Five years ago, Maria Cross began an apprenticeship at a community farm in New Hampshire. With seven years experience as a research analyst and teacher under her belt, she was starting over in her career—but for the first time with the firm conviction that she was doing what she was supposed to be doing. Today, Maria is the assistant farm manager at Gibbet Hill Farm, a small farm in Groton, Massachusetts that grows produce for the Webber Restaurant group. I spoke with her about the feminine virtues of farming, pressing “reset” on a career, and diving into something completely different.
Tell us about the farm
Gibbet Hill Farm is located in Groton, Massachusetts and is associated with the Webber Restaurant Group and most intimately with Gibbet Hill Grill, which is a restaurant on the farm site. We grow for the chefs there. During the height of production, we’re their primary source; so tapping into the whole farm to table movement. It’s a small piece of land that we’re trying to transition over into a minimal till system, which converts the farm to a human scale and takes the tractor out of the equation. This allows us to maximize the health of the soil and makes it possible for us to provide a wide variety of vegetables for the chefs.
What’s your role on the farm?
I’m the assistant farm manager. I work with the farm manager in essentially every area of the farm from crop planting to pest prevention to irrigation systems to managing the small crew. One part of the job that I really like is serving as the liaison to the chefs, meeting with them throughout the year to coordinate, to make sure the production of the farm is syncing with the execution in the kitchen.
It’s a give and take relationship. I tell them what we have, see if that’s a quantity that they can absorb in a way that is beneficial to their patrons. They come back to us with particular requests: different varieties, different quantities. I like the connection to the culinary because you see an artistry applied to your product that is extremely rewarding, when a chef takes hold of what you produce and makes something even more glorious out of it.
A decade ago you were teaching middle school. What lead you to that?
Right after college I worked for a company as a research analyst. After a year, I decided I wanted to get back into an academic setting but wasn’t drawn to grad school. So that turned me in the direction of teaching. I like kids, and I used to tutor during the summers in college. So it seemed like a nice way of getting back into a more academic sphere while drawing on some of my natural interests.
I started teaching at a little school in New Hampshire. But after three years there, I didn’t feel like it was particularly fulfilling. I thought that maybe I was just at the wrong school. So I started teaching at an all-girls school in Virginia to see if that would make me feel like I had found my calling. But I still wasn’t experiencing that. I liked elements of teaching, but they were all kind of tangential to my actual occupation. I liked my coworkers and the kids, but I wasn’t actually excited about instilling knowledge.
How did you figure out that teaching was not your vocation?
At that time I was going through a big transition because I was discerning religious life. And that was what actually finally forced the transition from teaching. I would probably still be teaching now if I hadn’t discerned.
When I was teaching, I thought: “This is the career that I’m in, so this is where I have to stay.” I wasn’t liking it, but I thought that maybe people just don’t really like their jobs. I remember talking to someone who asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “I just don’t want to work.” When people told me they loved their work, I had this cynical view that they were lying—at least lying to themselves. But I thought, “This is where my experience is, this is where I’m marketable, so I need to continue teaching.”
It wasn’t until I had a complete break from the professional world, when I went into the discernment period with a community of Benedictine nuns that I was able to break the chain of thought that I had to stay in that career. I came out of the discernment realizing I wasn’t supposed to be a religious but also realizing that I had kind of a reset button.
It was like my method of fixing every issue with my computer: what’s wrong with it? I don’t know, but if I turn it off and turn it back on hopefully things will fix. That’s kind of what happened with my professional career. It was turned off for a year and a half. When it was turned back on, I realized I just needed to take a deep breath, sit back, and decide what I am interested in, what I find joy in, and how I can transmit that joy to other people.
And I realized that I just love feeding people. That realization briefly led me into the culinary field but very quickly into farming. So the big break was honestly stepping back and realizing I don’t have to continue the trajectory I’ve been on, and I can honestly ask myself, “What do you like? What do you find joy in?” That’s what led me to farming.
Did you have any background in farming to give you an indication that you would like it?
