For this couple, farming is a lifetime affair

Lyme — For Suzanne and Stan Sankow, running their nearly 200-acre farm well into their retirement years provides a quality of life hard to find anywhere else.

Both 81, they say that living on Beaver Brook Farm over the last 50 years has been a privilege they’ve been granted in a life that’s also brought several hardships. Since losing their entire retirement savings in an investment gone wrong more than two decades ago, the couple has continued to make ends meet by running the farm.

But for both, who are emotionally attached to the farm — in part because it's been in their family for more than 100 years and in part because they simply love the work — keeping the farm going now, even at their age, doesn’t feel like labor but more like freedom.

“It’s good, but it’s also still a struggle. We still go through a lot,” Suzanne said. "We’re keeping the farm because we love it. This is where we want to be. This doesn’t feel like sacrifice because we love doing the work, and we want to keep doing it.”

Since moving to the farm together in the early 1970s — they've been married 50 years as of Dec. 19 — Suzanne has been responsible for overseeing most of the responsibilities involving animals, while Stan ran a handful of his own businesses.

For Stan, whose grandfather Buzzell bought the land in 1917 for about $3,000, the farm is his home and part of his soul. For Suzanne, the farm is not only home, it's the place she’s been able to fully pursue her passions for sheep farming and cheese making.

“I can remember delivering my first lamb out there,” Suzanne said. “This is just something I love. The sheep were always easy for me to hold, but the cows were always intimidating to me.”

Raising sheep on the farm since the 1980s, when Stan gave her the first as a gift, Suzanne has become a master at caring for her flock. She can point out treatments a sheep might need based on the most minuscule of signs. For example, she said she can stand at her farmhouse window and watch sheep roaming in the pasture and know, based on the way one may be limping, what it needs. Or, if a sheep is twisting its head in a certain direction, she’ll know instantly it needs a shot of Vitamin B.

With about 250 sheep roaming the farm now, Suzanne still cares for them from birth to death with the help of a few farmhands. Such work entails keeping the sheep fed, and moving the flock between the fields and barn morning and night. And as the sheep give birth in the winter months, Suzanne also still helps with lambing and bottle feeding.

As the sheep are raised for their meat, milk and wool, Suzanne and farmhands harvest and use the milk to make several varieties of cheese. The 200-plus sheep also are sheared every fall — an undertaking in and of itself — yielding more than 1,000 pounds of wool, which the couple then uses to knit sweaters and socks that the Sankows sell online, through farmers markets and at their onsite shop.

The Sankows, with the help of their farmhands, additionally oversee 10 cows, from which they collect milk to make abbey, feta and ricotta cheeses, among other varieties, and even gelato. They also have hundreds of ducks and chickens that they raise for meat and eggs.

Tasked with maintaining the farm’s online presence, Stan said he still works in the wool shop and sells the products on eBay and Etsy, printing out barcodes for each item. He also does all the farm’s bookkeeping, finances and billing, as well as the trucking and driving needed. "I’m the gofer around here,” he joked.

In terms of profit, the Sankows say they do well enough from selling their meat, cheese and eggs at their onsite farm stand, where regulars stop by to purchase goods. But the bulk of their money is made at farmers markets they selectively participate in and where they say they find customers who are both appreciative of and willing to pay premium prices for their products.

“We know our business and we know our market,” Suzanne said.

A single day at a market, for example, can make the Sankows more than $5,000, which they said sounds like a lot but isn’t after factoring in the grains, hay and other materials they must frequently purchase to support the farm. Hay can cost hundreds of dollars, Stan said, while an electric bill from a single month can sometimes run more than $20,000.

To help with their expenses, the Sankows sold the development rights to the farm for $897,820 to the state Department of Agriculture in 2015. The deal, which they negotiated with the state's Farmland Preservation Program over several years, not only ensured the land would forever be preserved and remain used for agriculture, but it also allowed the couple to pay off the property mortgage — “so that’s something we don’t have to worry about anymore” — granting them the ability to live solely off profits made by the farm, as well as what they receive in Social Security and rent from a house on the property.

It’s enough, they say, to pay for Medicare, their secondary health insurance and prescriptions, as well as other insurances and taxes, especially as the two lost their entire retirements savings when the bank they invested in, New England Savings Bank, collapsed in 1993.

“All of our equity is in the farm,” Suzanne said. “Instead of setting up retirement funds, we went into sheep, cows, chicken ... Everything we made, we put back into the farm. Everything we ever did was to keep the farm.”

A dream come true

After meeting in November 1969, Stan and Suzanne married just six weeks after meeting each other in New London at a Parents Without Partners meeting, combining their families: Stan had three children and Suzanne had five from their first marriages. The couple first lived with Suzanne's children in a home Stan had built on the Connecticut River in Old Lyme, then later moved to the farm to care for Stan’s parents, who had taken over the property in the 1960s by buying out the other heirs.

From then, the couple ran the farm — with help from Stan’s parents until they died — while Stan simultaneously continued to run his gravel, lumber and hardware store businesses until the economic downturn of the 1970s put the lumber company and hardware store out of business.

“No one was building anything anymore,” Stan said. “I couldn’t sell my lumber if I wanted to. So we ended up selling a lot of real estate to get by.”

For Suzanne, despite those tough times, the farm was a dream come true.

Describing herself as “city girl” who grew up in Pawtucket, R.I., and summered on Block Island with her family, Suzanne said she always knew she was meant to live on a farm. “I’ve always gravitated toward (farming). If you talk to my sisters, they’ll all say, 'She always wanted to be on the farm,'” she said. “It was absolutely natural for me."

"And lucky enough for me, the farmer came with it,” she added.

From her first step on the farm during the couple’s second date, Suzanne knew she was home. “This is where I wanted to be," she said. "People think I married him first for him and second for the farm.”

“But I think it was first for the farm and second for me,” Stan said, finishing her sentence with a laugh.

Raised on the farm as an only child, Stan described his deep connection with the land that’s been in his family for so long. As a boy, instead of going to the beach, he would spend his summers selling vegetables and corn at a street stand he set up. And in high school, he tended to the cows after soccer and baseball practice.

“There’s always something to do on the farm. I had my responsibilities here,” Stan said. “There’s something about having your own land, and we just don't want to give that up.”

Selling the land to live in a smaller house or have less responsibility, he said, just never made sense. And the Sankows' now-adult children, many of whom live out-of-state and have led successful careers, have not yet committed to taking over the farm, the couple said.

“I’m not going anywhere unless they take me out in a box,” Stan said, joking again. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I can walk out of here, and I can walk around on 175 acres if I want to. I haven’t been on some of the land for years, but it’s there.”

“It’s always been here. It’s part of me. And if I had a brother or a sister, it might have been different,” Stan continued. “But being the only one, I’m carrying this on.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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