After traumatic brain injury, Berkshire farmer Karie Atherton prioritizes mental health

BERKSHIRE — When forty-one-year-old dairy farmer Karie Atherton meets new people or reconnects with old friends, she often gets the same questions:

Did you just come from riding a horse?

Is that your bike helmet?

Do you wear that all the time?

Atherton wears a military-grade helmet during most of her waking hours at Aires Hill Farm & Creamery in Berkshire. It’s the result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and wearing it is the only way she can minimize the risk of getting hurt again and the potential long-term consequences, like memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases.

“I fought the helmet for a long time. I started out with a bump cap, it would protect me if I hit my head on the cow stall, but from a cow, it wasn’t enough,” Atherton reflected. “Then I went to a hard hat, and now I’m on to military-grade. I know it’s better than sitting on the couch.”

The initial injury came from being kicked by a cow in 2013. After that, another bump on the head, which would be mild for most people, would take Atherton weeks to recover from, or longer, with complete loss of balance and speech difficulty.

“They told me before my last one that I couldn’t get another,” Atherton said. “Then I had the last one. I was fine for three days, and then I couldn’t walk. I can’t get hit again because that one almost took a year to recover with PT and occupational therapy.”

Atherton has accepted what she needs to do to keep herself safe. She’s also gotten used to explaining the helmet to people. What she’s still figuring out is how to live the life she wants with a traumatic brain injury.

Keeping the dream alive takes a toll

Atherton grew up on her family’s dairy farm, Aires Hill Farm & Creamery, in Berkshire, a tiny town on the Canadian border with a population of about 1,700. So did the six generations before her. It’s in their blood. Dairy farming is the only occupation Atherton has ever known.

“I’m trying to do everything in my power to stay here; this is what I’ve worked for my whole life,” Atherton said as she reflected on the joys and the tolls of dairy farming, “I also want to be around. I want my kid to remember me.”

Atherton and her husband Nick, who works full time off the farm, have a seven-year-old daughter, Maggie.

Raising a family on the farm is what Atherton dreamed of when she was a girl. And yet, it hasn’t been easy to keep the dream alive.

Atherton graduated from Vermont Technical College in 2000 with an associate’s degree in agricultural business and returned to the family farm owned by her father, Orlyn Thompson, and uncle, Bryan Thompson.

“I put in a lot of work for very little pay, and that’s the norm. The sweat equity was talked about. So we went along with that for a very long time,” Atherton said.

In August 2014, Atherton took over the farm operations when her father and uncle were ready to step back from the day-to-day. The pair had operated the farm since ownership was transferred to them in 1972. Yet, there were no plans to formally transfer ownership to Atherton.

To complicate things, Atherton was recovering from surgery for pinched nerves in her neck and was eight months pregnant with Maggie. Even so, she pushed forward and took on leadership and decision-making at the farm.

Five years later, in 2019, the formal transition of the farm still hadn’t happened.

“After five years of not having anything in my name, I was tired,” Atherton recounted.

Karie Atherton

Karie Atherton in the barn with two of her dairy cows.

Under Atherton’s leadership, Aires Hill Farm won Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year in 2018, and yet under the surface, Atherton was barely holding it together. She was exhausted from the ambiguity around the farm transition, her brain injury and trying to raise a family.

To complicate things even more, the dairy industry had been through five years of devastating economic times, with farmers being paid below the cost of production. The bulk of the farm’s milk is sold as a commodity with little control over the price.

Atherton began processing her own cream top milk to sell directly to the public and opened a farm stand in 2020 in an effort to diversify. She also completed the transfer of the farm into her name. Yet, the rising costs of goods and labor shortages have made it difficult to sustain.

“We [the dairy industry] are extremely fragile. We’re fragile enough where, if the guy who does my cropping loses another farm, I might not have someone to do my cropping,” Atherton said. “We’re all just looking at each other, treading water like who is going to make the first move? Farmers are resilient, and they will dig their heels in more. I’m just wondering how much can they dig in?”

Finding the courage to change

In the fall of 2021, Maggie started first grade and began taking the bus home after school to spend more time with her mom.

But, the pressure and stress of dairy farming combined with her TBI would leave Atherton with nothing left to give her daughter when she got home from school.

“My neurologist insists I need ten hours of sleep. I don’t know any adult that gets 10 hours of sleep, especially if they work and have a child,” Atherton said. “But, if I don’t get that much sleep, I have to rest in the afternoon; otherwise, I can’t think.”

Rest wasn’t solving everything, though, and something needed to change, Atherton says.

“I was too tired to make supper, and I hurt all over. And I had no patience because of my brain. I would get frustrated easily and stutter in the afternoon if I pushed myself too much,” Atherton said.

She worried about what would happen if she pushed her body too hard for too long.

“I want to remember who she [Maggie] is. I want her to know who I am, and I want to be around for her,” Atherton said.

That’s when she called her counselor. She had been going to therapy regularly through the farm transition issues and stopped when the pandemic hit in 2020. She resumed on Zoom in 2021.

“As hard as it is for me to sit on a couch and tell someone all my problems in person, I didn’t think I could do it through a computer. But I did,” Atherton said. “We are going to be making some big decisions and it helps to talk to someone.”

Life after cows

As Atherton thinks about her future, she knows that her job, whether within agriculture or something completely different, can’t take up as much of her life as it has.

“I realize I have to actually take time for myself. My body is forcing me to take time for myself, mentally and physically,” Atherton said.

Even though she understands this, she says she struggles with the weight of what it would mean to be the last generation dairy farmer on her family’s 500 acres.

“You read on Facebook that there’s life after cows, and there’s no doubt that there is. But everyone has their own guilt,” Atherton said. “If this weren’t a seventh-generation farm, I would’ve walked out a long time ago. That can’t be why I’m here. That’s what kept me here, but that can’t be why I’m going forward.”

Atherton recently made the difficult decision to downsize significantly. This spring, she sold 204 of the farm’s milking cows and 126 heifers to Oakridge Dairy in Connecticut and stopped shipping milk to her co-op, Dairy Farmers of America. She kept a dozen beef cows, seven milking cows and continues to operate the milk processing plant and farm stand, selling directly to the public in a much smaller capacity.

“If it wasn’t for my TBI, I’d probably have kept pushing through, but it wouldn’t have been healthy for my family or me,” Atherton said. “In a way, my health forced this decision now, but it’s one I likely would have made later on anyway. ”

As the number of dairy farms in Vermont falls each year, Atherton says the feeling of needing to carry on the family legacy for as long as possible, even when it’s unpractical, is shared among many young farmers as they try to figure out what to do next.

“Everyone goes through it. No one wants to talk about it,“ Atherton said.

Atherton says that by talking about her challenges, from the farm transfer issues to the hardships of farming physically and mentally, she hopes to reduce the stigma around getting help and also to motivate more farmers to prioritize their mental health. Atherton’s father recently passed away, and before he died, she was able to make peace over the farm transition and talk in a healthy way.

“My dad said, ‘I don’t blame you for selling,’ and that meant a lot,” Atherton said.

As for what’s next, in addition to operating the small creamery, Atherton is currently focusing on raising 19 Boar goats for their meat. Much smaller than cows, her risk of injury would be less. They’re also less labor-intensive, allowing her to focus on what matters most.

“I’m a farmer first, and I shouldn’t be. I should be a mom first and a farmer second. That is where my priorities need to be right now,” Atherton said. “If the farm can’t survive because I’m taking care of myself, then this wasn’t meant to be.“

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on Small Town State of Mind, a blog about mental health in rural communities. Visit to learn more.

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