My Approach to Addressing Farmer Burnout and Mental Health: Pursuing My Wildest Dreams

June 1, 2024

By Jessie Dowling

Last year I trained for, competed in and completed the longest and toughest horse race in the world: the Mongol Derby. It’s a multi-horse race loosely recreating Chinggis Khan’s ancient postal route, and stretches over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of mountains, bogs, rivers, desert and vast steppe in Mongolia. Participants, who navigate the terrain with handheld GPS, ride 29 different semi-wild Mongolian horses about 25 miles each, and stay with nomadic herding families along the way.

Mongol Derby
After 17 years in the dairy industry as a sheep and goat farmer and award-winning cheesemaker, Jessie Dowling started pursuing her dreams as an endurance horse racer. Just off the start line of the world’s longest horse race, the Mongol Derby, she galloped past a herd of sheep and goats! Shari Thompson photo

I wasn’t always a horse racer. Up until 2024, I have been the farmer and cheesemaker behind Fuzzy Udder Creamery. I got my start as a MOFGA apprentice in 2007 at Appleton Creamery and Ells Farm Sheep Dairy. I stayed with Caitlin Hunter at Appleton Creamery until 2011, and in 2012 I teamed up with another farmer in Unity and founded Fuzzy Udder Creamery. I bought my first farm in Whitefield and moved the creamery in late 2013. For years I worked ridiculously long hours to build my small farm business and spent all my free time volunteering with the Maine Cheese Guild working to build Maine’s cheese industry so that Maine dairy farmers and cheesemakers could make a decent living.

I experienced first-hand the darker side of the small farm movement. Running a successful farm business with a set of ethics that takes into account the environment, social justice and animal welfare inherently rubs up against the limits of the capitalist paradigm, in that the price of cheese, or whatever the farmer is producing, must internalize all these costs. Unless the farmer is willing to compromise their ethics, something’s got to give — and, oftentimes, it’s the farm owner’s quality of life that is sacrificed for the good of the cause. Isolation, despair and a staggering amount of debt are often part and parcel of running a small farm business. I am just now learning that my nervous system has been stuck in the sympathetic fight or flight response since I started Fuzzy Udder Creamery. For 13 years I’ve been consistently worried that my farm’s infrastructure will fail and buried in the stress of owing friends in this community more than I have. No one talks about how farmers have to sometimes spend the loan funds for infrastructure projects on payroll instead, and how we forgo vacations, time with family, time for dating, time for anything else — all for the perceived good of producing food for our community. The problem is that the price of food is not pegged to what it costs to actually produce it, and as long as this is the case, it will always require exploitation in some shape or form. More often, it’s in the shape of exploiting farmworkers, and that does get a fair deal of deserved attention, but we don’t talk about the unspoken sacrifices that farmers make on a daily basis. What is the worth of good local, organic food if the price is the lives of the people who produce it? Why must they sacrifice their standard of living so that we can have the veneer of a thriving local food economy?

I often hear that people think the hardest thing about livestock farming is that you have to be there for your animals every day and that there are no breaks, but I beg to differ. Waking up in the morning to feed my animals is the most grounding thing in my life, and the thing that keeps me rooted in this capitalist world that we live in. Seeing the faces of my animals excited to see me every morning brings me a joy and gratitude that I can’t put into words. Each animal is a sentient being with an individual soul and a personality. There is a wealth of understanding and connection with animals that any livestock farmer will tell you goes deeper than just numbers on a paper. Now that I’m looking back at my 17 years in the dairy industry, I see it’s the animals that kept me there. When I look at what it takes to produce artisan cheese, I’m left with this question: Is it worth it?

Milk ceremony Mongol Derby
Upon arriving on the Mongolian steppe, Dowling participated in a traditional milk offering. Shari Thompson photo

For many years I believed in what I was doing, and that it was worth the self-sacrifice. But during the COVID-19 pandemic everything changed. An apprentice turned extraordinary cheesemaker, Jenny Mae McKensie, who was slated to take the helm of Appleton Creamery from my dear friend and mentor Caitlin Hunter, committed suicide in the summer of 2021. After Jenny took her life, my entire outlook shifted. I thought a lot about why I had chosen this lifestyle and why I was continuing to do it. Jenny’s death left a giant hole in our community. I overloaded my farm with the fallout of 30 extra goats and two livestock guardian dogs from Appleton Creamery, a decision that I made willingly and do not regret, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Because most marketing events were still canceled due to the pandemic, I gradually started to spend more time with my horses and started going to horse clinics. I started reading everything I could find on horsemanship and connecting with horses and, during a Chris Lombard clinic, I had a vision that my true purpose was working with horses. A little while later I heard about the Mongol Derby and knew I had to sign up. It was just the mix of adventure and challenge that I sorely needed. I spend over a year training for the race, which included quitting smoking and drinking; running; daily yoga practice; learning to ride endurance on my horses; going to boot camps; and planning out an entire year on the farm, with over six weeks where my crew could run things without me in the middle of our busiest season.

I also started learning about polyvagal theory and about the similarities of horse and human nervous systems. The more time I spent with horses, the more regulated my nervous system became and, all of a sudden, places where I had felt stuck no longer felt that way.

There is a positive side of self-sacrifice: having spent 17 years in Maine’s small farming community, I learned to do insurmountable things. I learned that if I stick with it and keep myself focused on my goals, I can accomplish anything. I took the work ethic that I developed over years working long days as a livestock farmer and cheesemaker to actualize and achieve my wildest dreams out on the Mongolian steppe. All of my pain, incredibly hard work and sacrifice over the years spent on the farm created a very, very strong human being — and that one thing is worth more to me than a successful farm business. You can take what you’ve learned on your farm and you can accomplish amazing things. My advice to any farmer who feels like they’re facing the hopelessness of debt and stress is that it is not all for nothing: You have the power to change your life and achieve goals that you never thought were possible. If your goal is to keep farming, more power to you; your tenacity that got you to where you are will keep you there, if that’s what is still making you excited to greet the day when you wake up in the morning. But for me, farming is a stepping stone: I know without a doubt that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, and I’m not stopping at the Mongolian steppe.

Mongol Derby finish line
On the 10th and final day of the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby in 2023, Dowling galloped into 13th place, out of the approximately 40 riders who started the race. Kathy Gabriel photo

Over the last few years, I have discovered that I am a rider and a writer, and I am now choosing to diverge from the path I’ve been on. By the time this article is published, Fuzzy Udder Creamery will have a new owner and my debts to the community will be paid off. Delicious cheese will still be available all across the state, and I can be found in the woods connecting with horses and humans.

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