Lydia Ratcliff, Writer Who Found a Farmer’s Calling, Dies at 84

Lydia Ratcliff, Writer Who Found a Farmer’s Calling, Dies at 84

An eccentric and at times irascible farmer who allowed her animals to wander into the living room of her 1820s farmhouse, Ms. Ratcliff was a fierce advocate for the small family farm.

Alarmed by Rachel Carson’s warnings in her 1962 book “Silent Spring” about the hazards of pesticides, Ms. Ratcliff raised her livestock naturally and humanely. This won her praise — and business — from New York’s leading restaurateurs, whom she had cultivated through aggressive marketing.

“We like the fact that the animals are being raised properly, that they are not injected with hormones,” Tom Colicchio, the head chef at Gramercy Tavern at the time, told the Vermont publication Seven Days in 2002. “It’s all that good, clean Vermont air.”

He said her meats were more expensive than others, but they were also better.

Ms. Ratcliff organized nearly 50 other farmers into cooperatives to join her in selling and delivering meats and cheeses to New York and Boston. Though her clientele were high-end chefs, she never stood on ceremony, often showing up with a whole carcass slung over her shoulder.

“It was a ragtag operation,” recalled her brother, John Ratcliff, who confirmed the death. “But Lydia would arrive at these world-class restaurants in her blood-soaked pants with a Louis Vuitton briefcase under her arm, speaking French and Italian to the chefs.”

Her farm, Lovejoy Brook, in the small town of Andover, in south-central Vermont, was once one of a dozen dairy farms within a 10-mile radius. Today, it is the last, having survived in part because Ms. Ratcliff had diversified early as others were squeezed out by the unforgiving economics of small farming, which she also faced.

“It’s been a struggle from Day 1 to make ends meet, to find enough money to keep the barn from falling down at the same time as you’re buying feed for the animals,” she said in an interview in 2009 with Jenny Attiyeh, a journalist who had grown up visiting Ms. Ratcliff in the summers.

“You don’t do it for a profit,” she said.

Over the years, Ms. Ratcliff made conservative investments, cut back her herd size, sold off parcels of her original 225 acres and kept working. Even as her health declined, she continued to ride atop her tractor, toting her oxygen tank.

“You don’t spend your life making a creation — be it a painting or a farm or a family — for it to disappear when you die,” she told Ms. Attiyeh. Having no heirs, she left the farm, now 84 acres with about 50 animals, to her manager, Dwayne Nichols.

Lydia Lawrence Ratcliff was born on Oct. 12, 1933, in a Manhattan hospital to the former Marie Francoise Tonetti and John Drury Ratcliff and grew up in the exclusive enclave of Snedens Landing in Palisades, N.Y., on the west bank of the Hudson River. Her father, a journalist and author, contributed to several magazines, most prominently Reader’s Digest and Time, where he covered science and medical news.

Lydia was the oldest of five children, one of whom died in infancy; another sibling, William, who was known as Tony, died in 2016. Besides her brother John, she is survived by a sister, Alexandra Richardson.

Ms. Ratcliff attended the Putney School in Vermont and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania; when her family moved to Italy, she spent her junior year in Paris at the Sorbonne. She finished college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

She followed her father to Time, where she started as a researcher in 1954. Because she spoke French, she was assigned to accompany Patrice Lumumba, leader of the newly independent Congo, on his 1960 visit to the United Nations. She then persuaded the magazine to host an elaborate party for him at the Waterfalls, a family property in Snedens Landing.

It was in 1963 that Ms. Ratcliff became an assistant to Ms. Porter, a pioneering financial columnist. Ms. Ratcliff wrote Ms. Porter’s columns in newspapers and the Ladies’ Home Journal for 13 years without credit, according to a 2013 biography of Ms. Porter, “Sylvia Porter, America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist,” by Tracy Lucht.

From her farm in Vermont, Ms. Ratcliff organized several writers to produce Ms. Porter’s best-selling “Sylvia Porter’s Money Book.” Ms. Porter gave Ms. Ratcliff, her lead ghostwriter and her longest-serving assistant, a warm dedication in the book. But its publication, in 1975, led to a long dispute over royalties and ended their relationship, Ms. Lucht wrote.

In 1986, Ms. Ratcliff was awarded $15,000 of the $26,000 she believed she was owed. Ms. Porter died in 1991 at 77.

Ms. Ratcliff did emerge with some bedrock financial principles, such as always paying cash and never wasting anything. Still, the hardships of farming left her struggling.

“I went from a high income to a sub-poverty income after the royalties ran out,” she told Peter Miller, an author and photographer, for his 2002 book, “Vermont Farm Women.”

“That is not a disadvantage,” she added. “I think it is more admirable to be poor than rich. I enjoy having no money more than having a lot of money. Or I should say, I certainly was not happier with a lot of money. I am my own boss.”

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