My Return to Maine | A Photojournalist’s Unforgettable Journey Continues

“Most folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

-Abraham Lincoln

As I embarked on my return trip to the self-sustaining marijuana farm in Maine this spring, I had been thinking a lot about happiness.  What are the things that make humans happiest?  Do we understand about what actually makes us happy?  Is happiness something we can will, or is it something that happens to us?  If happiness is a concept, can it be different for each of us?  To be “happy” is a notion that is incredibly simple, yet inherently complex.  Looking in on someone else’s life – a life that is very different from your own – can leave you with a wide-eyed sense of misunderstanding.  It can also give us great perspective on our own lives.  This year, I attempt to pull back the curtain a little further on the mindset of this beautiful family who, for the second year in a row, graciously allowed me document their lives for 36 hours.  And maybe, just maybe, there’s an insight for us in how they’ve chosen to live.

If you haven’t had a chance to read about my first trip to farm in 2016, I highly suggest you check it out before reading today’s update. {Note: All names have been changed to protect the identity of my subjects.}

When I pulled up to the Callow home on a dreary Monday morning in June, there was a light fog coating the farm.  An “authorized personnel only” sign lay at the foot of their driveway and at least 5 handmade signs warning travelers, “Do Not Spray Without Consent,” littered the road leading up to their house.  The family dogs alerted to my arrival and Bonnie (mom) met me outside.  There was a flicker of warmth in her smile and it calmed my nerves a bit.  A long wall, at least 10 feet high, was being built along the front of the property.  Later, when I asked Pete about it, he responded, “Well if Trump can build one in Mexico, why can’t we build one here?  Making Maine great again.”  He said it with one of his ear to ear smiles, followed by a chuckle, then flew out the kitchen door.  I still am not quite sure how to interpret his comment, but I can tell you that I felt a growing sense of privacy within the family culture.


Here’s the gear I packed for the trip:

  • Nikon D5
  • Nikon D4
  • 24- 70mm f/2.8
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 105mm f/2.8
  • 256Gb worth of memory
  • A few lens hoods and plastic lens coverings in case I needed to shoot in the rain
  • 1 flash
  • The highest boots I could find (Hunter)
  • A raincoat
  • Waterproof pants

I stepped through a broken wooden threshold into their kitchen, and was greeted by Sylvia, their oldest daughter, with a running hug.  While I knew she would probably remember me, establishing relationships with children as a photojournalist while not interfering with their lives can be challenging.  Last year, after grappling with my presence for a day, she finally asked, “So are you a kid or are you an adult?”  I can understand why it’s not clear how to categorize this 30-something-year-old female who arrived from a far away place to lay on the floor and climb trees while taking pictures of her family.  Admittedly, it’s kind of weird.

Pete (dad) gave me a huge handshake and gave me a quick update on the farm.  But before he told me anything, I noticed he was in Carhartt pants, a blue button down and a hard hat.  A pretty radical shift from last year’s torn sweater, weathered jeans, and knit cap.  He explained to me that the farm was no longer independently growing marijuana, but that he had subdivided small plots on his land to allow others to rent and grow their own herb.  Pete proudly explained, “I make $50,000 a year from those plots.”  At that moment I realized I wasn’t speaking to a farmer.  I was speaking to an entrepreneur.  More on this in a bit.  Here’s a close up of one of these plots.


Simon, their five-year-old son, continued his flirtation with the camera this year.  Here you can get a better understanding of the wooden planting boxes and subdivisions of land rented out to herbal growers it the area.



Morning chores for Ivy (9 years) include feeding their oversized bunny.



Little Sylvia (7 years) still isn’t so happy to have me around, but I appreciate her acceptance for a few days.



The day before I arrived, Pete had fallen off his truck and given himself a nasty welt.  He used a cleansing agent that he formerly used on the pigs to clean their wounds, which colors human flesh blue.  Then he was off to run errands in town before returning home in the afternoon for a smidge of family time.



During Sylvia and Ivy’s home schooling lessons with Bonnie, they were learning how to draw maps.  Ivy drew a map of the farm.


A family who lives on a farm in Maine practices home schooling at the kitchen table.


The upside of the fact that it rained all day was that the family (minus dad) was together all day.  It gave me a nice opportunity to document lots of the ordinary moments in their family as well as their interactions together. Without TV’s, ipads and computers, the kids find themselves creating group projects (like sewing), playing cards, or helping mom create the next meal.



The family acquired their first sewing machine and Ivy was intent on learning how to use it.  It turned into a great rainy day activity while Bonnie and the girls researched dresses in books, used the chalkboard to dream up concepts, and planned how to properly stitch each piece.


A mother on a farm in Maine teaches her daughters how to sew a dress with a sewing machine.


A new oven, good for baking pizza and bread, yielded a delicious loaf for the morning snack.


Children gather around their mother on a farm in Maine as a photographer documents their life.This is a picture of the remnants of breakfast made by a family on a farm in Maine.


Rainy afternoons can feel DAYS long, and as I watched everyone’s boredom set in, it became harder to disappear into the background in this small space.



Once the rain cleared up, Bonnie and kids headed outside to do a few chores.



Pete returned home in the late afternoon.  Not only had he sustained the leg injury the day prior, but he had been hammering stakes into the ground for the last two days.  This was the only time I saw him take a break for a few minutes.  I really wanted to convey a sense of how tall and solidly built Pete is, so I turned over an old barrel I saw in the corner, dragged it in front of the bed and hopped up.


