ESSEX — It’s spring and Sandy Lewis should be feeling optimistic. On a recent afternoon, the cattle farmer sat on his back porch and admired the view. A wind blew across a rolling field and cooled as it passed through a copse of chestnut trees and eventually took flight over a row of cedars.
Natural air-conditioning, he said. A feat of natural ingenuity.
But despite the factors in his favor — the clay soil that has spared the region from the droughts plaguing similar cattle operations in the west, his farm’s natural drainage system, the pending arrival of the Bryce Powershift HD180, a state-of-the-art machine for driving fence posts — he’s feeling rattled over one commodity that has slipped through his grasp.
While the Lewis Family Farm offers what they say is the region’s best beef — USDA-certified grass-fed, no bull — the 1,200-acre farm lacks sustainable manpower, a growing concern as first cut looms on the hay-scented horizon.
Lewis said he has placed advertisements across the country for a farm manager, in free papers and in monthly trades like the Stockman Grass Farmer and Graze.
Combined, those reach 17 million people each week.
The requirements were simple.
Six letters of recommendation, three each from personal and professional references, a CV and a personal essay.
“When considering a candidate from, say, Texas or Florida, we need to know about them,” he said. “We just want candidates who are conscious, centered and want to work regardless of their background.”
The response was incredible, said Lewis. But few responded as they asked.
“We failed to attract a single candidate with a winner’s profile,” he said.
Applicants were applying for the wrong reasons. Some appeared to be looking for a warm place to bed down for a spell. High turnover isn’t good for business, said Lewis — especially in a field that requires intensive training.
Interns tend to destroy equipment before heading back to school. Drifters tend to, well, drift — as do single men, another cohort that Lewis is disinterested in hiring — as are the obese (“the kind that crushes machines”), tobacco users (smoke disturbs cattles’ central nervous system) and drinkers (too many anecdotes to list, some of which are unprintable).
The ideal candidate:
The nuclear family that seeks the farming life, those healthy in mind, body and spirit.
“We offer a sense of identification,” said Lewis. “The creation of a sense of purpose that’s greater than themselves.”
He frequently referred to an academic family with whom he will be working this summer, the proverbial grand slam: forward-looking with four kids and a strong work ethic.
Lewis attributes the lack of qualified candidates to a massive societal shift:
“We have growing obesity and bad food, an environment that is troubled, oceans covered in plastic and a wealth disparity that discourages,” he said, his voice rising.
“We have children raising children, addicts raising addicts. We have growing dishonesty and pollution in farms across the nation.”
His voice is sharp now and the words are coming at a staccato clip:
“The millennials were raised by those that rose to fall and ignored their kids. ‘No’ means ‘maybe’ to the permissive.”
Lewis, the man who stuck it to the Adirondack Park Agency over his farm’s right to house workers and emerged clean from the other side, like Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, is now angry.
“Journalists are frightened as newspapers fail and talking heads spin,” he said. “The change is real and troubling. And it’s here to stay.”
Lewis grew quiet.
The former securities trader said he prides himself on his intuition and will give anyone a shot, including those who have once drifted down wayward paths.
“Our best candidate lacks a GED, cannot read well and has a history,” he said. “He’s smart and is learning.”
Lewis was referring to a sleepy-eyed 28-year-old with a criminal record for an singular incident of adolescent foolishness.
The future can be bright for those who have what it takes.
While Lewis and his wife, Barbara, said they plan on living forever — Sandy is 75 and his grandparents lived well into their 90s — they prefer to eventually pass the farm into capable hands, something they would much rather see than selling the facility to a developer.
“This is the launchpad,” he said.