May 18, 2022

Minne Sotais

Politics Loaded For Bear

Claire Boyles Failed at Farming, but Turned Loss Into Literature

“It’s going to be nostalgia day,” Claire Boyles says. The schoolteacher-turned-farmer-turned-author is standing in the post office parking lot in Gill, and the town’s ubiquitous red-brown dust is beginning to coat her sneakers. She left this place on the eastern plains of Colorado eight years ago, after her farm went bust in the wake of the economic disaster of the Great Recession.

“The thing about so many rural, small-town areas is that they used to be thriving communities,” she explains. “At one time, Gill would have been a place where nearby farmers like us could have come and gathered and socialized. But it just wasn’t really an option when we were here.”

Gill may not be thriving by city standards, but there’s soul beneath the grit. Located in Weld County, just east of Greeley and north of Kersey, the unincorporated town comprises a little over 1,300 residents, even if that number seems vastly inflated on a walk around town. Its few square blocks of dirt road are deserted on a sunny Saturday afternoon; an abandoned storefront, with cracked paint and rotting planks, could grace the cover of the best country album you’ve never heard. But nearby, the Lions Club and local church are still active. And at the edge of town is Rappel’s Arena, where local rodeo events — including one organized by the Colorado Junior Rodeo Association — are again being held after a pandemic-induced hiatus.

There are stories in Gill, if only these dirt roads could speak. There’s no library here, no hotels, restaurants or stores — unless you count the tiny brick post office that’s been the center of Gill since 1910. “When we lived here, there was a little, unofficial snack bar in someone’s garage,” Boyles remembers. “I don’t think there are any actual businesses in Gill. You can’t grocery-shop here. Even Kersey didn’t have the Family Dollar yet. If you don’t grow up out here, moving here is a huge change. But overall, our neighbors were super welcoming to us. We got to know them well. We still know them. They’re still friends of ours.”

Spoken by Boyles, the word “nostalgia” has the most bittersweet tinge. Now living in Loveland with her husband, Matt, and their two children, she doesn’t have much reason to revisit Gill since the couple dissolved their farm business and moved away in 2013. It wasn’t by choice. After buying twenty acres — just on the other side of Weld County Road 55 from Gill — in 2008, Claire and Matt Boyles did their damnedest to make their living by growing vegetables and raising livestock. It worked — until, tragically, it didn’t.

Their experiences were the spark for Site Fidelity. Released this week by W. W. Norton, Boyles’s debut book is the fruition of her long-dormant dream of becoming a writer. The short stories in Site Fidelity aren’t necessarily based on her family’s experience, but six of the tales take place in Colorado, and they focus largely on the impact of agriculture, water, and oil and gas in the state — all woven into very human portraits of working men and women caught up in a tide of economic, environmental and social changes.

Like most of Colorado, Gill is in transition. Some of the silos that dot the horizon hold grain; others carry wi-fi signals. The population is rising, not falling. When Boyles gives a drive-by tour, she points out some of the changes that have occurred in the last decade. “That was our farm,” she says as she pulls her car up to a neat white house with a semi truck parked beside it and an expanse of soil stretching out beyond. “There used to be a windbreak with a lot of old trees, but they were all taken down. We dug an irrigation pond right there, but the new owners must have filled that in. And you can almost see the lines of our old beds if you look out there.”

She quickly describes some of the ins and outs of the intricate issues she came to know so intimately: irrigation, water leasing and even the startling process of burning ditches to remove debris from the checkpoints that water auditors employ to measure use. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA, will often cost-share the process of maintaining these irrigation channels — but small farmers usually have to shoulder many vital infrastructure expenses.

After stopping the car outside her old farmhouse for no longer than a minute, Boyles continues driving down the dusty road. “You don’t want to sit outside anyone’s property for too long out here,” she says. Her meaning is clear. Even though only eight years have passed since she moved away from Gill, she still holds a respect for the land — and those who work it — that borders on caution. This place can be unforgiving; you’re more or less on your own.

She learned this the hard way.

