FALL 2019 | WEEK 8
Soil and Relationships
By Jessica Bakowski
In this final week of the agriculture unit, signs of the harvest season were all around us. Students learned about this busy time of year at our local farms by working with and interviewing a number of farmers in the area.
Students interviewed farmers from Harvest Hill Farm, Joe’s Brook Farm, and Pete’s Greens about what values have led them to operate organic farms, how they manage their land, and what economic approaches keep them going. We compared large scale vs. small scale operations and discussed both economic and environmental issues facing farmers in our area.
According to one farmer we interviewed, successful farming was about building two things: soil and relationships. With strong relationships, farmers are able to market their products, rebuild after fires and natural disasters, and help each other with technical questions and equipment loans. By maintaining and building fertile soil– the foundation for growing crops– plants are healthier, more resistant to pests and diseases, and require less chemical inputs to maintain. Building soil quality is a key component of environmental sustainability for farms and enables them to continue to produce quality food year after year.
Students also met with members of the Vermont Food Venture Center to learn about programs to help farmers turn their products into sustainable businesses. One of the people we met at the center was Tom Gilbert, owner of Black Dirt Farm. We discussed how food scraps from the Academy are transported and turned into compost in an effort to create a more circular food system on campus. We also discussed his ecosystem-based approach to agriculture.
Thinking about the interconnectedness of people and ecosystems in our communities and our relationships with each other and our natural resources was a fitting way to end this unit and cultivate gratitude for those around us who work hard to sustainably maintain and operate local farms.
On Monday morning, we visited Pete’s Greens located in Craftsbury, VT. A former dairy farm, the property was sold in 1995 and converted into a produce farm. There are several greenhouses on the property as well as large “wash house” that every crop goes through to get washed and processed before packing. Their green houses are technologically advanced, allowing for year-round use. They include automated irrigation, ventilation, and radiant heat. Their biggest buyers are local restaurants, grocery stores, and Hunger Mountain Co-op. They also have a very popular CSA. Pete’s Greens also uses a distributor to market their products as far south as New York City.
Pictured above is one of the greenhouses where Petes’ Greens grows their over 200 varieties of vegetables. They deliver to over 30 different locations. In their CSA, they also include bread and cheeses on occasion which helps other local businesses. They do most of their business in wholesale by selling to restaurants, and they also have a farmstand by the road. They also export their produce out of state. When they got a grant to build a barn, they didn’t use all of the money, so they now support small farms by providing a service of no interest loans. They use the money to loan farmers that are struggling to buy equipment, feed, and other necessities.
On Tuesday we spent a chilly morning at the Moffat Tree Farm. Steve Moffat gave us a tour of the property and showed us some of the different species of Christmas trees that they grow. He also logs some of his property and is trying to grow a white pine forest. After we went down to the house and talked to Jimmy Moffat. He told us the history of the farm. It was a dairy farm when Jimmy’s father owned it. When Jimmy got the farm he turned it over to Christmas trees, logging, and sugaring. Steve took the farm over in the 1990’s. Now it is 10% logging and 90% Christmas trees.
Steve Moffatt maintains a small but effective logging operation at the Moffat Farm. He talked about some of the invasive species that he seen in recent years, mostly buckthorn, and described how he manages it. Buckthorn chokes out white pine, which is a “cash” tree for lumber. He deals buckthorn and other invasives by spraying them with Roundup. A tip that Steve gave us on invasive plants was you have to get them before they get out of hand, otherwise it is too hard to get rid of them.
On Wednesday we went to Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC), located in Hardwick, VT. The VFVC was founded in 2005. The founders were people who had successful agriculture businesses, including Andy Keeler, Tom Gilbert, Andrew Meyers, Annie Romsdale, Annie Guliard, Tom Stearns, and Pete Johnson. Their facility includes large professional production kitchens that people can use to produce valued-added products from their crops. Jasper Hill Cheese is their anchor client, utilizing 40% of the space at VFVC for cheese making.
The VFVC is also home to the Center for Agriculture Economy (C.A.E.). The C.A.E. helps the community, food business, and the farmers. They create workshops for the local small business owners to take part in. They do field trips to the local Ag. business so they can see what larger scale operations look like.
The Vermont Food Venture Center has a social mission to help small food producers in the community. Their business model relies on small local farmers coming to them to use the various services that they offer. Their 15,000 square foot facility includes storage, industrial kitchens and equipment. In order to offer the most help they can, the VFVC also offers business consultation services for small, local businesses. They help farmers identify what products they can make from their crops and they offer advice about recipes, marketing, packaging, and labeling.
On Thursday we went to Harvest Hill Farm, an organic vegetable farm owned by Bill Half and Ellen Gershun. They purchased their 256 acre farm in 2002. Today Bill plants crops on about 4 acres of land. He grows 40 types of veggies and small fruits on his farm, but focuses mostly on root crops like potatoes and onions. The barn that he uses for crop storage was built in the 1920s. Bill believes that an organic farmer’s most important crop is their cultivation of the soil that they grow their crops in. Harvest Hill utilizes practices like cover cropping and crop rotation in order to replenish nutrients in the soil.
At Harvest Hill we learned about the challenges of operating an organic vegetable farm in a facility designed for dairy. Vegetable storage is a challenge because he posts and doors in the barn weren’t built for bringing buckets of vegetables through. It is also hard to get the big crates in and out of the barn when needed. Bill also showed us his custom barrel vegetable washer. This homemade device washes the dirt off of vegetables such as potatoes.