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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Three Sisters: Letting Go of the Family Farm

Air Date: Week of

The elderly Lepine sisters of Mud City, Vermont recently auctioned off their dairy herd, and came up with a workable solution for finding future caretakers for their 660 acre family farm. Tatiana Schreiber visited with Gert, Therese and Jeanette Lepine.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Defying time, nature, and the dictates of the global economy, small Vermont farmers cling tenaciously to their land. Other regions have better weather; other farms are bigger and more efficient. But Vermont farmers seem to have a streak of independence, even stubbornness, which keeps them going when others might have cashed out. So it was no small event earlier this summer when one farming family in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom finally decided it was time to sell their dairy herd after nearly half a century. There were no daughters or sons to pass the farm onto, because the proprietors were never married. They're 3 sisters, all now in their later years, who decades ago chose life together on their farm over marriage and other more worldly ambitions. But for Gertrude, Jeanette, and Therese Lepine, the selling of their herd isn't a sad end to their story. As Tatiana Schreiber explains it's actually the beginning of a lesson in stewardship, and in finding new ways to pass the land from one generation to the next.

(Auctioneer: "All right, Neal, thank you ladies and gentlemen. The auction is on. And how many dollars on her? Fifteen hundred thousand making eleven..." Shouts from the audience.)

SCHREIBER: On auction day on this late spring morning, fresh green grass blankets the hills. And on a normal day, fawn-colored Jersey cows would be grazing peacefully in the fields. Today, they go to the highest bidder.

(Auctioneer: (laughs) "All right, take a deep breath here young lady, we'll be back. First heat!")

SCHREIBER: Gert Lepine and her trademark slouch hat and slightly cleaner than usual work shirt won't admit much nostalgia as she watches the herd she's built up with careful breeding for decades sold off.

G. LEPINE: I feel good. Yeah, I have no regrets at this point and I don't think I -- you know, I mean, I'm sure there'll be a feeling of letdown after this whole thing is over. But I'm meeting a lot of people that I've never met before, and most of them are Jersey farmers, and yeah, we've got a lot in common. And it's been a great morning.

(Auctioneer speaks too quickly for transcriber to decode)

SCHREIBER: Cows and calves weighed in makeshift pens attached to the barn. As the crowd settles under a small red and white tent, the cows are brought in one by one and walked in a circle on a plywood platform. Out of state buyers are calling in their bids to the auctioneer's cell phone while Gert sits on the front row of hay bale bleachers focusing intently on her prize cow Veronica.

(Auctioneer: "Sold at $5,000. Dave, you got her.")

NEIGHBOR: I feel very sad. This is an end of an era in a sense, but it is a transition.

SCHREIBER: Two neighbors came to help say goodbye to the cows and to reminisce.

NEIGHBOR: Always loved seeing them coming in, trooping in. You know, every man sat up a little straighter: it's the Lepine girls.

NEIGHBOR: Each one of them made a choice. They had other careers and they gave up other careers. They chose to come back to the family home and run this farm, this dairy farm. They chose it. Possibly there's a message in that, is that we all have the choice.

(Auctioneer continues his patter. Fade to a mooing cow. One of the Lepine sisters: "Make sure you close that door down.")

SCHREIBER: Gert Lepine and sisters Jeanette and Therese chose to come back to this land, to the big green barn and old farm house their French-Canadian parents bought for a few thousand dollars in the 1940s. A worn sign on the barn reads, "100 Feet to Jersey Hill Milk Farm: Fresh Cold Milk and Rooms for Tourists." Tourists don't stay here any more, but you can see why they did. Vermont's highest peaks surround the farm in every direction.

(Footfalls on a floor, sweeping)

SCHREIBER: A few days before the auction Jeanette sweeps out the barn while Gert forks silage from a big plastic car into each cow's station, getting ready for milking.

(Machinery runs)

SCHREIBER: In between letting down feed from the silo, Gert tells a story she's repeated often about how she started out as a schoolteacher but one day, gazing out the window, she knew the life she wanted was outside those walls.

G. LEPINE: Funny thing is I wanted the farm, but I don't know, it was a funny conception. People didn't think that, you know, I mean every farm wife spends her life farming. But for a single person to -- to do that for a lifetime, I've had, you know, back when I first started handling fertilizer or something, some of these truck drivers would, you know, they'd kind of laugh at me because I was doing heavy manual work.

(Machinery continues)

G. LEPINE: Because I never made a distinction that, you know, what was the difference? Why shouldn't I farm if I wanted to?

SCHREIBER: Gert farmed with her younger brother for 20 years before he got tired of it and moved away. But Jeanette, who'd been working as a stewardess, soon came home to help out. And so did Therese, after 2 decades in Washington working for Senator George Aikin. None of the 3 married, and Gert says she has no regrets.