Claire Boyles didn’t farm until she was in her thirties, but she has soil in her blood. When she was growing up in small-town Ohio, her grandparents owned a fruit farm near her childhood home, and she spent a lot of time there as a girl, absorbing the practices and philosophy of the land — as well as navigating her native Midwestern culture, with which she didn’t always align.

“I come from a really huge Catholic family, and I grew up on farms,” she says. “Overall, the politics were absolutely conservative while I was growing up. However, there were people in my family who pursued the arts and sciences. I have an aunt who’s an ornithologist, and she moved to California and lived on the coast and worked on government contracts and led bird watches and built this amazing life for herself. I have cousins and uncles who are creative, who worked in movies or theater or music. So I did have some models for what it looked like to be an artist in life.”

Despite the artistic streak that ran in her family, she was not encouraged to indulge those passions herself. In particular, she found herself drawn to writing stories — but found no support at home. “I was led away from the arts,” she remembers. “I was pushed not to pursue that. I loved to write, and I thought maybe being a writer would be a good thing. But I was definitely taught that that was a bad idea. I was told, ‘As a lady person, being a writer is a terrible choice. You will starve. You will end up with children you can’t feed.’ So I thought I’d be a lawyer instead. I moved to Colorado, got a political science degree, and worked in a law firm for six months in Fort Collins.”

After working her way up from receptionist to “kind of a paralegal” who assisted on the fringes of cases, she realized she had fallen into the wrong vocation. Says Boyles, “I was like, ‘Nope, that’s not for me.’” Reconnecting with her first love, storytelling, she went back to school at Colorado State University. She earned a master’s in creative writing and began teaching English as an additional language, mostly as an adjunct professor who drifted between CSU, Front Range Community College and the University of Northern Colorado. Newly married and still living in Fort Collins, she also began teaching middle school and high school in Loveland — anything to help keep her young family afloat.

That’s when Boyles caught the farming bug. She had become interested in environmental policy while studying political science, and her intimate experiences in agriculture rekindled that curiosity. She had a willing partner in her husband. “Matt had a degree in horticulture, and his grandparents had a four-acre vegetable farm when he was a kid,” she notes. “So we both grew up on farms.” In 2005 the couple signed a lease on a quarter-acre plot of land in Loveland, which wound up being their starter farm. They grew flowers exclusively, selling them to friends and patrons of farmers’ markets, even to Whole Foods in Fort Collins.


The couple first focused on growing flowers.

Courtesy of Claire Boyles

On a small scale, they grappled with the tricky, intensive practices of irrigation. A long ditch ran through their rented property, but as they were going to learn over and over in the following years, water is never free — so they paid their landlord extra for water rights to the ditch. In addition to actually planting, tending, harvesting and selling their flowers, they spent many hours digging trenches and furrows by hand to lead the water from the ditch to their crops — all while continuing to hold down full-time careers. Rather than being discouraged, though, they doubled down. And then some.

“We’ve always been into the idea of a cleaner environment,” Boyles says. “But eventually it was like, ‘How can we live in a way that’s going to hopefully make a larger difference to the environment?’ Matt and I wanted something for ourselves. And having grown up on farms as kids, we both thought it was a great way for our kids to grow up. We just thought that farming was something we knew about and had some history with. Also, there was a lot of interest in local food around that time. That documentary Food, Inc. came out, and Michael Pollen wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It seemed like there might be demand for the food we were going to grow. It just felt like the right time.”

So in 2007 they set their sights on something far more ambitious than their modest, quarter-acre plot in Loveland. They wanted a radically bigger farm. They wanted to own the land, not rent it. Most daringly, they were willing to pull up stakes and move to wherever on the eastern plains they could locate that land. And they were willing to put everything on the line to do it.

But they had to head farther east from Greeley than they wanted. They couldn’t afford anything closer to a town — any town — and their options shrank. After many months of scouring the plains for a suitable chunk of land whose water rights were within reason, they went with the Gill farm. One of the immediate downsides: They had only wanted five acres, but they wound up buying twenty. Nothing else they could find fit all their criteria.

