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CHAPTER 1 ain Your Starting Place n the fall of 2008, my wife, Cecilia, and T moved into the back half of a ramshackle farmhouse perched right where the road switched from paved to dirt after curving around two large barns {in varying states of repair and a number of smaller outbuildings. The house was blue-gray, with white trim and stone porches. The views from our apartment were sweeping, looking up at a meadow studded bya pair of dying apple trees. We had been living and working on a small vegetable farm five minutes down the road in the same rural Massachusetts town, but had made a decision to have kids hand in hand with a decision to stop farming—and to move out of the 8 x 16 foot (2.5 x 5 m) tiny house ‘we'd built and had been living in for eight months. We wanted, to take the advice of one farmer my wife knew up in Maine, where she had farmed for years, to try as hard as we could not to farm. Ifwe couldn't not farm, then we would farm, ‘Our new home was serappy and worn at the heels, but we loved it, Our landlord was happy to let us paint the rooms any colors we ‘wanted, and over the next seven years we took over much of the main- tenance and repair of the building, cleaning the chimmeys, patching the slate roof, fixing broken windows, mucking out and insulating the basement, dealing with plumbing leaks, and all the usual tasks associ ated with homeownership that renters normally miss out on. It would prove to be an invaluable learning experience. 9 Carving Out a Living on the Land Our landlord was Al Pieropan, who with his wife, Mimi, bought the farmhouse and 25 acres in 1953, and in the ensuing fifty-five years built ‘two more houses on the property: another rental and the house they lived in, Al also planted 10 ofthe acres to Christmas trees over the course of twenty years, using seedlings yanked one gunnysack at a time from the roadside during his daily commute as a high school shop teacher. We kmew about Al because he had come to the local farmers market several times over the previous couple of years, talking up the farmers to sev if any of them wanted to cut balsam brush from his tyees to wholesale to wreathmakers. The Christmas tree groves were starting to get away from him, producing more greens than he could harvest himself, and as a consequence the paths were closing in and the Christmas trees were growing too tall. In another few years, much of the grove would be too big to sel. None of the farmers Al talked to wanted to cut greens, and neither did we. But we moved into the farmhouse in 2008 right as the recession hit, and jobs were scarce. I found work that first winter in a shop build- ing and repairing wood and canvas canoes, and the next summer as a ZApline tour guide, while Cecilia worked as a cashier atthe local co-op. ‘We were young and poor and had a baby. Unlike so many of our peers, sho were following a career from city to city, we had chosen to live in this rural town that we loved and to scrabble together a living any way we could, We also deliberately chose to have kids while we were young, before we figured things out financially, both because we wanted to be young parents since we had met early in life and had that opportunity, ‘and also to line up the busy infant and toddler years with the beginnings of our careers rather than trying to shochorn them into the middle. By the second summer, we decided that I would work with Al in the trees and see if it was something I might like doing, I worked for 87 an hour, and quickly learned that it was sweaty, exhausting, and uncomfortable, Al pruned his trees with a pole pruner, holding the tool in one hand and pulling the cord that moved the blade with the other. Because the trees were so tall, we usually held the handle as close to its ‘end as possible, with its butt braced against our forearms and the entire thing lifted over our heads in order to reach the highest tree tops. This took tremendous arm, shoulder, and pectoral strength, and at first T could only manage it for a few minutes ata time. After several years, T 10 Your Starting Place “The dogs playing in the snow by our side porch, Al rented the house as two units, each with an upstsie and downstairs. Our half was the portion to the Ieft, which faced up the meadow and across the driveway to the barn, built up the required muscles to the point where I didn't much notice it, but I was reminded how hard it was when both my brother, who is extremely fit, and my sisterin-law, a world-class Ultimate Frisbee player, each took a turn helping prune trees and lasted only 2 half hour. The Basics ‘That frst fall [helped Al cut greens, haul trees out to staging piles, and load them onto his track for delivery. Growing Christmas trees, it turns ‘out, is not complicated on its face. Al conveyed the basic information u