Peter Dunning’s farm is a Vermont hill farm. It’s a hundred and thirty-six acres of forest and orchards and wet spots and steep, rocky pasture, picked over by farmers for hundreds of years. It’s the kind of place that does not lend itself to the industrial production of anything. Instead it lends itself to the production of…everything.
Peter has farmed here, mostly alone, for nearly forty years. Now he’s getting done. The animals are gone. The farm is growing up around him.
Here’s his story.
I learned of Peter Dunning from a documentary, Peter and the Farm. It’s stunning. Watch it if you can….
Music for this show by David Schulman and Quiet Life Motel
Thank you Geof Hewitt for your help with the poetry!
This show also features the last verse of a remarkable poem called Marshall Washer, by Vermont poet Hayden Carruth. Here’s the full text.
What a winning person who’s lived purposefully and happily. Great stories herein. I’lll take me the image of his chasing just born pigs while a sheep is giving birth just over the fence to triplets! Later on he added in the same evening he had a chimney fire. No wonder he drank……
What a remarkable life and story of a life. Thank you Peter and Erica. There is something of the very essence of Vermont in this program. Right down to granite.
Hill Farm reminded me of my mother’s family. Please forgive the digression. At the start of the 20th century my great-grandfather’s farm was celebrated locally. But after World War II my maternal grandparents lost the Cabot farm about the time I was born in 1952. My grandfather felt it was his fault and never recovered from the depression that followed. He worked at the Cabot creamery for several years until they moved south to become caretakers for an estate in northwestern Connecticut. My mother’s suicide in 1964 finished off my grandfather. My grandmother had been a farm wife at 15. She soldiered on for another 18 years trying to support me and my brother as best she could. There is a book in how poor people from the north country were treated by those who hired them for next to nothing and a room.
“I never was much of a cooperator.”
This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing Peter with us. I will be sure to watch the documentary.
Powerful stuff. I am afraid that he is correct that the days of subsistence farming and the ability of fiercely independent folks who wanted to live quietly but self reliantly on treasured farms are increasingly emperiled.
I got to Vermont in 1959 and as nearly as I could tell, nearly every town had several such farms. The saying that Vermont was the “Last Stronghold of the Yankees” seemed quite correct.
I was in health care and as I remember almost every week brought such people who came the the hospital for some long standing problem that finally got the best of them – for a while at least. I admitted such a patient who lived on a remote hill farm. He had lived in the barn with the animals since November and arrived for care in April or May. He was a bit of a mess on arrival and the ever loving nursing staff of the Mary Fletcher Hospital took him into the shower and cleaned him up – even putting some Evening in Paris in his hair, and sent him back to me a transformed character. He arrived to the hospital exactly at dinner time, and on telling him that I would be to see him after dinner, he said: “You don’t need to feed me because I haven’t done my chores yet”.
Mr Dunning is clearly more sophisticated than my patient but they are both cut out of the same indomitable, rough cloth. I guess it is inevitable that these characters are nearly gone for the reasons P. Dunning articulated, but Vermont seems a bit less authentic as they disappear.
What a touching bittersweet story , thanks for sharing it . It almost brought me to tears to see all the knowledge farmers trades people have and that we are not passing on to the next generation , I am from Honduras and this story just brought back my grandmother’s memories and all the herbal and sewing knowledge she had that I will never learned .
Thank you so much for showing us that even flawed humans as we are , we have something worth sharing and appreciating .
Powerful story about how hard it is to let go of the farm. The love and hate of it all. We hope that younger farmers who are now doing organic farming will maybe take these old geezers place. We hope. Great job Erica.
I remember as a young teenager working on the farm with Peter. Uncle Peter was tireless, so driven and even though in the beginning I hated it because I was used to hanging out with my friend, by day three I was hooked. I learned so much about life, hard work and it provided me with a work ethic that others can’t match except of course for Peter. Thank you Peter for the amazing life lessons, love you buddy!
Erica and Peter, thank you both. So reminiscent of the photographic work of John Miller and Richard Brown documenting hill farms and their residents. Will definitely try to watch the movie. High land prices in Vt. make it next to impossible to subsistence farm these days. It may still be possible in more remote, less expensive corners of the northern border region, but supporting communities and know-how are disappearing too.
I LOVED this episode and the movie even more so. The collision of beauty and heartbreak, we can all relate.
As a solo woman farmer, his video made me feel less crazy & weird, less dramatic and angry…. all while feeling even more reverence about the world. At 56 Im starting to consider how to extricate myself from this life now. Still not sure how to, but will some day. It really is a daily “collision of beauty and heartbreak”. I hope he has a restful life soon, he deserves it. He’s earned it.
Peter , I feel your pain, I am a fifth year old homosaipen, who doesn’t relish the fact of Gettn old , your story didn’t help , except to confirm my forth coming future. But I hope this finds you healthy @ happier . Kim -n-Carolina
The film “Peter and the Farm” is now available on Netflix Streaming.
Anybody know where the sheep went? I’ve been wanting to get a pair of Clun Forests………….
Such an impressive man. Been through so much yet never allowed himself to become a victim of his circumstances – he just keeps chipping away at keeping his farm going,no matter what. As someone else noted – a bitter-sweet documentary. May you find love, happiness and most of all, peace of mind.
How is Peter? He is unforgettable.
Springfield Reporter, The (VT) – Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Peter Dunning, a farmer, poet, and artist, has passed away at the age of 73 on Wednesday, July 4.
He was born August 8, 1944 in New York City and was five years old when his mother died. After spending several years in orphanages and foster homes, he was adopted by the Dunning family in 1952 and moved to their home in New Jersey, and later to a dairy farm in New Hampshire.
As a young man, he served in the Marine Corps for several years, based in Waikiki, Hawaii. He went on to attend the University of Connecticut, graduating with a degree in art. In 1978, he and his second wife, Joan Dunning, purchased Mile Hill Farm in Springfield, which he tended devotedly for the next 40 years. The purebred Guernsey cows he raised were the direct descendants of his father’s herd, at one time the largest in New Hampshire. His relationship with his land and animals was the subject of a documentary film, “Peter and the Farm,” in 2016.
He died naturally, peacefully, and surrounded by family at the farm. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the orchard that afternoon.
Springfield Reporter, The (VT) – Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Thank you for this update. I have been searching.