Choosing a Life’s Path: Shannon Varley Part 2

This is Part 2 of Shannon Varley’s story. You can read Part 1 here.

Shannon left her two-year stint at farming without a clear idea of what to do next. So like any good child of teachers, she returned to school. She had always felt that meaningful change in our food system would come about on the policy level, so school was the natural place for her to be. While at Vermont Law School working on her master’s degree in environmental law, she was unhappy being stuck inside. She was aware of the changing seasons and would think, “this is when I’d be planting such-and-such.” She was constantly distracted from her schoolwork by spending time outdoors, by a desire to watch the changing light and the sun’s position in the sky.

Shannon Varley sleeping pigs in sun

Shannon realized that all her time pursuing academic work was like checking off boxes (undergraduate: check; master’s: check), and she felt disconnected from what was intuitive and natural and right for her. After law school, feeling more lost than she’d ever felt, she returned to her parents’ in Pennsylvania to start job searching, hell-bent on finding a policy position in DC, even though that kind of work didn’t quite resonate with who she felt she was. She sees now that she just wasn’t listening to herself.

I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling of being lost in our lives and not knowing how to proceed. I think often about the question of whether we determine the course of our life or whether we are led to discover our path. When I listen to Shannon tell her story, I definitely feel she was led. So does she.

Shannon trades in her power suit for Red Wiggler

While helping a neighbor look for a program for her son, she came across Red Wiggler Community Farm in Maryland,  a program that integrates farm work and job training for developmentally disabled adults. That same day—really, the same day—she noticed an opening on Idealist for a farm manager at Red Wiggler, and despite the fact that the job didn’t entail wearing a suit in the corridors of power in DC, something about it felt right to her. You can guess what happens next, right? She gets the job and moves to Maryland in 2003.

Shannon Varley holding a chicken

Shannon loved her job and was able to take part in all aspects of the small operation, greatly expanding her skill set. She worked on the farm for five years. During that time she met her future husband, BJ, and pretty quickly they had a daughter. She was able to bring her daughter to work with her, which was a joy, and her job duties shifted into grant writing and other administrative tasks. By the time her son was born two years later, she was doing contract work for Red Wiggler from home.

By now she knew—deeply knew—that she wanted to be farming. Screw the corridors of power! She felt that farming was something she could do with the kids in tow and it would be a life that was right for her family. BJ had a business restoring barns, and Shannon felt sure that being the frugal people they were, they could live on BJ’s salary and get a farm going.


So what, exactly, does that look like? Starting a farm from scratch seems like an overwhelming and heroic proposition. Even more so when you have the responsibility of raising children. I’ve learned, though, that like everything else in life, you take it one step at a time and you learn as you go.

First step for Shannon: find some land.

You can go directly to Part 3 of Shannon’s story here.