Moving to Vermont: Shannon Varley Part 3

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

After Shannon’s children were born, she again felt the strong pull to farm her own place. She knew it was the lifestyle that she wanted for her family, but she wanted to be having it on a farm she owned herself. She and husband BJ decided that they’d have a better chance of finding a large farm in Vermont, and it would be a more suitable place in which to raise their kids. They moved the family in the summer of 2008 but soon found that they were mistaken about the likelihood of affording the 100-acre farm to which they aspired.


Instead they bought a cottage with four acres. Shannon grew vegetables and started a farmer’s market in an open public space in town, inviting other farmers to sell there as well. That market is still going strong. From what I know about Shannon, I would have thought that the life she had in Vermont would have been her dream. And in many ways it was, but as her kids grew older, both Shannon and BJ missed having immediate family around.

Back Down the East Coast

Shannon Varley feeding her pigs

Shannon uses her Volvo to bring feed from the barn down to the pigs.

BJ’s gift is restoring timber barns, and before they had moved to Vermont, he did a large restoration project for a family in Maryland. (I’ve seen the barn, and it’s a spectacular restoration.) That family contacted Shannon and BJ in Vermont to see if they might be interested in renting a neighbor’s 15-acre farm. The farm wasn’t far from where BJ’s family lived, so in 2010 they packed up and moved back down.

Shannon Varley chicken coop.

Once back in Maryland, Shannon called her farm Bella Terra Family Farm and grew vegetables and raised pigs, steer and chickens. She started a local CSA and also sold at three farmer’s markets.

It was during the time Shannon was renting the Maryland farm that I first met her. She spoke often and passionately about the importance of connecting willing farmers with good farmland, and about how hard it is for farmers to afford land.

Shannon Varley's garden in fall, after the last harvest.

I spent many days at Bella Terra, photographing Shannon as she worked and getting to know her. One of my favorite days was a foggy day just before Thanksgiving, when most of the images on this post were taken. Fog is one of my favorite weathers to shoot in. I love the softness, the quiet and the muted colors.

For Thanksgiving, Shannon had posted on the dining room wall a large piece of paper that read Grateful. She and BJ and the kids posted what they were grateful for. What a lovely annual tradition.

Shannon Varley family gratitude poster.

Farm Ownership: the Dream Remains

Shannon liked her little farm, but her dream for eight years had been to own her own place, not rent, and she couldn’t let the idea rest. Some people argue that a long-term lease is a viable option to get farmers on the land, but Shannon says she’ll never back down from her belief that from the point of view of financial sustainability and land stewardship, it’s essential that ownership be a possibility. She is passionate about this topic.

Finding good, affordable farmland is a challenge, though, because at least in this part of the world, land is sold at development prices, not farm prices. The part of affluent Montgomery County where Shannon was renting had once been rural farmland, but over time the farms were developed for people wanting the feel of the country only 40 minutes from downtown Washington, DC. In came the McMansions. Shannon’s little house and gently sloping property lay nestled among them, practically swallowed up.

The desire to own her own place was palpable, she told me, and sometimes it kept her up at night. But how on earth could they afford a place?

You can read Part 4 of Shannon’s story here.

5 Comments / Add your own comment below

  1. I’m hooked on Shannon and am hungry to know what’s next in her life. She moved around a lot, I have stayed put my entire 78 years. I live in the south west part of New Jersey where the Delaware River runs into the Delaware Bay. My township is all farmland and marshland. I, too, am a photographer. Although it’s my passion, I’ve had to do it in and around my vocation of 35 years in traditional medicine and another 20 years in alternative medicine. My concentration now is documenting the watermen of my region–trappers, crabbers, oystermen, net fishermen–all men. The two women I’ve interviewed and filmed who worked alongside their fathers in the marshes and on the boats did so as kids and teens. Once adults they married and raised a family of their own.

    I’m signing up for installment four of Shannon’s life on her farm. Thanks for the opportunity to see and read your work. It invigorates me.
    Mary Waddington

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thank you Mary for your kind comment. I’m looking at your stunning photo of the cows in the fog right now; having it right above my desk will spur me on to try to make a photo that beautiful. I can’t wait to get acquainted with more of your work.

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