Following her heart, Susie left behind a hectic life as editor of a cooking magazine to get closer to nature—by growing and harvesting her own food on Martha’s Vineyard.
Tell me a little about your background and when you started to think about charting a new direction in your life.
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C.—definitely a sophisticated-city-kid kind of life, with a happy dose of summers in Delaware and North Carolina. I went to an all-girls school for nine years, where I learned to write well—using my own voice—and where I also learned how much I enjoy writing.
I went on to Duke University, where I majored in English and religion, but my main focus was creative writing. After graduation, I did a summer publishing program at New York University and got my first job as an Editorial Assistant at Seventeen magazine. After a few years, I went to work for a small sailing magazine in Connecticut called Sailing World. When The New York Times bought the magazine and moved it to Newport, Rhode Island, I became its Managing Editor. It was also at that point that I began dating my future husband. When we married, I decided to take time away from magazines and attend culinary school—a crazy idea I’d had in the back of my head for a while. I’m not sure what I thought I would do, but I think I had food writing in mind—whatever that was!
I completed a 3-month culinary program at Peter Kump’s (now the Institute of Culinary Education) in New York, and then did an externship at a top restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, Al Forno. Even though this was many years ago, Al Forno was already sourcing many of their ingredients from local farms. The restaurant also used wood-fired ovens (very high heat) to cook most of the food, so it was here that both my cooking style and an appreciation for very fresh ingredients began forming. (I also planted my first vegetable garden while working here.)
My next job, cooking prepared food for a gourmet market, turned out to be a great creative opportunity for me, as the owners gave me a lot of range in what I could cook. I also began writing weekly food pieces for the Providence Journal’s Sunday magazine, which allowed me to begin learning how to properly develop recipes for publication.
I had lost touch with where my food was coming from.
Two years later, I decided to get back into full-time publishing and took a job as an Associate Editor at a new food magazine called Fine Cooking in Newtown, CT. My husband was transitioning jobs, too, so the move back to Connecticut worked for us.
I wound up working for Fine Cooking for 11 years, the last five as Chief Editor. It was a great experience: Not only did I work with wonderful people at the magazine, but I also worked with chefs and food experts all over the country. Unfortunately, the Editor job grew and grew, and I found myself working all the time and feeling a lot of stress. I knew I was burning out and unhappy.
I began to realize something important: I had lost touch with where my food was coming from. Despite being the Editor of a cooking magazine, I didn’t even have time to get to a farmers’ market, much less keep herbs alive on my deck at home—or have a vegetable garden. I didn’t know how important this connection was for me then, though I now believe that this urge to be more involved in growing and harvesting my own food probably arose from the pleasant memories of my childhood summers in Delaware, where we ate the sweetest corn and peaches from the local farmstand, fresh flounder that my uncles caught, and juicy tomatoes and green beans that my Dad grew in the backyard. These memories stayed with me and, I think, formed my ideal vision of what fresh food should be.
I had a sense that this modern life on the treadmill was not for me.
This was also a time in our country (mid-2000s) when food and farming issues—everything from food safety to sustainable agriculture practices to the obesity crisis—were beginning to make news in a big way. The financial debacle on Wall Street was looming, too, and though I couldn’t have articulated it fully at that point, I had a sense that this modern life on the treadmill—the striving, the always-busy mentality, the ignorance of the natural world in favor of more and more materialism—was not for me. I also gradually began to equate the modern lifestyle with a feeling of being spiritually bereft.
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing…
At the age of 45, I began my next act by giving notice at my job. I used my last few months at Fine Cooking to help transition the existing staff—and to prepare myself to become a freelancer.
Over the years, I had developed many recipes for the magazine and I knew the next logical step for me was to write cookbooks. I was lucky enough to find a good agent and together we brainstormed a proposal for a cookbook about quick weeknight vegetables. The proposal went out and was bought by a publisher, Chronicle Books, before my last day at Fine Cooking. So, fortunately, I had some structure and a goal to aim for as I left a good-paying job and leapt out into the unknown.
I began to understand that I felt better in my gut when I made the changes that helped me to be more closely aligned with my essential self.
After my last day at work, I took myself to the island of Martha’s Vineyard (in the middle of the winter) for a couple of months to decompress, to walk on the trails, to be quiet. It was very scary at first, but for some reason, I felt at home on the island right away. Those two months turned into four months, and, after a brief return to Connecticut that summer, I made a decision to move to Martha’s Vineyard full-time that fall. (I had separated from my husband as well which, of course, is another story.)
I had help from many smart and generous women along the way.
This was a lot of change within a couple of years and, sometimes, I am not sure where I got the courage to plow forward and do some very difficult things. But it wasn’t just a physical journey, it was a spiritual one, too; I relied heavily on faith and prayer to move forward and I began to understand that I felt better in my gut when I made the changes that helped me to be more closely aligned with my essential self.
I also had help from many smart and generous women along the way. During the year of transitioning out of my job, while I still had some money coming from my salary, I had worked with a life coach and a therapist, who both helped me see my way out of a lot of conundrums and also helped me to begin figuring out what really makes me tick. I also took weekly walks with a kind friend who was willing to listen!