G. LEPINE: I wanted my freedom, my independence, and do, you know -- I mean that's what -- that's what people don't understand. Talk about freedom and you'll -- there's nobody more committed than we are. We're married to these cows, actually. You know, I mean it's a 365-day operation. And I really, honestly don't think I've ever missed the milking in my 40 -- how many years have I been here? Since '52? What does that make, 40 -- 44 years?

(A cow moos)

SCHREIBER: Gert's the youngest at 69, and working from 3:30 in the morning from 8:30 at night was getting to be too much. Theresa's been in poor health also, and lately Jeanette's been bothered by an old skiing injury that's acting up.

G. LEPINE: One of those things, when you reach a point where you can't walk too well, better do something about it.

(Sweeping sounds, followed by hand clapping)

G. LEPINE: Come on, move. Come on, move. Move.

SCHREIBER: At first the Lepine sisters weren't sure what to do. Over the years realtors were often at the door asking if they'd be willing to sell off the land in bits for development. Close to several ski resorts it would command a high price. But Gert says they always resisted.

G. LEPINE: I knew I'd have to retire some time. And I thought my God, you know, what if I sold this farm and the farmer that came behind me -- I say now how do I do this? Do I put it in my will, or how do I do it to be guaranteed that this guy isn't gonna cut it all up and -- I've seen it happen right here in town. And I said boy that must have been an awful, awful blow. I didn't know how to go about it until I -- started reading about the Vermont Land Trust, the great things they were doing.

SCHREIBER: After some discussion the Lepines chose to sell their development rights in a bargain sale to the Vermont Land Trust. The 660-acre farm includes a section of the Catamount Trail, which runs the length of Vermont. Now the fields and woodland will be permanently conserved for agriculture and recreation. The next step was to look for a young farmer to take over.

HARRINGTON: Here's the ad. I was reading the ag. review one day and I come across this and I decided I'd better give them a call.

SCHREIBER: Randall Harrington is 24 and had been building up his own herd on rented land farther south.

HARRINGTON: This is the ad. It says "Morristown farm to rent, 62 cow tie barn with 30 tie heifer barn, 160 productive acres, ready to move in at grass time."

SCHREIBER: Minimal rent.

HARRINGTON: Minimal rent, that kind of caught my eye. But that's not even the rent that has nuthin' to do with it. That is a well set up, well maintained farm. I mean it's -- any farmer could appreciate being able to farm there.

SCHREIBER: Randall's moving his own cows into the big green barn and says he'll try his best to continue the operation in the Lepine tradition. He's sympathetic, though, thinking about the sisters selling their herd.

HARRINGTON: Must be, gonna be hard, hard to give them up. I don't know, I can't imagine. I've only been in it four years and it would be hard for me.

(A cow moos.)

G. LEPINE: It's not coming out the right way.

J. LEPINE: Yes, take a board, it's getting cockeyed.

SCHREIBER: The weather's turned warm, and Gert and Jeanette are taking out the windows in the barn, one of the last chores to complete before Randall takes over.

(Hammering sounds)

G. LEPINE: Here you gotta let it shrink a few days.

SCHREIBER: Neither sister reveals much emotion about losing the cows, but Jeanette says it's easier knowing the land will continue to be farmed.

J. LEPINE: The stewardship of land is a very important and serious, serious thing. You know, you can -- 'cause you can't built land, and once it's gone to agriculture it will never come back.

J. LEPINE: We will do what we can to maintain the land that we were fortunate enough to spend our lives on, so that it can be handed down to generations after generations for, you know, for perpetuity. I mean it's -- this, you know, trusting of land like that.

SCHREIBER: The Lepines say they hope Randall Harrington will be able to buy the farm some day and find success in the difficult Vermont dairy economy. They're looking forward to providing advice and support. And the sisters won't really stop farming for long. Lately Jeanette's been getting excited about the prospects for hemp production.

J. LEPINE: No other crop has got so many possibilities to it. Everything is biodegradable. And money-wise it's good, compared to just any other crop in the world per acre. So I just feel it might, you know, be a salvation for a lot of our, our agricultural problems and help keep our -- our land open.

SCHREIBER: Vermont Governor Howard Dean has vetoed experimental hemp production in the state, but an override is possible. And Jeanette's begun an avid correspondence with Dean and state lawmakers on the subject. And Gert's been noticing a lot of former farmland in the area that's been taken over by scrub.

G. LEPINE: One thing that I really, really love is making land. Opening up new land.

SCHREIBER: To sort of see it be productive again.

G. LEPINE: Yeah. I never liked -- it's too bad to see so much wasteland.

SCHREIBER: So, though their dairy operation has come to an end, if the Lepines have any say -- and people around here say there's little doubt about that -- they'll remain a force to be reckoned with in Vermont farming.

G. LEPINE: (Shouts) Come on! [Yells more]

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth I'm Tatiana Schreiber with the Lepine sisters in Mud City, Vermont.

G. LEPINE: (Shouts, calling)


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