“To the Bone” is an ongoing photography project documenting life and work on a small family farm in the Hudson Valley. Emily, a single mother of nine, manages their small farm with the help of her young daughters (her three sons and her older daughters have found jobs off the farm, some out of state). Emily was forced to become self-sufficient several years ago when her husband abandoned the family without warning. They live in an old farmhouse at the end of a road in rural Upstate New York.

The family is part of a self-reliant community that lives off the land. Sheep, goats, pigs, and rabbits roam everywhere. This seemingly idyllic setting contrasts sharply with the hard work of maintaining the farm. Emily has given birth to all of her children at home. The young ones are home-schooled, and the family grows or raises most of their own food. There are no mirrors in the house; everyone is encouraged instead to reflect on their relationship with nature, the land, work, and, most importantly, family and God.

Emily had warned me when we met that they did not live like other families. Their innocence and trust scared me initially, but at the same time it all seemed oddly familiar. When I am with them, I feel strangely at home. I am drawn to tell Emily’s story and her efforts to keep her home and family together after unexpected loss and hardship. I am inspired by their strength and perseverance and how dignity, beauty, and love survive amidst it all.

—Maureen Beitler

 

Emily and her daughters dress up for a rare family portrait. It is the first time that she and all six daughters have been together on the farm in several years.

Nicely dressed for their portrait, Emily and all her daughters congenially gather in the yard. Emily sits center front: a small dog on her lap and her two youngest daughters sit on either side. Behind them three daughters stand and one sits on stool.

The girls slaughter, pluck, and prepare three chickens. One will be served in a soup later for dinner.

Two girls in long-sleeve shirts and long skirts crouch on the ground and together use knives to process a plucked chicken on top of a small wooden cutting board. There are more dead but still feathered chickens at hand.

A bantam chicken is brought into the house for protection from an intruder in the coop.

A girl wearing a long-sleeve, gauzy dress gathered at the wrists and waist gives the camera a stare. She stands inside the house and has placed her hand on her hip to lend support to and to brace her shoulder for the little chicken that stands on it.

Emily’s youngest daughter helps with the pigs and other livestock. She feeds them and assists with birthing when needed.

A young barefoot girl in a maxi-length, sleeveless dress with her hand near her neck looks off to the side as she stands on bare dirt with tree limbs piled to the side as two pigs meander by.

The lambs are bottle-fed if the mother is not providing enough milk.

A girl dressed for warmth kneels outside on a bleak day and bottle-feeds a contented, sweatered lamb that has draped itself across her leg while another sweatered one waits its turn by sucking on her offered finger. A ewe stands close looking on.

One of Emily’s younger daughters prepares to gather maple sap.

A girl carries a long-handled metal pail as she descends wooden stairs at the far end of a multifunction room with a large window having mostly opaque glass. A portion of the room is sectioned with lively ceiling-to-floor polka-dot fabric.

A young friend visits. She has adopted one of the many kittens born on the farm.

A girl holds a kitten in one arm and a doll in the other as she stands by a goat wearing a collar under a large-trunked tree and in front of its massive perpendicular limb upon which is a barefooted surprise in a flowy daisy-print dress and leggings.

One of the girls holds a young pig recently born on the farm.

A girl wearing a jacket with its collar turned up against the chill stands outside and cradles a young, small pig in her arms. The little pig rests its head on her forearm and looks calmly toward the camera.

Emily tries to calm the sheep before shearing begins.

Unshorn sheep—some standing, some lying down—are penned in a large, fenced field. Emily in a white headscarf and a loose-fitting dress gathered at the waist stands amid a tightly packed grouping of standing sheep.

Emily directs from the shadows on sheepshearing day, an annual all-day affair that requires everyone to pitch in. The sheep are sheared, clipped, and medicated as needed, and the wool is then sold or used for bartering.

Emily supervises from behind a half-partition as five of her daughters shear sheep. One daughter straddles a sheep prying its mouth open for medication from a big syringe held by another daughter. A sheep lies down as another daughter bends over it.

The family dog follows the girls on a summer day on the farm.

Two girls walk closely together away from the camera into a grassy field trailed by a medium-size white dog. An unhitched, well-used horse trailer looms large at their right.