Millstone farmer uses modern tools to work with old-school care, compassion

Though her parents may have kept only a backyard garden, working the land is certainly in the blood of Millstone Farm’s newest farmer, Jaci Slattery.

“There are a lot of people who want to get into agriculture that didn’t grow up on a family farm,” she said in a recent interview. “My great-grandfather and grandfather farmed, so there has always been a history of farming in my family, but my parents weren’t farmers. We had a garden, and I always liked being outside, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into farming.”

Instead, she took what she called a “long” journey into the highly complex world of farming — a trip that included both traditional education and on-the-job training.

Ms. Slattery, who grew up on Cape Cod, has been working with Millstone Farm as a seasonal and part-time worker since September, and began a role as a full-time farmer on March 1.

She started her journey to Millstone, she said, around the age of 15, when she learned that the majority of meat raised in America was grown on “factory farms.”

“When I learned about factory farming it broke my heart because I really liked animals,” she said. “I had a really hard time coping with the fact that by eating meat I was eating an animal that had been tortured.”

After about four years of eating a vegan diet, she grew interested in farming and moved to California, where she was a farm hand at a large-scale organic vegetable farm. The animal husbandry practices of a ranch next door, she said, taught her that raising animals could be done with care and compassion.

It was around that time that Ms. Slattery felt she needed a better education in order to feel at home on a working farm. She found many farm owners lacked a formal education in the art and would often come to her with questions she could not yet answer.

“A lot of the farmers I worked for didn’t have traditional training and were struggling to find out what they should or should not be doing. I had some basic information, and a lot of times people were asking me questions I felt I was in no place to be answering. I wanted to learn more about basic farming,” she said.

So with real-world experience under her belt, she finished her associate’s degree in Massachusetts, and departed for the animal husbandry program at Sterling College in Vermont.

It was there, Ms. Slattery said, that she began to understand the vast range of modern farming.

“There is really a lot to farming. People seem to think it’s a simple act of ‘feed everyone, give them water and everything is perfect,’” she said. “It’s the same for vegetables, ‘seed them, put soil on them, water them, and everything grows.’”

While that may sometimes be the case, in those situations where something is not working properly, finding quick information is extremely important, she said. Having a baseline understanding of many aspects of farming greatly helps that process, too.

“When you don’t have the answer for something, you’re scrambling to call people and get some information. Farming is a never-ending process of learning,” she said.

Though she wouldn’t yet consider herself an “expert” on one specific area of farming, Ms. Slattery said, her most important attribute is her range of experience.

“One of the things that I would consider a bonus is that I’ve done a lot of different things on different farms, like intensive grazing, small-scale landing operations, and maple sugaring,” she said. “I’m not an expert on one thing, but I have experience in a number of things, which helps out because we do so many different things here.”

Modern tools, like online resources and social media systems, have greatly helped her, and the farming community as a whole.

“There are a lot more resources than there used to be,” she said. “Before, you called Joe down the street, but now with social networking I can take a picture of something and ask, OK farm community, am I doing this properly? It’s much easier to connect with people far away.”

Ms. Slattery, who lives in Redding, has had a great experience living in the Fairfield County area so far. With a statement that may surprise some here, she said she was excited to see surroundings towns with many different shops to visit, and things to do.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to tromp around, but I like the sense of community, and a lot of little shops that I’m not used to having.

“There is a lot more to do than on Cape Cod. There are all of these concerts, and workshops,” she said. “I’m honestly telling the truth. If you grew up on Cape Cod, there is nothing to do in the winter. Literally nothing to do. You can go to the movies, but you can only go to the movies so often.”

Of Millstone Farm, she says specifically the camaraderie and partnership between all of the farm hands has made her new job especially rewarding.

“It’s really nice because we all work together,” she said. “If I suggest something, the next thing I know I’m off and running at it. When I found out that we had bees, I said, ‘We should learn more about that.’ The next thing I know I’m taking a beekeeping course with the Connecticut Beekeepers Association [and the people at Millstone are saying], ‘it’s great you have an interest in that!’”