Editor’s Note: The pandemic has changed lives in myriad ways. In this semi-regular series, The New Normal, The Granite State News Collaborative is exploring the ways the pandemic has altered life as we know it and how we’re responding to those unexpected turns.
In February, Rachel Cohen never would have guessed that by August she would have left her hometown with her partner for a new life and a new job.
She was a single mom, living in Peterborough, New Hampshire, working at a nonprofit and struggling to make ends meet. She had been dating Maine farmer Matthew Scala long-distance for about a year and had recently successfully convinced him to move closer to her. She had no intention of moving away from Peterborough until after her daughter had finished high school.
Scala left Maine for Cohen and was living and working at Plowshare Farm in Greenfield. While a farmer for more than 30 years, this was the first time he had worked with people with disabilities, a job he fell in love with immediately, according to Cohen. “He said it was life-changing working with the residents,” Cohen said. “He had never considered this type of work before.”
Cohen herself is a ConVal High School graduate. After high school, she earned a psychology degree from Keene State College and a master’s at Antioch New England in management/organization development. But as a single mom in a small town, Cohen had few job options and bounced around to different jobs over the years, and even a home business at one point, trying to find work that would fit her skills, pay a living wage and give her the flexibility she needed while raising her two children.
Back in February, she was working for a nonprofit based in Wilton, but as the most recent hire, she feared she would be the first employee to be cut when the pandemic hit the economy. The pandemic also separated Cohen and Scala, since Plowshare Farm closed to the public and Scala was asked to isolate himself from anyone outside the farm.
After months of this, the couple decided it was time to be together. So Scala left his job at the farm and moved in with Cohen, and they began planning their new life, though, Cohen said, she had no idea they would make this shift so soon. “If he wasn’t my partner I might not have made a drastic change,” Cohen said.
Cohen started by making a list of what the couple was seeking in a new life, she said. “Living in community, farming and working with people with special needs were the top three.”
Living a more sustainable life is something Cohen has wanted for some time, but the pandemic caused her desires to boil to the surface. “The world is changing rapidly because of COVID,” she said. “Having our food shipped to us from Mexico or California – that doesn’t really work in the long term and anything can throw it off, we have learned.”
With her new list of life and lifestyle goals, Cohen scoured the internet for jobs to match them. “I just started making a list of places that I thought met our criteria,” she said. And she started calling places that employed “lifesharers.”
She defined lifesharing as a way of living in which “everyone has a role to play and the people providing assistance live right alongside the residents there.”
When she called High Spirit Community Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, it was to simply inquire about how people become lifesharers, she said. “It just turned out that when I called High Spirit they were hiring lifesharers and I soon got funneled into the application process.”
Cohen and Scala decided to go ahead and apply. In May, they accepted the positions of householders/lifesharers. They moved to the farm at the beginning of August and currently manage a household with two residents and two interns. Cohen’s son, who graduated from high school in 2019, has remained in the Peterborough area. Her daughter plans to split her time between the farm and her father’s in Peterborough so she can continue as a sophomore at ConVal High School in Peterborough this fall.
After years of struggling as a single mom, the new living arrangement has brought some financial relief. “For me as a single parent and all those years of being financially burdened and struggling, this job offers, basically, the same salary as my last job, but with no expenses,” Cohen said. “I don’t have any expenses and yet I’m still getting the same income. … It was a no-brainer in that way.”
Additionally, her last job tied her to a desk or computer for most of the workday, she said. “I was sitting eight hours a day. My body was not happy.” On the farm she is moving more and already feels healthier and lighter. “My hips have not hurt and I’ve lost weight,” she said.
There are two other houses on the farm for the other residents, who also have householder/lifesharer couples living with them. There are about 20 people living on the farm altogether — along with many chickens, pigs and goats.
Farming is new to Cohen, but she is eager to adopt this more sustainable life, and, like her partner, she loves working with the residents.
“It’s very much like parenting in terms of making meals, making sure they are up and dressed and showered,” she said. “The idea is to have them help out as much as possible.”
In non-COVID times, Cohen said the area has many activities for the residents to take advantage of. Normally the lifesharers would be taking the residents to art, swimming, horse riding and music lessons, she said. She admitted it has been a challenge to find afternoon activities for the residents.
While the pandemic continues, Cohen and Scala are taking in the beauty of the Berkshires and their new lives. “Everywhere we drive, it is so incredibly beautiful and there are farms everywhere, so Matthew is very happy about that.”
Cohen said she also very much wants her daughter to know this way of life. Being able to farm and live alongside and care for others is not just a new way of life for Cohen and Scala; it’s how they believe life should be lived, Cohen said.
“We both really feel this model we are living right now is not just for people with special needs, but how we should live as a society — to be more sustainable for the earth …, community and supporting each other, and the work itself just feels more meaningful and more in alignment with who I am.”
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