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Doyle’s bedtime book brings Vermont farming to life

MONKTON — Last Resort Farm’s Eugenie Doyle has been farming for over three decades and writing poems, essays and stories for almost as many years. Her latest work, the award-winning picture book “Sleep Tight Farm,” celebrates the farming life.
Best read, as the Monkton resident suggests, snuggled up with a little kid as a bedtime book, “Sleep Tight Farm” is a paean to the enduring rhythms of work and season that keep people rooted in the Green Mountain State.
“Sleep Tight Farm” was just named the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture’s Book of the Year, an award given to books that engage young readers while also portraying present-day farming accurately and in a positive light. The foundation is the wing of the national Farm Bureau that promotes ag literacy.
“With most families now three or four generations removed from the farm it is more important than ever to promote accurate books about agriculture that they can read together,” said AFBFA Outreach Director Julia Recko. “‘Sleep Tight Farm’ was an excellent choice by our judges as it shows how a farm family works together to care for their land and animals.”
The book was also chosen to be a Junior Library Guild selection and was named the Virginia Farm Bureau’s Agriculture in the Classroom Book of the Year.
Over its 32 pages, the book follows a family at a farm not unlike the 280-acre Last Resort as it puts the farm to rest for the winter. The farm’s strawberries, raspberries, vegetables, honey and hay are now in. And over the book’s 32 gorgeously illustrated pages (rendered in gouache by illustrator Becca Stadtlander), the family covers strawberry plants with hay, harvests fall crops like kale and Brussels sprouts, plants cover crops, prunes raspberry canes, chops wood, secures the hoop house and tightens up the chicken coop. Farm equipment — planter, cultivator, tiller, baler, tractor — gets parked in the shed. Then the snow falls.
Doyle said the inspiration for “Sleep Tight Farm” came while out in the fields with farm hand Jane Larsen.
“We were spreading straw on the strawberry field in late November,” Doyle said. “And we were just sort of saying ‘Good night, strawberries,’ we were just kind of saying that. And at some point Jane said, ‘Oh, you should do a book like “Goodnight Moon” only for the farm.’ And that really was just the little nudge to get something put together about a timeframe on a farm that really hasn’t been covered much in kids books: winter. For a lot of nonfarmers, winter is a mystery, what happens on farms in the winter.”
Part of the inspiration for “Sleep Tight Farm” also came from Doyle’s exchanges with her pen pals at Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary School.
“In winter, part of what I do is tell kids about the farm,” said Doyle.
For a number of years, Doyle has partnered with Ruth Beecher’s grade 3/4 classroom at Robinson as part of the Farmer Correspondence Program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. The program pairs farmers with K-8 classrooms in their region. Farmers write to kids. Kids write back. And if you’re lucky enough to have Doyle as your pen-pal farmer, in the spring you get to visit the farm.
“They come and visit in May,” Doyle explained. “We have lunch. And they always know what they’re going to be looking for because we’ve been writing all winter. So they’ll ask, ‘Where’s Bella?’ because that’s our cat. And they all want to be in Silas’s group (he’s our son who farms with us and will be taking over our farm) because he’s young and handsome.
“So they eat and we talk about where their food in their lunches came from. And then we go on a scavenger hunt.”
Last year, while the book was in development at San Francisco’s Chronicle Books, Beecher’s class got to be part of that process, looking over the manuscript and commenting on the artist’s sketches as they developed.
“They were like, ‘Oh, I like your story’ — they’re always incredibly positive,” Doyle said. “They saw the first pictures; they were just sketches though, so I got some comments like ‘I think it should be in color.’ Or they would say, ‘Do you like it?’ They are just adorable.
Doyle calls the author’s noteabout her exchanges with Beecher’s class, “One of my favorite parts of the book.”
Direct from this year’s 3/4 classroom, Beecher reported: “When I showed the new book to the class, I heard gasps of excitement. ‘We read that last year before it was a book! I remember thaaaat!’ They LOVED seeing her letters come to life.”
In working with her adult collaborators, editor Melissa Manlove and illustrator Becca Stadtlander, Doyle said it was important to her that the book capture the farm accurately.
“We were talking about ‘What does a baler look like, or a seeder?’ I did send lots of pictures,” said Doyle.
Doyle also asked that the whole family be shown working together, with mom as likely as dad to have a hammer in her hand and the kids puling their weight right alongside.
“Some of the reviews were like ‘Wow. People, including the children, work really hard,’” Doyle said. “People are much more used to that around here because you don’t have to live on a farm to know that you have to carry the wood in, work in the garden or take care of your pets. People just tend to do more chores in a rural area. But I wanted to make a showcase for that where ‘Yeah. These kids are doing that.’”
BACKSTORY
Doyle herself is not from around here. She grew up in New York City but fell in love with Vermont after a summer working at the state hospital during college.
“It just seemed like Vermont was somewhere where whatever I did would have more possibility of an impact,” she said.
So Doyle got a job teaching environmental education in Montpelier.
“And then I fell in love with a farmer.”
Doyle and husband, Sam Burr, started farming in Brookfield and moved to Monkton in 1986, where they raised their three children. For a number of years the Doyle-Burrs operated a dairy, but they sold their cows in 1994 to focus on row crops.
Said Doyle, “Somebody once said to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with farming that a good price for milk wouldn’t fix.’”
Though low milk prices drove Doyle and Burr out of dairying, she remains optimistic about the future of small farms in Vermont:
“I think a lot is being done and will continue to be done. I’m actually very hopeful.”
Doyle cited the work of the Vermont Land Trust in preserving farmland by buying development rights from farmers. She also cited the shift in the market toward organic produce and value-added products, which she felt had benefited farms greatly. And she cited the greater availability of technical assistance and farmer-to-farmer mentoring, partnered with the enthusiasm of a new generation of young farmers.
Doyle said she sees young people returning to Vermont or staying in Vermont to farm. And in the same way that her generation was inspired by writers like farmer/essayist Wendell Berry, today’s generation is being inspired by writers like Michael Pollan.
Of course, Doyle then observed, “You start farming; you don’t have much time for reading.”
Aside from her continued round of daily farm chores, Doyle said next up will be another picture book and a new novel, written for adults, to be set in New York City.
Find out more online at lastresortfarm.com.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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