“We wanted to invest in ourselves,” Boyles recalls. And at first, it appeared the investment would pay off.

A tornad ripped into Windsor on May 22, 2008.EXPAND

A tornad ripped into Windsor on May 22, 2008.

On May 22, 2008, a tornado one mile wide cut a path of destruction almost forty miles long through northern Colorado, centering on the small agricultural town of Windsor. One man died when he tried to escape the monstrous twister in a motor home. Seventy-eight more people were injured. Hundreds of cattle were killed, numerous tractor trailers and railroad cars were flipped, and baseball-sized hail rained even more devastation. Over a thousand homes were damaged or leveled. After the debris stopped falling from the sky, farmers in the area inspected their fields and found widespread annihilation of their crops and irrigation systems. It became Colorado’s costliest tornado, and it cemented Weld County as the most tornado-ridden county in the United States, according to the National Weather Service.

Windsor lies between Fort Collins and Gill, almost equidistant from both. One month before the tornado, Claire Boyles and her family had moved from their place in Fort Collins to their cozy farmhouse in Gill. “On the eastern plains, there’s this view of the mountains from really far away,” she says. “In the summers you can watch the thunderstorms, watch them build. You can watch them come for you. It’ll take hours, and you can just watch them slowly coming.”

Omens don’t come much eerier than the Windsor tornado of 2008. It didn’t hit the Boyles farm, fortunately, but it raged just twenty miles away. The family escaped harm, for a while.

But within six months, an even larger storm was going to overwhelm them and blow away their optimistic vision of a bucolic life in agriculture: the Great Recession. Like a tornado, it had been building for a while.

It was codified in October 2008, with the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, an emergency bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. It helped many Americans who were suddenly facing foreclosure on their homes, thanks to predatory lending practices that had flourished in recent years. It also helped many big banks, which had defrauded taxpayers by using TARP funds for even more selfish purposes. Boyles and her family, like so many farmers around the country, were sucked up by the recession and violently spit out.

“The whole world changed in 2008. The bottom dropped out of everything,” Boyles recalls. “We used what little savings we had to put a down payment on the farm in Gill, and it was basically a hayfield when we moved in. Then overnight we were $100,000 underwater on a brand-new mortgage. That was the hurdle we were never able to get over.”

The family had gotten to work immediately, planting flowers and food crops on the land they now proudly owned. “It was a rough start,” she says. “I would not advise any other beginning farmers to buy their land right off the bat. But for us, it was hard enough to find enough land to lease that wasn’t an hour’s drive from Fort Collins, where I was still teaching. Also, leasing land is problematic for farmers, especially if you’re going to try to get organic certification, because that is entirely your expense and your labor. And farms need electricity, compost, sheds, coolers. That’s really difficult to build on someone else’s land. Leasing makes that very unstable.”

Instability haunted the farm from the start. Boyles and her husband registered as an LLC under the name Boyles Family Farms and kicked their business into gear. They even got a boost from Claire’s grandfather, who donated some of his old farming equipment to her, a gesture of both generosity and legacy. The farm’s mission was to convert theory into practice — and hopefully generate a living doing it.

“There are conventional vegetable farmers out here, and they grow a lot of cabbage and carrots and spinach and stuff. But because commodity agriculture has gotten so systemically tied to chemical use and chemical production, it makes a difference how you farm,” Boyles says. “It makes a difference how you care for your soil. And it makes a difference what you’re putting in it and on it. That’s something I think diversified, small-scale farms like ours were able to do. The push toward regenerative agriculture is really important. Large-scale agriculture is not that profitable, really. Farmers are often caught in this weird system of subsidies and crop insurance that most of them don’t love, but there’s no way out of it. I think there should be more support given to farms that feed people directly, which is what our farm was. There needs to be more local sources of fruits and vegetables, and there actually is money to be made there. With the right support and things like direct-to-consumer marketing, it can really work. But since vegetable farms don’t get the same amount of government support as other farms, it’s a gamble.”

