Story by Maggie Cassidy. Video shot and edited by Maggie Cassidy.
Vershire — Spread out across a hayfield at Broad Acres Farm late Tuesday afternoon, dozens of farmers in teams of five, give or take, waited for the countdown over a megaphone — three, two, one, go! — before frantically installing sections of single-strand fence in square areas marked by small orange flags.
While the 31st Summer Olympics were ongoing in Rio de Janeiro (population 6.32 million), the second annual Farmer Olympics, put on by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, were just getting started in Vershire (population 679).
And right out of the gate, some teams were having a harder time than others.
“We do not have cows!” cried out a farmer from Springtail Farm, in Washington, Vt., as that crew struggled with the lines.
“We’re a seed farm!” hollered another teammate.
Nearby, Suzanne Long, of South Royalton’s Luna Bleu Farm, shouted something that fell between encouragement and a taunt.
“C’mon, you vegetable farmers, c’mon!” she called out to the Springtail crew, as she and her teammates raced around their plot. “You need to get some cows on your land!”
Later, after a total of six events, including manure-shoveling, hay-rolling and running with seed trays, Long said she was having a blast with the Lunatics, the team name for Luna Bleu’s squad, a mix of old-timers and youngsters. The farm also fielded a second team, the Luna Bleu Crew Two, which she called the “prime of their life” team.
“We’ve been training for years and years,” Long said, “but we didn’t know what we were training for.”
That seemed to be the case for most of the 60-some-odd farmers from a dozen farms who were “competing” — most using the term loosely, focusing less on outmatching other farmers and more on having a good time after a long day of work, mostly on Upper Valley farms with a few from farther north.
“We’re interested in anything fun that we can get into,” said Sami Hontas, who showed up with the Cut-Offs, a team from Fairlee’s Root 5 Farm dressed in cut-off shorts.
Their strategy, joked teammate Sam Kirschbaum, was “just, like, ultimate velocity.”
“We’re gonna go out there 110 percent,” he said.
While the games were focused on fun, that wasn’t to say that the challenges were easy, or that teams weren’t working hard. A timed math event called upon farmers to remember how many square feet are in an acre and use that in a complicated calculation. The hay-roll had multiple teams pushing 700-pound plastic-wrapped round bales on a course that took them down a slight hill and then back up the slope. Earlier, farmers booked it up and down a steeper hill carrying large buckets of manure they had shoveled — a farmer’s version of a relay race.
The Northeast Organic Farming Association, a nonprofit association of organic commercial producers, homesteaders and gardeners, pitches the Farmer Olympics as a chance to “unwind, celebrate the season, and kick back before that heavy fall workload begins,” according to its website.
Indeed, board member Mimi Arnstein promised farmers at the outset, when the Farmer Olympics torch was paraded around, that the challenges would “make you laugh so hard that you are going to pee in your pants.”
In an interview, Arnstein said the Farmer Olympics were born out of an informal competition she hosted on her former farm in central Vermont about five years ago. She said turning everyday farming chores into a competition was a “very logical” progression as a way to have some fun.
“When you work on a small farm it is obviously incredibly difficult and even amongst the crew … oftentimes we are in a sense competing with one another — who can run seeds the fastest, who can hoe corn the fastest, who can transplant the most efficiently … and in addition, as the farmer you are unfortunately always needing to push your crew to work fast,” she said.
She suggested the idea to NOFA in part because farming is often a “very isolating profession because you’re always on the farm,” and she saw it as a way to bring separate crews together to socialize and laugh.
Including supporters, spectators and folks manning a barbecue, farmer Niko Horster — who runs Shire Beef at Broad Acres; Liana Horster, his wife, is farm manager at the nearby Mountain School — said more than 100 people had turned out. Niko Horster said Shire Beef had a great time at last year’s inaugural event at Maple Wind Farm’s fields in Bolton, Vt.
“We said this is so much fun, we’re going to host it,” he said.
What makes the Farmer Olympics a great event, he said, is the “energy that farmers have, especially in a playful way.”
“Farmers are a really fun group of people to hang out with,” he said. He called farm crew the most fun job in the world, largely because of farmers’ banter and jokes.
The wit harvest was abundant on Tuesday, as teams like Pasture Aggressive, from East Thetford’s Cedar Circle Farm, squared off against cross-town rival the Deadbeets, of Crossroads Farm. Battle cries included “veggie power!” and “soil the competition!” while some farmers lobbied for a 10-foot handicap for bovine-free farms during the hay bale toss. Nobody was accused of doping, but at least a few beers were consumed during the competition.
Staving off competition from several other Upper Valley teams, including a Strafford Organic Creamery squad and a mixed team of Vershirites, the gold medal went to a second Cedar Circle crew. The Soil’d teammates said they were shocked to find themselves in first at the end of the athletic events, which preceded the barbecue.
“I don’t think any of us knew how well we were doing,” said crew member Matt Darcy.
And did the Farmer Olympics reflect real life on the farm? “As far as the activities, no, but the spirit,” he laughed, nodding his head yes.
While the Summer Olympics come around only every four years, NOFA hopes to keep the Farmer Olympics going as an annual event, Arnstein said. She said the organization hasn’t yet picked a location for the 2017 games, but they will likely be held in southern Vermont to try to get farmers from that part of the state involved.
Like many people, Long, of Luna Bleu, said her team participated this year after hearing about it after-the-fact or too late to register last year. They had little idea of what to expect before things started, but have definite plans to compete next year after having so much fun.
Plus, Long said, after all these years of training, they have finally figured out how to compete.
“When it comes to strategies,” she said, “we always came up with great strategies after.”