In 2009, Alison Kosakowki was living in New York, working as communications manager at the Maersk shipping company, when a kidnapping at sea brought her to Vermont. The captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, had been kidnapped by Somali pirates; Kosakowski was dispatched to Phillips’s home in Underhill, Vermont, to help the family handle media during the weeklong crisis, the wait for Phillips’s return, and the barrage of interview requests and book deals in the aftermath. While visiting the Phillips family the following August, Kosakowski met a local dairy farmer named Ransom (really!), and a few months later, left the New York City area, moved to Vermont, and joined Ransom and his family’s herd of 800 Holsteins on their 1,000-acre farm. On a blog called Diary of a Dairy Queen, she documented her efforts at beekeeping, raising chickens, and learning to can. After trying out public-relations gigs at a couple of local companies, in December, Kosakowski found a job that merges the personal and professional, as marketing and promotions director at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Here, she talks about tweeting from the farm stand, the branding of the American farmer, and the challenge of taking the long view.
FAST COMPANY: How did you get into your current job?
ALISON KOSAKOWSKI: After being laid off from a local ad agency, I’d spent part of the summer and fall helping at the farm and using Twitter to drum up customers for corn and pumpkins at the family farmstand. I found out about this job–after Hurricane Irene last summer, which really hurt Vermont farmers, the agency wanted someone to help deal with crisis communications–and I applied for it. I took a pay cut from previous jobs, but I felt I would get value from knowing I was contributing to the greater good. You still have to deal with the realities of reconfiguring your budget, though.
What kind of projects are you working on?
My main job is overseeing crisis communications, managing media relations, planning agency events, and helping build a “brand” for Vermont agriculture. But my pet project has been teaching social media to farmers. I recently did a workshop at the Northeast Kingdom Farm and Food Summit, talking with about a dozen farmers about using new technologies to build relationships with their community. That means using social media to promote their products, tweeting what they’re selling at the farmstand that week. There are lots of opportunities now for farmers–our culture is so fascinated with food and farming now. But there also a disconnect between the precious notion of farming that many people have and the sweaty, squealing reality of it. So I’m also talking with farmers about using social media as a way to educate consumers about real farm practices.
Did working on your blog help you figure out what you’re doing now?
It was really fun, and I think I’ll go back to it with a new name. Right now I’m trying to figure out what the boundaries are between my personal blogging and my public role. I think that writing for the blog helped me package up stories about agriculture and what it’s like to live on a farm in a way that I hoped would appeal to people who aren’t necessarily in that world. I just imagined talking to friends from New York–figuring out what are the things in my life that would be interesting or surprising to them, and telling those stories.
When you go and talk with farmers do they see you as a “suit” or are you able to blend in?
I definitely have more cred because I live on a farm. There’s all kinds of interesting divisions in the farming community–a lot of what I would say are artificial divisions between people using different practices, or some people saying, “Oh, she’s from a dairy family but we’re vegetable growers.” That’s kind of silly because when you think about the number of people in this country that actually get dirty on a daily basis in their job working with animals and plants, it’s such a small number. But in general, I think I get credibility in the agriculture community because I’m living in it. They know my laundry pile is just as dirty as their laundry pile. As an outsider, though, I also understand that the reality is different from the perception. I appreciate how outsiders are enchanted by agriculture–it’s Old McDonald’s farm versus the reality of raising livestock for production.
What was the most surprising thing for you coming from your life before and actually living on a farm? Has it been de-romanticized for you?
In New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, there are lots of accountants who have 10 sheep and call themselves farmers. There’s a big difference from that and people who farm for a living, when you’re relying on the weather to cooperate, and you get up at 4 a.m., or you get up to help animals in the middle of the night. There’s a real surrender of control in agriculture, so many things you can’t get your arms around. People say farmers are the salt of the earth, that they’re hardworking and honest, and it’s true. But I think that’s because farmers are more acquainted with the notion that this is all bigger than us. We know we can’t manage everything we think we can manage. Other people have more of an artificial sense of their ability to be masters of their domain, where farmers are, “Well, we gotta be patient. Plant something this spring and hopefully we’ll get something in the fall.” That’s interesting to me.
In the advertising industry in New York, you’re always looking, keeping your resume polished and talking to recruiters. That always-looking mentality was deeply ingrained in me. In my 20s I changed jobs every two years. That quick turnaround is the antithesis of what farming is about, which is sticking around and cultivating things over a long period of time, delaying gratification. As someone who often solved problems by getting a new job, I’ve had to acclimate to this longer view of things. Getting comfortable where you are, that’s what farming’s all about. That’s why I think Ransom said to me on our first date, “I’m going to be here forever.” If you want to be with me, you’ll find a way to grow within this environment. I don’t think I realized what that was about at the time.
So, are you settling down?
Well, Ransom and I are getting married in June. And I think there will be a time when I’m much more involved in day-to-day operations at the farm. I don’t think that time is right now. We talk about a vision of where things might go some day–diversifying, expanding the corn business his mom has developed to a seasonal or year-round retailer. Through this job, I’m learning to better understand how it all works together–the research on agriculture, the grant money that’s available. To come into this as a complete outsider would be really difficult. Since moving here, the idea of working on the farm and having my own business has appealed to me, but I didn’t know how to put one foot in front of another to make that happen. I hope to come back to that at some point when I have some more ideas and more clarity about what that would be. That’s the long-term goal.
[Image: Alison Kosakowki]