A field at Boyles Family Farms.EXPAND

A field at Boyles Family Farms.

Courtesy of Claire Boyles

Rolling the dice, they planted a vast array of crops. Asparagus, eggplants, carrots, kale, strawberries, spinach and dozens of others abounded in their fields. They also began raising turkeys, pigs and chickens — the last for both meat and eggs. At first, farmers’ markets were their main source of customers, though the good was mixed with the bad. “We were at markets in Greeley and Windsor, but the market just wasn’t strong,” Boyles says. “There are a lot of people selling out of their gardens, and some farmers’ markets sell bargain-basement produce. That’s not the farmers’ market clientele that we could afford to serve. But we drove to the farmers’ market in Louisville for years every Saturday, and it was lovely. We had such a sense of pride. Our booths looked really pretty, and we got to know the people who bought food from us. It was a real community.”

The utopian vibe was dampened, however, by a looming concern on the farm’s horizon: organic certification. “At some point we were just so overwhelmed,” she recalls. “We were just working so hard. Organic certification didn’t seem so important anymore because we were already practicing good agriculture. And our customers knew it. Certification was a hoop we didn’t feel we needed to jump through just yet.”

Boyles Family Farms never was certified organic. “During the time that we were coming up in small-scale vegetable farming, there was also a rise in food-safety awareness,” Boyles says. “Which is not a terrible idea. But it can be very hard for small producers. The question is whether people like Matt and I — who were literally carrying melons out of our field and putting them in a cooler and taking them to the farmers’ market — should be held to the same standards as someone who’s growing melons far away and shipping them here. It’s just a lot of extra controls and extra difficulty. Of course, you need to keep food safe, but scale is an issue. We weren’t 100 percent organic, but we had this communication with people who were buying our food. Organic certification is important, but it doesn’t mean that you’re entirely sustainable. We planted pasture. We ran chickens on that pasture. We tilled the pasture under. Then the next year we planted vegetables. That’s how farms are supposed to work. That’s why it’s worked that way for all those centuries. The animals feed the soil, and the soil passes those nutrients to the vegetables. That’s not part of organic certification, but it’s just as important.”

Of course, that didn’t stop some farmers’ market customers from passing on the Boyles Family Farms booth, noses upturned. In 2014, the year after the family lost their farm and Boyles began writing once more, she had an essay published on the popular website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. In that piece, mockingly titled “A Small-Scale Organic Farmer Wants You to Know a Few Things,” she pokes fun at snobby foodies and rails against the business model that has turned the term “organic” into a marketing label that, in her opinion, carries far more weight than it deserves. “Yes, the fucking chickens are pasture-raised. No, the fucking chickens aren’t grass-fed. Because they aren’t fucking ruminants, that’s why, not because I’m part of a secret rural conspiracy to disrupt the endocrine systems of America’s urban masses,” she writes. Although the piece is satirical, there’s no hiding that Boyles is bitter, frustrated and at times even resentful of the arbitrary forces that contributed so greatly to the collapse of her own farm. More pointedly, she says in the essay, “That’s right. Farmers’ markets are the wild fucking west. There is no law here.”

Claire Boyles at work on the family farm.EXPAND

Claire Boyles at work on the family farm.

Courtesy of Claire Boyles

Fortunately, Boyles Family Farms found an alternative to farmers’ markets. Early on, it became involved in community-supported agriculture. The CSA model enabled Boyles to sell food directly from her farm to her customers, who’d pay flat fees up front for boxes of fresh produce, meat and/or eggs that could be picked up at local drop spots. Since CSAs require that farmers get paid in advance, they can use that revenue as literal seed money.

“The CSA really did help us,” Boyles says. “I think the CSA model is one of the only ways vegetable farmers can get any kind of equivalent protections to a crop subsidy or to crop insurance. You can’t get crop insurance if you’re growing 150 different varieties on four acres. No insurance company knows what to do with that. They know what an acre of corn is worth, so if your corn gets destroyed, you can insure that. The CSA is a way for customers to say, ‘This farm is important to us, and we’re going to take some risk with you.’”

