Nestled in the Green Mountains of New England, Maple Knoll Farm is abundant in pastoral beauty. But for Sam Burr, 47, these 270 acres in Monkton, Vt. (pop. 1,800), are more than just picturesque. Each morning for 13 years, Burr rose before dawn to milk his 60 Jersey cows in Maple Knoll’s whitewashed barn. It is also here that he and his wife, Eugenie Doyle, 46, are bringing up their three children. “A farm is a wonderful place to raise a family,” he says. “You see all of life.”
And there’s something else about living in Monkton: When the going gets rough, you are surrounded by friends who care. Just a few years ago, with milk prices declining, Burr considered selling Maple Knoll. Instead he decided to keep his family on the land by switching careers and at 44 went off to law school. During the years he was studying, clerking and cramming for the bar exam, townspeople did everything they could to make up for his absence. And in October the Burr family expressed its gratitude with an ad in the local newspaper, the Addison County Independent, that began, “Heartfelt thanks to all the neighbors who supported our family during the three long years Sam was in Boston at school. You chauffeured the kids, helped Eugenie fix things, chase heifers and keep a sense of humor.”
Of course, it’s one thing to enroll in law school when you’re 21 and single, and quite another when you’re more than twice that age and a father. When Burr’s wife first learned of his plan, she admits she was dubious. “It seemed to me,” says Doyle, “that he would have to be a different kind of person to be a lawyer.” Burr, a wiry man with graying hair under a blue corduroy cap, does look more a man of the earth than a lawyer. But in the classroom at Northeastern University School of Law, from which he graduated in May, Burr was a force. “He talked a lot and said what was on his mind,” says law professor Judith Olans Brown. He also enjoyed interning as a clerk. “What he liked most was being in the trenches, getting his hands dirty—meeting clients and working on their problems.”
Though Burr returned home most weekends, the family was stretched thin. To help pay the bills, Eugenie sold homegrown strawberries and taught part-time at the nearby elementary school. Friends often helped with daily chores, including feeding the chickens. “When we heard Sam was going to school,” says friend Wendy Sue Harper, “we told Eugenie, ‘If you need us, call.’ ” And she did, starting when she got a flat tire driving to school the first day.
Another time, Robin Hopps, a neighbor, called Doyle at school to alert her to another emergency—the family cows had escaped. Doyle gathered her daughter, Nora, now 13, and her twin sons, Caleb and Silas, 11, from their classrooms to round up the cows, as well as a visiting bull that had trampled the fence.
It’s unlikely that Burr and his family will ever abandon the place they have come to love. “Sam and I grew up in the ’60s; we are back-to-the-earth-type folks,” says Doyle. “That is why we are here.” Indeed, as a teenager in Hamilton, Mass., Burr, a lawyer’s son, got hooked on rural life while working summers on a sheep farm. Though he eventually went to Harvard, where he earned an anthropology degree in 1974, farming was all he ever dreamed of. “I’m a morning person anyway,” Burr says. “I love animals and I love dirt.”
He began indulging both passions in the early ’80s when he and Doyle met as business partners in a series of dairy-farm operations before buying Maple Knoll. Though their relationship flourished (the couple wed in 1984), the businesses didn’t. “There was a blip where milk prices were very good,” Burr says. “After that, things went downhill.”
Now Maple Knoll Farm is up and running again—this time growing organic produce, including garlic, pumpkins and raspberries, for sale at local farmers’ markets. And Burr still wakes up early, for his one-hour commute to Montpelier for his job as a lawyer at the Vermont Legislative Counsel, an agency that assists lawmakers in drafting bills. But if his work has changed, the man, neighbors feel, clearly hasn’t. “There are a lot of nasty lawyer jokes around,” says Wendy Sue Harper. “If there were more lawyers like Sam, you wouldn’t see that.”
Eric Francis in Monkton