I had always been drawn to the farming lifestyle because it was in my family history; my grandfather had been a dairy farmer in Wisconsin. Growing up we would go to the farm during the summer; I loved being there and loved the idea of living on a farm, but I never thought of it as a career. That was pretty much the only background that I had that would lead me to agriculture.
But I took an apprenticeship at a farm in New Hampshire to test this theory out. By the end of that season, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
How did it feel being the world’s oldest intern? Just kidding. But did you have any reservations about starting at entry level again? Or did the “reset” take care of all that?
The reset made it possible for me to do it, but it did not take away this feeling of, “You might be insane, Maria.” I showed up to this apprenticeship, and everyone was significantly younger than me. And the one guy who was older than me actually was insane. Everyone else was in their early twenties or just barely twenty. So I did have that concern.
But I remember the moment that I realized that this is what I wanted to do. We were in the field harvesting in the early morning. It had been a particularly hard week, and I was physically exhausted. But I realized as I was standing there that as uncomfortable as that situation was, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I couldn’t think of anything else I would rather be doing. That was a distinctly different experience than the discomfort I felt in teaching. When class wasn’t going well, I just wanted to run away. But in farming, even when it was bad, I thought, “This is still where I want to be.” That gave me a peace in my decision. Something about this work really resonates with who I am.
What was the step from intern to assistant farm manager?
The following season, friends of mine were starting a farm in northern New Hampshire. Their primary interest was in beef production, but they had extra property that they said I could use for a small vegetable production. It was a unique situation because it’s hard for young (well, not young, inexperienced) farmers to come by land. I worked with them for a year and learned a lot.
But realizing that our two interests were not totally in sync, I started reaching out to other farmers in the area. I did feel pretty desperate at that point, to be honest. But I started sending out emails to farmers in my area and asking to meet.
I found Gibbet Hill Farm and thought it was an interesting model because of its association with the restaurant. I contacted the manager, and it just so happened that they needed to fill the assistant farm manager position although they hadn’t advertised for it yet. We met, and it turned out we were both interested in the minimal till method. I think our common interest in that method compensated for my relative lack of experience.
How did your friends and family react to your career switch?
My family has always been very supportive of what I’m doing. I did get some feedback from close friends who thought I shouldn’t pursue this. But the objection was never: “This doesn’t seem like this is a good place for you to be; you don’t seem to be enjoying this.” It was always, “You shouldn’t do this because it might not work.” So, my take away was, if it did work then I would have this happiness of feeling like I belonged in the work that I’m doing. So I thought, “Why not just assume that it’s going to work rather than staying in a career that is going to put me into a state of apathy?”
What would be the next step you hope for in a farming career?
I want to be working on my own soil. Farming is pretty intimate; there’s something almost maternal about it. You start feeling extremely attached to dirt, your dirt, in a way that is difficult to explain. In a way getting to know your land is like getting to know a person. Because you start noticing quirks about it in the way it will produce for you, the way it responds to rain and weather. It requires attentiveness and time. I want to put that attentiveness into my own property. That’s going to be a hard step to take, but that’s the goal.
Would you recommend your career to other women? And what sort of interests or passions might lead a woman to this career?
I would recommend farming to most people. If they are happy in their career, have a home garden; if they live in a city, grow herbs in a window box. We humans love to create. It gives us a sense of place in creation, and I think peace and purpose is impossible without a sense of place in creation.
The virtues that lead to and are developed in farming are notably feminine (which is actually a reason more men should farm—it would help them understand women better). Perhaps not an exhaustive list, but some of the key virtues that farming requires and inculcates are patience, attentiveness, a desire to build conditions that promote life, and delighting in feeding people. The last is not one that we think of so much as a virtue but historically, hospitality has been considered a serious virtue to develop.
Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses: short quotes that remind us that the world needs more of who we are. Do you have a mantra or quote that keeps you going?
I do. It’s actually a prayer to Saint Joseph (the patron saint of workers in the Catholic Church) for success in work. I say it all the time when I am farming, and it is awesome. It begins, “Glorious St. Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my many sins; to work with thankfulness and joy, considering it an honor to employ and develop, by means of labor, the gifts received from God.”