At its height, Boyles Family Farms’ CSA had about seventy subscribers, which “is pretty light,” Boyles admits. Without the CSA income, though, it’s unlikely the farm would have survived as long as it did. The Boyles did enjoy occasional small triumphs, such as supplying produce to Windsor High School’s lunch program and pumpkins to Greeley’s Crabtree Brewery for use in the popular Chunkin’ Pumpkin Ale. But that was just prolonging the inevitable. Even when the nation began to recover from the recession after President Barack Obama took office, the damage had been done.

“I think we made a smart decision with the CSA, but it all became too much to manage at once,” Boyles says. She and Matt were juggling the business, the finances, the deliveries, the retail sales, the children and the non-farm careers they still had to rely on, including Boyles’s adjunct teaching. On top of that, there was the actual farming to do. All of the normal mistakes that a first-time farmer might make were compounded by the economic nosedive. With no access to loan refinancing in the cautious banking of the recession’s aftermath, Boyles and her family funded the farm with credit cards.

When it looked like things couldn’t get worse, a harbinger as biblical as the Windsor tornado beset the farm: a plague of grasshoppers. “I’ll never forget it,” Boyles says. “Swarms of grasshoppers came up out of the ditch and started eating whatever was closest to them. Then they just moved east across the field, one row at a time.” She and Matt contemplated using insecticide, but they couldn’t bring themselves to ruin their ongoing efforts to be certified organic. “The organic guy said, ‘There’s basically nothing you can spray on this many grasshoppers to get rid of them. I can give you two bricks. You can go around and smash them. That’s the only organic grasshopper control.’”

In 2011, heavy hail also took a toll. When Boyles applied for government relief, the reply she received essentially said this: “You’ve got to be kidding me. You should have thought of that before you grew tomatoes.”

Ironically, the only way any kind of government money flowed into Boyles Family Farms was when it was used to sublease a corner of the property — to a high school student who was doing a project for Future Farmers of America. “He just grew corn,” Boyles says, “and we got some kind of subsidy check from that. We got a subsidy for corn we let a kid grow on our property, but we couldn’t get a subsidy for the vegetables we were actually farming ourselves on our land.

“We can’t blame Wall Street completely for what happened to our farm,” she continues. “But that did hit us hard. I think we could have gotten over our idiocy as beginning farmers, but we couldn’t get over the recession. We hung in there and hung in there, but we were too far behind. We just couldn’t catch up. And Matt and I were never able to quit our jobs, which had been the plan.” For five years, they regularly worked sixteen-hour days. The ceaseless exhaustion and parade of setbacks became too much, and they worried about their two children. As Boyles sums it up, “The farm became the third child. The one that got all the attention.”

After the 2012 season ended, they put the farm up for sale. That wasn’t easy, either. They wound up having to carve up the land and sell it off in pieces.

Now in their late thirties, having narrowly avoided foreclosure and bankruptcy, they departed Gill and put a down payment on the least expensive house they could find in Loveland.

“It was terrible,” Boyles says. “It was heartbreaking for our kids. It was heartbreaking for Matt and me. It was hard on our marriage. Starting the business and building the business and running the business together was wonderful. But failing at the business together? It nearly split us up. We’re great now, but it was a hard time. It was also a very public failure. It was embarrassing. We were raised to believe that if you want something hard enough and work for it hard enough, it will succeed. But it just didn’t. We risked it all, and we lost it all. We were honestly like, ‘What now?’”

Boyles didn’t know it at the time, but her “what now” had been there her whole life.

Claire Boyles Failed at Farming, but Turned Her Loss Into Literature (10)EXPAND

Courtesy of Claire Boyles

“Since I had always liked writing, I started a blog,” Boyles recalls. From that low-key beginning came a seismic shift in her life. “It was 2008, and we had just started the farm. That’s what people did back then, started blogs. It was supposed to be just a fun marketing tool. The idea was to tell stories about the farm, and that’s how we’d get people to join the CSA and come to our farmers’ market booths. But it became something else. Almost every day, I’d sit down and write 300 to 500 words about something that happened on the farm. As you do that, you start thinking, ‘Well, what did that thing that happened mean?’ After a while the blog became much more like a researched memoir. It was still functioning as a kind of marketing, too, but at one point I was like, ‘This isn’t marketing. This is a book.’”

