Farmer Amy Richardson decided to join Instagram almost exactly five years ago after she participated in the first Cabot Farmer Gratitude Tour on which she represented Richardson Family Farm, a century-old diversified dairy, maple and split rail fencing operation in Hartland, Vermont. “I was inspired by others during that weekend,” she recalled recently. “I remember clearly feeling like I could try to be a voice for our farm on behalf of our co-op, to show what real life here looked like.”
Little did Amy know at the time that not only would she succeed on that front— organically building a social media following of more than 13,000—but that she would also slowly develop personal connections to farmers thousands of miles away. This collegial network was strengthened through sharing more than photos of long-lashed Jersey calves and breathtaking New England foliage. As time passed, she found herself both soliciting and receiving advice and support from fellow farmers. “I built this farm-centric network of people I could learn from and felt connected to,” she explained, “even though we’d never actually met.”
The experience inspired Amy to do something that went far beyond her original expectations. Despite the strong ties developed, she said, “The piece that was missing was the real-life parts of friendship: taking a walk together, having coffee, going to visit their farm. Those are things that really matter to me.” She started mapping out where her Instagram friends were located in relation to each other.
After much planning and some crowdsourced fundraising, Amy took a trip this fall to visit more than half a dozen farmer friends clustered in northern England, across Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire. There was a bonus to going to that area, she admitted: it was close enough that she could visit the hometown of beloved veterinarian and writer, James ‘Alf’ Wight, whose pen name was James Herriot. “I have a longtime devotion to All Creatures Great and Small,” Amy said.
Almost every farmer friend she approached about visiting responded positively. Amy was clear that it would be a working holiday for her, that she wanted to do what she could to help and didn’t expect the farmers to entertain her. She had also carefully said that she was happy to stay at a local bed and breakfast or Airbnb, but every farm family offered her a room in their homes. “It blew me away how welcoming everyone was,” she said.
It is impossible for Amy to really distill down what she gleaned from the 18-day trip, but she shared a few key things. She was struck by the depth and commitment of the agricultural community and the rich agricultural history in the region. “Some of the buildings on the farms went back to the 1300s and 1400s,” she said.
The devotion of the farmers she visited, Amy said, made her reflect on her own motivation to build a life farming. “They were all so humble, hardworking and down-to-earth,” she said. “It made me realize again the critical need for, and value of, being a farmer.”
Most of the farms Amy visited were not exclusively dairy but diversified like the Richardsons’ own operation in Vermont. They ranged from mixed beef and sheep farms to a relatively large dairy farm milking a couple hundred Jerseys. She was also invited to speak to a group of local dairy farmers, who were particularly interested to hear about maple sugaring since it does not exist there. The British farmers are dealing with similar industry trends like agricultural consolidation and competition for land if they do not have access to existing family farming land.
Now returned to Vermont, Amy continues to savor memories of the warm welcome she received, the extra kindnesses and many home-cooked meals her hosts shared generously with her. Nothing fancy, she said, but tasty, unfussy food like eggs, beans and fried tomatoes for breakfast; Yorkshire puddings with gravy; meat pies with mushy peas; and sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
And then there was the unending river of tea. The cups of coffee Amy is accustomed to sharing with American friends, turned out, unsurprisingly, to be cups of tea. Wherever she was, Amy said, after helping with the potato harvest or feeding calves, “The first thing you do when you come inside is have a brew.” She’s brought that tradition home with a newly purchased electric teapot, which will forever remind her of sitting around the kitchen tables of northern England with friends.
Amy Richardson would like to thank all the farmers who hosted her so generously:
Emma and Matt Lee, Brownbarn Farm, Bolton, Lancashire
James, Michele, Henry and Kathleen Robinson, Strickley Farm, Kendal, Cumbria
Maria Benjamin and John Atkinson, and their nephew Nathan Atkinson, Nibthwaite Grange Farm, Ulverston, Cumbria
Lorraine Hodgson, Arklid Farm, Ulverston, Cumbria
Iain Muirhead and Melinda Garton, Whashton Springs B&B and Farm, Richmond, North Yorkshire
Whitby Dairy Discussion Group, Whitby, North Yorkshire
John, Lezah and Glennis Dunwell, Low Farm, Fylingthorpe, North Yorkshire
John and Sue Dickinson, Tom Dickinson (and Richard Saxby, Herdsman) Manor Farm/Thurlstone Jerseys, Doncaster, South Yorkshire