. I have my freedom, the ability to live my life going forward exactly as I choose.

I have struggled to leave my family’s land because I feel like I’m letting my ancestors down. Because I love that land more than anything else in my life. Because I feel physically connected to it, like my legs have grown roots deep, deep down into the soil there. My deceased Grandmother sent me a message this year saying that she is so happy I am leaving that farm and all of the negativity there. I remember her as such an unhappy woman, and now I just can’t imagine how poorly she was treated by my Grandfather. With her blessing I can leave that farm in peace and continue with Deep Roots Farm in a whole new way. The truth is I have loved my family’s land for as long as I can remember. But some day, hundreds of years from now, I hope there is a farmer who looks back at the history of their family’s last seven generations, and those generations are filled with something other than shame and abuse. I hope they are filled with something much more powerful. I hope they are filled with love. 

Katie Steere

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