After being discouraged from writing at an early age, Boyles had mostly kept that dream under wraps. Her advanced degree in creative writing gave her a long-needed outlet, but it soon became swallowed by the pragmatic necessity of keeping a family alive. With her blog — titled “Little Farm, Big World,” which Boyles has since deleted from the internet — she renewed her love of penning stories. “I felt like it was helping me make sense of what was happening in the larger world around me,” she recalls. “All these big issues of environmental justice and economic justice were coming up while I was on the farm, and those issues are what drove me. I wanted to write about those issues, the way these policies matter to human families.” Before long, she was getting published nationally, as exemplified by her cathartic McSweeney’s essay.

Soon, though, she felt limited by her efforts in nonfiction and memoir. “Honestly, I got sick of myself,” she admits. “It was all me. It was all my thoughts. It was nonfiction, so I didn’t get to change it. I realize that nonfiction wasn’t the only way to tell that story.” From there, the floodgates opened. As her stories poured forth and appeared in various literary journals, they caught the attention of the publishing world. She secured an agent and subsequently a book deal with W. W. Norton — one of the most prestigious publishing houses in America. That’s the kind of coup most writers only dream of.

Claire Boyles Failed at Farming, but Turned Her Loss Into Literature (8)

Her first work of fiction was “Man Camp,” which appears in Site Fidelity. It’s a stark story set in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, and its premise is chilling: petroleum companies erecting shantytowns for workers on the edges of civilization and the law. “It came from an article in the Greeley Tribune about a man camp in this trailer park in Greeley, this disgusting living environment that they had been putting workers up in,” Boyles recalls — “they” being Ensign Energy Services, an oil and gas company that wound up challenged by the City of Greeley in 2012 over the living conditions in the makeshift workers’ barracks.

“Man Camp” isn’t the only story in Site Fidelity that tackles the oil-and-gas industry — and fracking in particular. “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2012” takes place in the hydraulic fracturing fields near Greeley, and it involves an activist nun — a callback to Boyles’s Catholic upbringing — who sets out to sabotage the industry that is desecrating God’s natural creations. Boyles’s prose is lean and sharp; it also conveys volumes of ideas and emotion. And at its heart is the kind of epic imagery that illustrated life on Boyles Family Farms.

“When we got out to Gill in 2008, there were really sleepy, quiet roads,” Boyles recalls. “There were mostly dairy trucks on them. But even in that first year we were on the farm, the convoys of water trucks started going through. Then oil and gas went bonkers in Weld County. A few years later, we could stand in the middle of our little vegetable field and turn in a circle and see flare stack, flare stack, flare stack. We just felt overwhelmed. We were on this peaceful, idyllic little farm, and everything around us was burning. It was like standing at the gates of hell. These things don’t matter in some obscure dystopia. They matter right now.”

Boyles is just as urgently concerned with water rights and water conservation. Two very different stories, “Ledgers” and “Chickens,” bookend Site Fidelity, and they focus on two very different birds in order to spotlight water: the wild Gunnison sage grouse and the humble domesticated chicken. “Ledgers” dwells poignantly on the first new bird species recognized in the United States in over a century; “Chickens” speculates about agricultural water rights on the eastern plains against the backdrop of a near-future epidemic of bird flu — one that eerily parallels COVID-19 in the way it probes the rights of the individual as they relate to the rights of society.

