The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 7, 2004


It's all in a mother's day

A true farmer's wife is Tamma Duffy of Great Brook Farm. (Photo by Midge Eliasssen)

As you wade through the greeting card images of motherhood that appear in a deluge around this time every year, take a moment to imagine what the life of a Carlisle mother might have been like 100 years ago. This was primarily an agrarian town at the start of the twentieth century, and a typical day for a farm wife probably included milking cows, feeding pigs, supervising farmhands, caring for sick animals, and much more, along with tending to children and keeping up with housework.

Next, take a moment to consider the details that typify the life of a Carlisle mother circa 2004. She too is likely to have a house to maintain and children to tend to, along with a career to pursue, long-distance family ties to maintain, and the never-ending modern-day suburban task of driving kids to activities.

Now add the two job lists, the one from 1904 and the one from 2004, together. And there you have it: a day in the life of Tamma Duffy, proprietor of Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle. Along with her husband Mark, Tamma oversees one of Carlisle's last existing commercial farms. As such, she is an anachronism, a true farmwife, with all of the duties and responsibilities that go with maintaining a full-time dairy operation. She is also a member of the twenty-first century, and her children need to be driven to hockey practice just like everyone else, which explains why she doesn't get to bed until well after midnight many days.

Raising a family

"Raising a family in this environment is very challenging," she says of life at Great Brook Farm State Park. "Just when you think you have your day planned, it takes a total reversal. My workload just keeps getting more intense. Each of the kids — Marlow, 17; Christopher, 13; and Blake, 10 — has school, homework, extracurricular activities, sports, friends and chores around the house. Meanwhile, my husband and I do the farmwork and oversee our staff together." She ticks off the tasks that make up a normal day for herself, Mark and their staff. "We maintain and repair our equipment. We feed our animals — not just the cows but also ducks, goats, rabbits, chickens, pigs, sheep and bees. The cows get milked twice a day. Deliveries come and go. I submit orders, return telephone calls, do bookkeeping. And then there's the laundry — a ton of it! Our days are very long."

More than running a dairy farm

It's time for Tamma to tend the calves at Great Brook Farm. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

Along with running the dairy operation as an interpretive farm — meaning that as they work, the public is invited to look over their shoulders and learn about the industry — the Duffys run the park's ice cream stand, sell compost and loam, grow corn for feed, and harvest the nearby Cranberry Bog. In past years, they have also sold sweet corn and created a corn maze, but for cost-saving reasons, those two enterprises are on hold right now.

Tamma and Mark moved to Carlisle from New Hampshire seventeen years ago, responding to an ad in a farmers' trade publication. Although many people picture farming as a family business that one generation passes down to the next, Mark Duffy actually learned it like any other modern-day vocation: first at school and then on the job, as an apprentice. While earning a degree in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota, he met Tamma, who was studying court stenography at another Minneapolis college. During a trip east to visit relatives of Mark's, the couple decided to move to New England.

Mark found work on a dairy farm in Milford, New Hampshire, and together the couple decided that that was the branch of agriculture they wished to pursue. Tamma laughs at the irony of her childhood: though she comes from Minnesota, known for its cattle farms, and in fact lived near the second-largest stockyard in the world, she was raised as a city girl. "I grew up in a blue-collar section of St. Paul and rode city buses to parochial school! I still have friends who can't believe I live on a farm now." Nonetheless, looking back, Tamma thinks she was fated to end up in a rural setting. "I always enjoyed animals and gardening, even though I didn't have much of a chance to work the land while I was growing up."

Like all mothers of small children, Tamma learned early on to multitask; it's just that her tasks were a little different from the norm. "I was milking right up to a few days before I delivered my first child," she recalls. "When Marlow was a baby, I spent a lot of time carrying her in a backpack while I got my farmwork done. I remember when she was about two, Mark plowed the cornfields with Marlow in her carseat strapped into the tractor. People who saw that couldn't believe we did it, but she was just as safe as in a car!"

Children help out on the farm

Tamma says that helping out on the farm is just one of the many things that her three children are expected to do. "They have such rigorous school requirements and extracurricular schedules. Marlow helps with the ice cream stand and with cranberry harvesting. Chris, who is thirteen, is an equipment guy. Let's just say I don't think he'll have any trouble getting his driver's license. He can already drive a bulldozer, a wheel loader, and a dump truck, although of course we don't actually let him do that." (A certain tone in her voice suggests that this last point may be more of a legal disclaimer than a reflection of the truth.) "Blake's niche is helping out with the smaller animals."