While I worked on my first cookbook (which would become Fast, Fresh & Green), I began to explore the island, and especially the local farms. I often say that I “stalked” a couple of (very nice) farmers, who were kind enough to let me into their fascinating world. I also met people working hard to support farmers, to help revive the rich agricultural history of the Vineyard, to begin school gardens, to bring local food into school cafeterias, and much more. I met all kinds of animals, made friends with some pigs, and nearly cried when I went to a pig roast and recognized one of my friends on the spit! I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and moved to an apartment where my landlords insisted that I have a little vegetable garden out back. I harvested mussels at low tide and wild watercress in early spring. Gradually, and then suddenly, it seemed my move to the Vineyard had reconnected me with the source of my food.
On the Vineyard, my new life also got much simpler—and I learned to live on a much lower budget.
Fast forward six years and I am now a farmer and have written three books. The third book, Fresh from the Farm, tells some of the story of how our little farm came to be, how I met my partner Roy Riley and how he and his little daughter Libby became a part of my new life. We now have 600 laying hens, an acre of vegetables, a farm stand open 365 days a year, a hoop house, a farm dog, a farm cat, and a good life. We work very hard, but it is incredibly rewarding. We transitioned the farm from a side hobby to a real business in 2013, and in doing so, I’ve stretched my limited accounting abilities by learning to write a small business plan and to do the basic finances.
All three of my books have had a heavy focus on vegetables; it turns out I not only love cooking them, but I love growing them too. I also love growing flowers—I am so enchanted with beautiful vegetables and flowers that it makes me incredibly happy to harvest them, even on the hottest day in high summer. (Collecting eggs from the chicken coops, especially in the middle of a cold, slushy winter, is not nearly as much fun!)
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
My advice—to follow your gut—sounds like a cliché, but until you really slow down and pay attention to what feels right to you, you won’t understand how rewarding this can be. Doing what you love for a living is something everyone should experience. It will take sacrifice, and it isn’t easy at first, but the reward of well-being is amazing.
If you’re not sure just what that thing is, dabble in it while you’re still working in your old job. Even a day trip, a weekend retreat, or an evening class can help open your eyes—or confirm a direction you may not want to go. But commit to some small thing so that you can give it a try.
Doing what you love for a living is something everyone should experience.
I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to work with a life coach, as the exercises she did with me were particularly helpful in opening my eyes to what was missing from my life. She guided me towards some practical solutions for moving forward when I thought I was trapped.
I actually kept a notebook of quotes that I liked—and questions that I asked myself—as I went on this journey. (I also kept a journal.) And I can’t stress enough that it is really important to take an honest look at yourself before making a big change. And, from my experience, reaching out for help was a game-changer. I don’t think I would have been able to alter my lifestyle so dramatically if it hadn’t been for the helpful guidance I got from counselors and friends.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Well, I don’t know how many women are wanting to become farmers in mid-life (!), but, if so, the basic advice is to start very small, not get into debt, consider a partnership, and, like all small businesses, know your market very well. (I wrote about this in a bit more detail on the Huffington Post).
I found two excellent books focused entirely on small farm businesses (Starting and Running Your Own Small Farm Business by Sarah Beth Aubrey and Making Your Small Farm Profitable by Ron Macher) and I signed up for Quick Books to learn how to keep our finances straight (still learning!).
Farming is physically difficult and the hours are very long, so if it is possible to intern or help out on a farm before you decide to pursue this as a business, it’s a smart idea.
I would also recommend finding part-time work that you enjoy and that can help you make ends meet while you are building a new small business like a farm. Leveraging a skill you’ve developed in your previous working life is your best bet: In my case, writing cookbooks was a logical step.
Unfortunately, although writing cookbooks sounds like a glamorous occupation, in reality it’s not very lucrative. But, combined with writing for magazines, it is able to form a base for my income. I also do some editorial consulting and teach occasional classes, and in the last two years we have begun to pay ourselves something from the farm. So I am patching my living together, though sometimes it is challenging.
What resources do you recommend?
There are a number of good farmer memoirs out there. I particularly enjoyed Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard; The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball, and The Seasons On Henry’s Farm by Terra Brockman. Also Growing a Farmer by Kurt Timmermeister and Farm City by Novella Carpenter. Storey Publishing has a number of great books about small farm subjects.
Check to see if you have an Edible magazine in your area. It’s a great resource for articles about local farming (and local food) and is a great way to get a sense of the range in types of farms and food businesses. You might even find some business owners in your area, whom you could contact directly. And, of course, you can read about what happens on one small farm on my website, www.sixburnersue.com!
I loved my life coach, Mary Hulbert. Her website is True Directions. I can laugh at myself now, but I read a lot of self-help books. The one that got me thinking the most was Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by James Hollis.
I am so grateful to be living in the present, enjoying what I’m doing, without having to always be looking for something else, something better, like I used to do.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another Next Act in your future?
For right now, I think growing the farm business is a 3-5 year focus that will take a lot of energy. Eventually, I would like to publish a memoir and possibly write other non-food related books or essay collections, so I think my next acts will be more like segues, rather than huge changes. I am so grateful to be living in the present, enjoying what I’m doing, without having to always be looking for something else, something better, like I used to do. So I would say, while I’m all for continual growth and unfettered creative pursuits, I am not looking to make any major changes again any time soon!
Contact Susie through her website: www.sixburnersue.com
Also check out Susie’s cookbooks:
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