A family in Maine gathers together at the end of a long day of work on the farm while a photographer documents their lives.


This is the bed where Pete and Bonnie sleep.  It’s parallel to the stage behind me (seen below), with several mattresses that the children sleep on.



When I was wrapping up Day 1, I had a realization:  I had been on my feet for 8 hours following a 3 hour drive to Maine that morning, and I had no pain.  Two cameras and four lenses on my person all day, without sitting down once, and my back was good as new.  It made me well up with gratitude and pride for all the work I have done over the last 10 months to get my body back in shape.  The last time I was in that house I was three months post c-section, and 4 weeks post lumbar fracture.  The spring of 2016 was one hell of a good time.  But man, am I so glad I pushed myself through it. Roots workshop changed everything for me.  It’s changed my approach to photography, it’s changed the memories I produce for my clients, and it’s made me love my job so much more.

I headed back to my hotel around 5:00PM that evening, and returned at 6:00AM on Tuesday. Pete was on his way out the door and Bonnie was brushing her hair in the kitchen.  The kids were still asleep.



Bonnie headed out to milk the only female cow that hadn’t been moved up to the mountain.  It’s clear they have a real connection, but lady cow wouldn’t let me forget that she did not appreciate my presence.  Snorting and staring, I was pretty nervous when I lay down at her feet to photograph Bonnie milking her (below).

One of the biggest differences in terms of the makeup of the farm from last year to this year was the absence of hogs.  As a result of changes at the state and national level regarding the process and quality of the milk being fed to the pigs, it became nearly impossible for them to acquire it.  So the hogs were sold to the butcher for about 5000 lbs of meat.  As I dug deeper into the specifics of these changes, I learned that it’s getting stringently harder to be a small farmer.  The quality and conditions specifications for producers now include regular water checks, packaging specifications (i.e. butter must be molded into sticks) and other checkpoints that are increasingly difficult for small farmers to meet.


A woman in Maine milks a cow on her own self sustaining farm.


I loved witnessing the children waking up, and being able to see where they slept.  They sleep in the same space they spend their days doing laundry, sewing clothes, reading books and playing together.  Their sleeping quarters have changed a few times since I visited last year, and like all things on the farm, they adapt their lives when the situation requires it.


Children play in bed on a farm in Maine as a photographer documents their life.


One of the most familiar, yet unexpected, parts of this trip was a conversation I had with Pete as he explained his greenhouse building business to me.  “Last year I made a lot of mistakes. I bought too much wood.  And the amount of money I had to spend on advertising in the winter to move one shed just wasn’t worth it.  So this year, I’m limiting the wood I buy upfront.  I’m going to make as many as I can until I run out, and then that’s it until next year.”  Right.  This man knows how to adapt.  Arguably the most important characteristic for any small business is the will and ability to change when something’s not working.  The faster you can adopt change, the more successful you can be within your field of competitors.

So then I asked him, “What would a perfect year on the farm look like?”  He replied, “Just like this.  Keep doing what we’re doing.  Keep things going.”  No pie in the sky, big plan for outsourcing all the hard labor.  No ideas about selling his businesses.  Just keep on, keeping on.  Separately, I asked Bonnie the same question, and got a similar response, “Just keep the farm open.  Another year like this one.”

Conceptually, this was a really hard idea to wrap my head around.  Just keep doing more of the same?  No short term and long term goals?  In my mind, this does not compute.  And I’ve wrestled with it ever since I had the conversation.  I’ve tried to get myself into the mentality that happiness for them can simply be a straight, consistent line.  Maybe they’re not allowing themselves to dream.  Or maybe they don’t want to.  Or maybe this really is their dream.  Looking in from the outside, it’s a hard life, a life that’s wearing on them.  But what is happiness?  Maybe it’s getting their hands in the dirt every day.  Maybe it’s being part of a community and ideology much bigger than themselves.  Maybe it’s the relief of not having to keep up with the Joneses. When you look at the statistics on happiness, there’s solid research to show that being part of an ideological community is the most predictive factor of human happiness.  And trying to outdo your neighbor is one of the things that makes middle-class Americans most miserable.  So maybe they’ve got it right, and we’re upside down.



Much like last year, the family is constantly penning and repenning groups of animals around the property.  Bonnie and Sylvia drove to the land they own next door to pull some old stakes out of the ground that they need to pen in the cows up on the mountain.  The really are very few jobs that are too arduous for the children to do around the farm.  And it’s important that they get as much done as possible while the rain has stopped.


A little girl does farm labor in Maine while a photographer documents her work.


This is a hard life.  I can see and feel the weight of the years building on the family.  But it’s a lifestyle they choose and Bonnie and Pete have a real understanding of how they want that to look.  I’m not sure we can all say the same for our day-to-day and what we find motivation in each morning.  Sometimes more choices aren’t better, they are just more choices.  Perhaps somewhere in between both ends of the spectrum ends lies a quiet perfection.

I’m looking forward to continuing their journey in the coming years.  They already have a family album on it’s way to their home 🙂



Karen is a Boston-based photographer specializing in family history.  You can see more of her work online at or on Facebook.  If you’d like to contact her directly, you can find her at

All images are copyrighted to Karen Kelly Photography and have been registered with the United States Copyright Office.  Any violation of this will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law.

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