Ray Duckler: A visionary, Sabrina Matteson saw farming as more than just a job
Even as she lay dying, Sabrina Matteson, the agricultural pioneer who spread her vision from Epsom to our nation’s capital, had it all figured out.
A little pain reliever, sure, but don’t drag this out with IVs or feeding tubes, she demanded. No dwelling on the
sadness of the moment, no grieving over a life cut short from breast cancer.
Instead, come to her bedside, she told her three sons and anyone else who visited her at home in Washington, D.C. Smile, tell her what’s new in your life, have your picture taken with her, and plan to celebrate her life, not her death, this summer in Vermont.
And so a Fourth of July bash is set for Landon Lake House in Greensboro, Vt., where Sabrina and her husband, plus two of their sons, were married. There will be a parade, a church chicken supper, fireworks, contra dancing, music, feasting, friendship – all part of the plan, created by a woman who died last month at the age of 56.
“She was pragmatic about her death and how she wanted people to approach her death,” Myles Matteson, Sabrina’s middle son, said from his office in D.C., where he’s on Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s staff. “It’s easy under sad circumstances to just be sad all the time, and she didn’t want people to get wrapped up in that as much as she wanted people taking lessons away from her life.”
Where do we begin?
Some have described Sabrina and her husband, Gary, as an agricultural power couple in D.C., where they moved six years ago after tending to their farm in Epsom for 25 years.
She was the director of rural affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, he the vice president of Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach.
Sabrina focused on improving the quality of life in rural communities. She emphasized local food programs, taught beginners how to build their farm, encouraged children to look at farming as a livelihood, and injected life into the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which gives returning veterans another option after returning home.
“We’ve had a mission statement that basically said we want to improve economic opportunity for farmers and ranchers, and improve the quality of rural life,” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said by phone from D.C. “We have always said that as an organization, but we really didn’t mean it. When she came aboard and developed the program, it became obvious pretty quickly that we were going to move forward and do some things.”
Moving forward, with clear goals and expectations, was Sabrina’s trademark. Stallman said he feared getting in her way once she started one of her missions. “And I was her boss,” he said, adding, “not to mention she was pretty damn hard-headed.”
Gary Matteson described his wife this way: “All stereotypes about redheads describe excitement and passion and being fiery, and that translated into our household with Sabrina and my sons. It was a high-energy household. She was accomplishment-driven, always a plan, always made lists, why are we working toward this, a plan for the future.
“Her strength was encouraging others, to get them outside and say, ‘I think I can do that.’ ”
In Epsom, while home-schooling her three boys and selling fresh-cut flowers, Sabrina taught her sons how to train and show teams of oxen, and she showed them by doing it herself.
“A common theme was her leadership, and her instruction was set by example,” Myles Matteson said. “With music, while she was making us practice and do music lessons, she thought she better be putting time into it, and she would as well.”
She started and coached the Derryfield School girls’ lacrosse team, and she made sure she finished first during running drills.
She made her own bread, sewed her own curtains, played the fiddle, joined the Epsom rescue squad and had farm animals living in her basement, said a friend in Maryland, Cary Barnett.
She stressed the importance of the farm, through a far broader scope than had previously been used.
“She said farm bureaus should be paying attention to the success of community,” Gary said. “How can county farm bureaus encourage and share and build the success of their rural community, separate from just farm businesses? Think of multiple dimensions of a farm, it’s its own community, it’s its own economics, it’s a microcosm of a bigger community.”
Sabrina spread her leadership and optimism and love for community through the local 4-H Club and the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, editing and writing the articles for the organization’s publication.
She influenced her kids to dig deep, tapping into potential they never knew they had. That’s why Myles ran his own business, Myles’s Fresh Eggs, when he was 6, and why he later helped extradite war criminals back to Rwanda to face charges of genocide.
It’s why her oldest son, 31-year-old Tyler Matteson, is a CEO, living in Stoneham, Mass., and why her youngest son, Tucker, 27, is a manager for Fidelity Investments who started a landscape business at 9 years old.
“It’s amazing to look back at the opportunities she was able to provide by virtue of having a flexible education,” said Tucker, reached by phone at his home in Texas. “And she made sure she knew people and tailored her advice to what was best for them.”
She did it with a nudge and a hug, blending the two for perfect balance. Her friend, Jessica Stebbins, lived near the farm. By email, she said, “(Sabrina) had this unique ability to connect with people across a wide variety of backgrounds.”
She took these qualities south, after Gary landed his D.C. job helping young farmers. Sabrina put out feelers and landed her job just three weeks later. Together, Sabrina and Gary worked in unison to get the Farmer Veteran Coalition off the ground.
Not even her diagnosis of breast cancer, in October of 2010, could slow her down. In fact, she postponed surgery to replace windows and re-side the family’s summer home in Vermont.
Doctors later found cancer in the lymph nodes under Sabrina’s arm, but she stayed upbeat over the next 2½ years, hopeful she’d beaten the illness.
Then, with stomach pain 10 months ago came news that the cancer had returned. There were tumors on her small intestine and in her liver, fast-growing tumors that amounted to a death sentence.
Once a week, Sabrina walked to work with Gary, then to the hospital for treatment, then back home, an 8-mile workout that didn’t seem to faze her.
But she knew what lay ahead. She worked the day after Thanksgiving, then finished her life at home, in hospice care. When she could no longer speak, she hugged instead.
This was where she wanted to die, on her own terms. This was where she demanded strength and smiles from all who came to see her. This was where she made plans for this summer, a celebration of her life.
“People were shocked by her pragmatism,” Tucker said. “It comes down to empowering your own life, and that includes your disposition at death. My mother said she had a good life and it was coming to an end and she didn’t want to drag it out.”
The Epsom farm, now rented out to neighbors, is still owned by the Matteson family. Sometime in the future, Gary and Myles will return from D.C., Tyler will return from Stoneham, Mass., and Tucker will return from Texas.
The three boys will bring their children, and the farm will buzz with a new generation.
That’s what Sabrina wanted.
She planned it long ago.