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By Harry Anderson
Her resume reads: graduated Class of 2006 Ponaganset High School, earned two BS degrees in international business from Northeastern and Dublin City University in Ireland, did marketing for Specialized Bike and a commercial bank – both in California’s Silicon Valley—and hiked alone the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico (2,650 miles in 5 months and 6 days). Now, Katie Steere, age 29 and unmarried, has come home to her ancestral land in Glocester.
For ten years she had swapped rural living for the sizzle of big city action, negotiating the noisy avenues of Boston, Dublin and San Francisco with moxie – a trait that especially characterizes her. All the while, however, “I kept dreaming of the farm,” she says. Then, into her third year with the corporate world, she had something like an epiphany. “Everyone, everything didn’t seem real. People seemed not rooted in a life force. The best I can do to explain what I mean is to use the word ‘abstract.’ All was an abstraction. And computers in a large way contributed to that.” Right then and there she succumbed to her dream.
But before she could call herself a farmer, Katie knew that she had to learn a thing or two about farming. She applied to Polyface Farms, a 500-acre spread in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, for acceptance into its five-month apprenticeship program. The caveat for acceptance reads: “Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, self-starter, eager-beaver, situationally aware, go-get-‘em, teachable, positive, non-complaining, grateful, rejoicing, get’er done, dependable, faithful, perseverant, take-responsibility, clean-cut boy-girl appearance. We are very, very discriminatory.”
Katie fit the bill and was one of nine applicants accepted into Polyface Farms’ 2016 apprenticeship program. She was not scared off by that caveat or by the warning atop the application form: “You will be sore, achy, dead tired, and be sick for 3 days in your first two weeks . . . [but] you’ll be more physically fit than you’ve ever been in your life. But it won’t feel good getting there.”
She says that that warning was not hyperbolic. “They worked us hard every day. For five months we put in 70-hour work weeks. We learned by doing all sorts of things from digging post holes and carpentry and baling hay to herding pigs and cows. Mostly, we came to respect Joel Salatin’s philosophy about husbanding animals [he’s the farm’s owner]. Things like mob stocking and portable hen coops, he believes, are the way to honor animals that reflect God’s love for all creatures.”
Katie has come back now to Glocester, back to the 65-acre farm that her forebears have lived and died on since 1776. She sleeps in an abandoned trailer aside a cow barn. “I’ll never leave,” she vows. A fierce determination flashes in her blue eyes. “If I do, the farm will end. It needs me!”
Her lithe figure belies her strength. Without farm hands to help, in one year she, alone, has strung electric fences here and there on the acreage and built an “eggmobile” (a sizeable hen coop on wheels – Salatin’s invention). She has purchased a half-dozen commercial freezers and stocked them with steaks, roasts, chops and chicken parts, and assembled a menagerie of 18 beef cows, 20 pigs, 415 chickens, 160 laying hens and a hefty shelter dog named Odin.
“Last winter was tough,” she whispers. “At one point, after I fell into the river over there where I was scooping up water for the cows, I second-guessed my judgment. I was cold and I was lonely. With winter’s darkness comes loneliness. And hauling bales of hay through the snow . . . I mean . . . well, you know what I mean.”
She has drawn upon her Silicon Valley experience in marketing to eke out a livelihood, picking up a few food purveyors in Providence and hawking her eggs and meats at farmers’ markets.
A smallish, hand-painted sign she has staked at the head of the gravel trail just after her father’s garage reads: DEEP ROOTS FARM, the name she has given to the 65-acre spread. Nailed to trees along the trail are hand-painted signs pointing the way to her store, a cramped anteroom to the cow barn. There, a seeker for organic eggs and beef, pork and poultry can find them for sale.
“A lot of people would think me crazy,” she says. “But this is the truth. One afternoon last summer when I had led the cows to another pasture and was coming back to the barn, suddenly I felt a presence and I knew my ancestors were walking with me. Everywhere I look I see the work of six generations. I just had to come home. No one else would save this farm. What I’m doing is in my blood!”
Tucking in her torn jersey, Katie looks off to the hardscrabble, over-used grazing field to the pine stand beyond and says, reverently: “This is my church.”