Buying a Farm: Shannon Varley Part 4

This is the fourth installment about farmer Shannon Varley, drawn to a life as a farmer and hell-bent on owning her own farm, not renting. You can read Part 1 of her story here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

For eight years, Shannon’s goal was to own her own farm, and she and husband BJ visited, walked, and mulled over many, many farms for sale in Maryland, but nothing was quite right. Little did Shannon know that one particular trash-heap of a place would end up being her farm. On her first visit to the property, Shannon wouldn’t even get out of the car. All she saw from the car was a neglected, run-down property that had been completely trashed. Apparently whoever had most recently lived there had not believed in garbage cans but chose instead to throw trash anywhere around the yard. Months after buying the property, Shannon was still finding empty cake cartons in the woods behind the house.

In retrospect, Shannon now likes to say: “sometimes great opportunities are missed because they are dressed in overalls.” Despite her resistance, BJ had a hunch about the trash-heap place and kept bringing it up to her. (Hmmm, there’s that intuition thing again.) Except whoops…opportunity gone. Someone else had made an offer and the property went off the market. Soon, though, it reappeared at a reduced price, and Shannon agreed to at least have a get-out-of-the-car look at it. This time the yard had been cleaned up—a little—at least to the point where she could get her head wrapped around the idea and start to establish a vision for the place.

The Dump

What the property had going for it was a large barn in back that was in great shape. There was some fencing in place, a lovely little pond, and enough land for livestock. She thought that making a good farm out of it was conceivable, and they decided to go for it. They bid low, knowing how much work they’d have to put into the place. Eventually, after lots of back and forth, they secured the property at a reasonable price. That was in April of 2012.

Shannon Varley's barn sits next to a McMansion

The barn. Notice the McMansion neighbor.

Most important, and what made the deal even possible, was that they were able to finance the purchase for the value of the land alone, because the 1820 house was considered a tear down. “A dump” and “uninhabitable” was what the appraiser called it. The original house was a log cabin, with a stone addition added sometime after, all of which was covered with filthy layers of plaster and drywall. But BJ, whose specialty is restoring timber-framed barns and old houses, suspected that underneath the grime lay a sweet treasure.

But good grief, how would they tackle a job that Shannon said was “overwhelming and more overwhelming”? Shannon described what needed to be done as “the extraction of every inch of plaster, drywall, moldy insulation, flooring, snakes, and anything else that happens to fall out of ceilings or walls. It involves the extensive use of respirators and thick work gloves. It’s a nasty, nasty dirty job.”

And not exactly spending time outside tending to animals or vegetables. But still, a farmer has to have a place to live.

Shannon Varley renovation farmhouse

Removing the disgusting plaster from the original log cabin

Shannon Varley 1820 log cabin farmhouse under renovation

Shannon and BJ had poured all of their money into the purchase of the farm, so they relied on friends and family for help. They had work parties, and on the first weekend alone, a generous group of folks got more done than Shannon and BJ could have accomplished in a month of weekends.

I wish I could say I was at that party to help and to document the process, but I wasn’t. I didn’t reconnect with Shannon until they were three months into the renovation. While they worked on the house, they lived in a trailer parked just up the driveway. The first time I went into the trailer, to use the bathroom, my thought was “Bless you, Shannon. I don’t think I’d last two days in here without losing my mind.” It was, of course, small and cramped, and they were two tall adults and two children. But to their everlasting credit, they survived 21 months living in that thing.

Shannon Varley farm house under construction

The house under renovation and a trailer to call home

Shannon Varley farm renovation

This was the dining room during renovation

A dream come true

They moved into the renovated house right before Christmas in 2013. In Shannon’s words, “I will never, ever, ever take for granted again: living space over ten square feet, indoor plumbing, an HVAC system, and the pure bliss of being able to close a door.”

And was BJ right about the house? Was it indeed a sweet treasure? Yes, absolutely and completely. Shannon credits BJ with taking “decades of neglect and transforming it into a work of art.”

Shannon Varley restored farmhouse, front door with wreath

Fortunately I was able to be at the grand housewarming party in January of 2014, and I couldn’t believe the transformation. The original log cabin had been revealed; there was a huge and inviting kitchen with stone walls and a deck off the back that overlooked the barn; BJ had rescued a fabulous claw foot bathtub from a hospital in West Virginia; and the bedrooms upstairs were lovely and snug. It had become a dream house. And it was featured in the October 2014 issue of This Old House.

Shannon Varley Rumi quote

The quote from Rumi written above the back French doors perfectly reflects Shannon’s spirit

Shannon’s dream had finally, thankfully, gratefully come true. Eight years of slogging through moves and renovations and mud and dirt and hard work and raising kids and animals and all of it—so much determination and grit. It was a joy to behold.

Now she could finally turn her full attention to her farm and building up its infrastructure.

Shannon Varley feeds her sheep

You can read all about it in Part 5.

6 Comments / Add your own comment below

  1. I’m grateful for people like Shannon who make it possible for the rest of us to eat a little better, live life a little larger. Thank you for bringing this story to life so beautifully! I will share it with my kids 🙂

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thank you, Whitney. I hope your kids like it. Whenever I’m out on a farm with a women farmer, I wish that my daughter were out there with me to experience the farmer’s strength and independence. Our girls need these role models!

  2. Pingback: Grounded Women - Moving to Vermont: Shannon Varley Part 3

  3. Pingback: Grounded Women - Unbearable Loss: Shannon Varley Part 5

  4. I’m enjoying reading this series, however I’m wondering why you reference a house in the background as a supposed “McMansion?”
    Can you define a McMansion?

    1. Lise Metzger

      Hi Rob, Thank you for your question. Google defined McMansion as “a large modern house that is considered ostentatious and lacking in architectural integrity.” That’s pretty much how I use the term. Around where I live, I see so many homes that fit this description. Overly large, each one looking very similar to the next one. I’ve been in large homes with 4 floors, 6 bathrooms, huge rooms, and occupied by a family with only one child. I would call that ostentatious. How do you define McMansion? Did you feel offended by my use of the term?

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