“The more people who know about water, the better,” Boyles says. “Once you know how that system works and how unjust it is, it’s hard not to talk to everyone you know about what a mess it is. I do think that most of the people who are involved in water are fundamentally well-meaning people. Most of them also see that this is a mess and we don’t know how to get out of it. The Trump administration put people in charge of environmental agencies who didn’t believe those organizations should even exist. But even before that, we as a nation have not demanded enough of our government to make sure we are not ruining our land and water. We just don’t demand enough as a society. Even now, I think the Biden administration will do better things for the environment, but I don’t know how that will translate to oversight by my old farm in Weld County. I don’t necessarily see that direct connection. Basically, power is like a magnet. It draws power to itself and away from the rest of us who are just trying to get by. There’s only so long that we can let that happen before we don’t have a place left on this earth that’s safe for all of us to be.”

Being politically blunt in conversation is one thing, but Boyles tries to avoid coming across as preachy in her writing. “Economic justice and environmental justice are intertwined, but fiction should never try to answer those kinds of questions. That’s just bad,” she says. “That’s like a fable or something. It becomes a moralistic thing. It is easier to write about these issues in fiction than it would have been in nonfiction. I could talk about the human impact and how it affects our lives and our relationships with each other and with our neighbors and with everyone without having to say, ‘This is the way forward.’ Fiction just lets you imagine things. I think it’s sometimes hard for people who are struggling economically to look beyond the immediate problems in front of them. I feel we experienced that on the farm when we were struggling so long. It was just harder to think about the bigger issues. But my experience on the farm really helped me with writing. So much of writing is just rejection, rejection, rejection. Having failed so hugely and publicly at farming just prepared me to ride those hard early years of writing and not get too discouraged.”

In Loveland, her support system is back in place. When the Boyleses moved to Gill thirteen years ago, they left an entire community of friends and family in Fort Collins, and visits required a ninety-minute round trip. The distance and the energy that the farm consumed made it hard for them to maintain those bonds. Now those friends and relatives are just a quick drive away. It’s not as if Loveland is a bustling metropolis, but it has perks that the couple missed in Gill.

The Lions Club is still active in Gill, but you can't order a pizza.EXPAND

The Lions Club is still active in Gill, but you can’t order a pizza.

Jason Heller

“Before we moved to the farm, we were used to simple things like being able to order a pizza. You could go to a park and take a walk and see people. I think it was good training for pandemic life,” Boyles says with a sad laugh. “There was no place to go in Gill, but that wasn’t bad, either. We learned to stay home and slow down. It was a beautiful thing, really. But sometimes it was also like, ‘It would be nice to go to an outdoor concert tonight on our bikes.’ Not going to happen. We’re happy now to live in Loveland. It has its benefits. We’re right downtown, so we can walk everywhere. When we sold the farm and told people we had to move, they were like, ‘I’ve got this great property for you to look at. It’s on three-quarters of an acre outside Johnstown.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, if we’re moving, we’re going to be somewhere with pizza. And coffee shops. And libraries. And Thai food — oh, my God.’”

That said, she and Matt don’t frequent the grocery store as much as they used to in the pre-farm days. They no longer run their own CSA, but they are ardent members of two others based in Fort Collins: Jodar Farms and Native Hill Farm. It’s a model they still believe in — and a welcome reminder of the good times they had among the bad.

After abandoning farm life in 2013, Boyles taught school for a few more years while developing her chops as a professional writer. Now, after twenty years as a teacher, she’s been able to quit and write full-time. She made that move early this year, as the pandemic still raged and she was caring for her kids at home.

Again, she’s juggling. Again, she’s ambitious. Again, she’s taking a risk. But her risks always follow her dreams. “It’s scary,” she says. “As a writer, you always have to find the next thing that pays you money. Now that this book is out, I have to come up with the next big thing I’m going to do.”

A return to farming is not on the immediate agenda. But even in light of her newfound success as a writer, Boyles feels she left a part of herself back in Gill.

“I do have nostalgia about the farm,” she admits. “Driving back here and coming over the river bridges, there are all these swallows. Even now, all these birds are singing. Out here, it’s a peaceful and quieter pace of life. The farm was a challenge, and it was crazy, and it was devastating. But I think if we’d been able to make it work, we would have been very happy. And I’d probably still be here.”