Even with a staff of about five farmhands, and another twelve people working at the ice cream stand, Tamma concedes that family life is often inextricable from the duties of maintaining the farm. "When you live where you work, it's a round-the-clock situation. We're in a business where we welcome people to our home: to pick up compost, to see the cows, to buy ice cream."

The simple rituals that many families take for granted are much more complicated for the Duffys. "I can't tell you how many times over the years we've gotten all dressed up for a special occasion and then discovered that the cows need to be moved," Tamma laughs. "I really believe they have ESP. They know when they're not supposed to act up, and that's exactly when they do!" Mark's mother lives on Cape Cod, and the family tries to have normal holiday celebrations with her and other relatives, but as Tamma says, "Our animals and the farm always come first, so getting away takes a lot of planning. If we make it to family gatherings at all, we always arrive late and leave early. One year on Thanksgiving, we found out as soon as we arrived on the Cape that there was a huge problem with flooding at the Cranberry Bog. Mark had to turn around and come right back to Carlisle. Even a once-a-year event like Thanksgiving can't be counted on to work out! That's farming."

Family vacations are another challenge, in part because vacation season often coincides with the farm's busiest times. "For many years, we never took vacations. We just couldn't," Tamma says. "But when you have children, you eventually realize it's a necessity to go away once in a while. My husband is part of several trade organizations, and he attends an annual meeting every July, held in various parts of the country. After we had established some farm help and a solid routine, the kids and I started going along. Over the past few years, we've visited Colorado, Tennessee, and Florida. This year the conference is in Boston, and the kids were disappointed to hear that we wouldn't be flying anywhere, but I told them there's a lot to see and do in Boston that we've never done! And since it's business travel, we'll still get to stay in a hotel."

Both of the Duffy boys are hockey players, and Tamma devotes a lot of time to their practices and games. "I often have to drop what I'm doing to take them to hockey, but I've learned in the past five years to make the best use of that time. I can sit in my car during their practices and fill out orders or do bookkeeping." Although not a player herself, daughter Marlow is the manager for the CCHS varsity hockey team and is an accomplished rider who leases a horse. She is also heavily committed to her volunteer work at Lovelane, a stable that specializes in therapeutic riding for the disabled.

Great Brook Farm

Great Brook Farm State Park is owned by the state; the Duffys own the business but lease the land on which they live and farm. The past year has seen major changes at Great Brook, and for Tamma, decisions imposed by the state have caused her enormous frustration. In addition to the sheer drop-off in business that she attributes to people's dismay over the new parking fee, the state has not yet provided an interpreter for this season; nor has adequate staffing been provided to maintain the new rest rooms. Adding to her mental stress is the misperception of many former visitors to the park, particularly those from out of town, that the decision to charge for parking was made by the Duffys.

Still, Tamma tries to avoid dwelling on her current agitation with bureaucracy. "For seventeen years, we've had a good marriage with the state. We are hoping to meet soon with the new parks commissioner to present our case, and we hope to achieve a favorable resolution. But if people here in Carlisle are concerned about the situation, and value the park's presence in the community, they should contact their legislative representatives to support us."

For a variety of reasons, Tamma says, this is not an easy time to be in the dairy business, and the fact that milk prices are dramatically rising nationwide does not necessarily result in more profits at the ice cream counter. The price that we receive for milk is determined nationally and does not normally reflect the cost of inputs needed to produce milk." Tamma states, "it is a very complex pricing structure. We are just recovering from 2 1/2 years of the lowest milk prices in 25 years. What the consumer pays in the grocery store is often not reflected in what we get paid as farmers. Mark is quite active in the dairy industry and has served on many different boards, always trying to get what is rightfully due to dairy farmers. Yes, the price of milk and cream is going up, but don't assume that we farmers are going to see a net gain."

She is determined to work out the current bureaucratic "potholes" and get the business back on track. "I've put blood, sweat, tears and everything else into this place. I don't want to see it end now." Tamma says that she sees a direct parallel between being a good farmer and a good mother. "Mothers learn never to give up," she says. "You just do a lot of juggling and make things work. You have to be good at prioritizing. Every day, you choose the five most important things to get done and let the rest slide 'til tomorrow." Words for a mother to live by.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito