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Archive for the ‘Craftsbury’ Category

More People Than You Know

The other night I was introduced to a poetry professor from MIT and a photographer from NPR, after working all day with a 60-year-old woman who is stronger than many men half her age, and a 30-year-old man whose obsession with old Volkswagens leads him to sell the vegetables from our farm like a good car salesman sells lemons.

The next night I had dinner on the porch of the lodge in the next town over, with a mother of three beautiful children, who lives on the same street as her ex-husband’s mother and brother and sister-in-law. We ate together with a collared-shirt-wearing boy in his late 20s, who is building a house in the Common where he hopes to live forever, and a friend of his, who is deaf, who communicates wonderfully with hand motions and scribbled scraps of paper that pile up on the tables where we’ve spent time.

Every day, I’m surrounded by the people on the farm, who have their own stories. There’s the 80-year-old man who has helped build the new facility, who I see eating out by himself in Hardwick. There’s the guy who fixes all the equipment, and does much of the tractor work in the fields, who lives down the road with his family, and sugars every early spring. He’s been married since he was nineteen to a girl he’d met three weeks before he proposed. There’s a couple in their 30s – he runs the construction of the new facility, she helps with crop planning and farm regulations- who spent the last two years in the Peace Corps in Panama. He grew up here, and his parents and sisters live nearby, while her family visits occasionally from Virginia, where she (incidentally) went to high school with the Volkswagen vegetable man. There’s the woman who used to work for Phish, and the boy who got hit by lightning (or so I hear), and the man who once crashed Pete’s truck and gave up his motorcycle in exchange. There are all the previous men and women, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, who worked on the farm in the past, whose presence remains in stories and habits referred to every day.

There are the people I see at the bar on a regular basis. There’s a girl who manages the growing on a small farm in the next town over, and a self-employed man who I’ve seen go through the now familiar combinations of plowing, logging, sugaring, trucking, fixing up his house, and, as the weather’s grown warmer, building, gardening, trucking, and getting hired to use his tractor. There’s the girl for whom bartending is one of five part-time jobs, and her husband, who just started bottling and selling his cows’ milk this spring. There’s the brewer, who grew up here, whose family history is wrapped up in his town, who attracted over 600 people to his brewery’s first anniversary party last month. There’s the cheesemaker who wears short skirts and boots on a regular basis, and the cheesemaker who had triplets last year (who I don’t see at the bar), and the cheese sales lady who travels around to shops and grocery stores around the country training cheese sellers. There’s a boy who lives in a tent, and generally doesn’t wear shoes, who drives to Manhattan now once a month to sell the baskets that he weaves.

Along the way, at the farm, on the street, at the general stores, at one of the three or four places where we hang out, I’ve been introduced to Hills, Fullers, Moffatts, Gebbies, Johnsons, Kehlers, Rowells, Meyers, Manoshes, and little by little, the farm and local business signs, road names, and town stories begin to connect with faces and families, and with the reality of generations of people that have lived here and known each other for decades.

In his book Disappearances, Howard Frank Mosher’s narrator describes the men of his “Kingdom County” of 1932 as a lost breed. “They needed space in which to get away from people and towns and farms and highways, and other people needed space to get away from them, since authentic characters are not the easiest persons to live with.” The narrator concluded this description, “To live in a world without them, though, while it is certainly easier, sometimes seems intolerable.”

Living in the Northeast Kingdom, now, I have not gotten the impression that authentic characters are a population of the past.

At some point last year, I realized that small farms attracted me as havens of intimate stories, homes to close-knit hard-working people who are often fueled with a persistent, youthful adrenaline, no matter their age.  Good stories – true or false or somewhere in between – seemed to thrive among the people contributing to a working farm.

The fact is, the Northeast Kingdom itself seems to be just such a haven of intimate stories, home to just such hard-working people. For a girl who is always up for listening to another outlandish life history – and probably writing it down – it is a remarkably fitting place to be.  There has been something incredibly rich and hilarious and comforting to me, about living among the people in this area of Vermont. I hear more stories every day than I can remember by the time I get home.

For now, I listen mostly.  Work, and listen.  And for now, it seems that there are more people here – where I live in a town of one thousand – than I would ever have imagined.






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Young Blood in the NEK

This article was written for The Hardwick Gazette of Hardwick, Vermont.  An edited version was published in the paper on April 13, 2011.  The headline read “Young Returners and Newcomers Drawn to Opportunities and Lifestyle.”

Kids who were raised in the small towns of Vermont have not always been able to pursue their goals and make a living in the state they call home.  But to hear the stories of the young people who have recently returned or moved to the Northeast Kingdom is to realize that this is becoming a place for young people to do just that.  The strength of the community here, and an increasing number of steady jobs, is not only drawing Vermonters back home, but also convincing young people from around the country to consider life in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Some are idealistic, some are cynical, and some are naïve,” says Craftsbury resident Tim Patterson of the young people who have moved to the Hardwick area in the last few years.  “But all of them are ready to roll up their sleeves and work.”  Patterson, 28, was raised in Craftsbury and lived in Connecticut, Colorado, and in Southeast Asia, before returning home in 2009 to work as the Director of Advancement at Sterling College.

Another Vermont native, Anna Schulz, moved to Craftsbury two years ago to work with local schools and institutions as an Americorps VISTA through VT Campus Compact.  “I knew that I wanted to come back to Vermont,” says Schulz, 23, whose return followed her graduation from Harvard University.  Schulz lives in a house with a dozen other people under 25.  “We joke that we’ve lowered the mean age of Craftsbury by a few years,” she says.  “But we are attracted to the community.  The people here are generous, kind, hard-working, and humble.”

The community that drew Schulz and Patterson back home is strong enough to attract outsiders as well.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince Razionale lived in Boston and New York City before moving to Vermont this past January.  Razionale, 25, lives in Hardwick with his wife, Katrina Vahedi, and works in Sales and Marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  Vahedi, 29, is a native of California, lived in New York briefly, and is now working on a beekeeping project for Jasper Hill Farm.  Razionale believes strongly in the mission of the Cellars, and both he and Vahedi were attracted to the sense of community among agricultural businesses in this area.  The couple is expecting a baby in May, and their unborn child also played a large part in their move to the Northeast Kingdom.  “The quality of health care here, and ease of acquiring it, couldn’t be more different from what we would have suffered through in New York,” Vahedi says.  “Not to mention, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I love knowing that our kids will be able to call this kind of beauty ‘home.’”

While Razionale works in the Cellars, Ivy Pagliari milks the cows next door, in the barn at Jasper Hill Farm.  Pagliari, 29, grew up in Ohio and was living in China when she first came to Vermont, six years ago.  She needed to return to the states for a summer to renew her Chinese visa.  “I wanted to work on a farm that summer, and it was already April” Pagliari remembers. “So I found a place where the growing season hadn’t started yet.”  She worked on several farms before moving to Hardwick and starting work as a Milker at Jasper Hill Farm last Fall.  “Eventually, I’d like to have a dairy of my own,” says Pagliari.  “For now, this is a great place to work and learn and save money.”

Just down the road in Greensboro, Hill Farmstead Brewery recently hired Daniel Suarez, who moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in January with his girlfriend, Taylor Cocalis.  Cocalis, 27, is self-employed as the Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for food-related work opportunities.  The nature of her website exposes Cocalis to the increasing number of jobs available in this area.  “If I didn’t already have a job, I would be interested in so many of the opportunities available in Vermont,” says Cocalis.  “Most of the time I have to hold myself back from the positions I see.”

As a young person myself, I moved to Craftsbury last November to work in the field and the washhouse at Pete’s Greens.  I couldn’t help but want to live within an agricultural community that seemed so supportive of small, local businesses.  The first time I came to Vermont, I met Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn at Elmore Mountain Bread, Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Marisa Mauro at Ploughgate Creamery.  Their success and collaboration in their own ventures made me want to live near them, learn from them, and maybe (one day) start a business of my own here.  As Mauro puts it, “There’s so much collaboration between producers here.  We can bounce ideas off each other, and help each other out when we need it.  There’s no community, even in Vermont, quite like this one.”

The reality of young people moving to the Hardwick area hints at a shift in the trend of rural-urban migration.  “Alternative agriculture and alternative energy are attracting young people to rural areas,” says High Mowing Seeds owner Tom Stearns.  “Some young people are coming here to stay, and some are coming to gain skills to bring back to their home communities.  Both are hopeful trends.”  High Mowing Seeds has nearly forty employees, several of whom are young people who returned or moved to Vermont to work there.  “Sterling College has brought in interesting people for decades, and many of them have stayed,” says Stearns.  “Now there’s a new generation of young people.  It’s not so much the educational institutions that are attracting them, but the businesses here.”

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy shares Stearns’ hopeful sentiments.  “We want to attract people here whose experiences elsewhere will contribute to this place,” she says, “and at the same time prepare people growing up here to stay and grow into the sort of careers that are becoming available in this area.”

Considering the appeal of this community, the young people who have returned or moved here, and the work they have chosen to pursue, it is clear that this effort is well underway.








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Plenty Alive!

The Greensboro Ice Fishing Derby on Caspian Lake this past weekend was a story I’ll be telling for a long time.  A good friend was visiting me from out of town, I was reporting for the local newspaper, and neither of us could have imagined a better way to spend our Saturday morning than tromping through the snow, over the ice, from shanty to shanty.

We met fishermen and firemen, dads by their stoves and drunks by their tailgates, teenagers with snowmobiles, 10-year-olds ready to sit by a hole in the ice from 4am until 2:00 in the afternoon.  We learned the language as we traveled the lake – tip-ups and jigs, flags, augers, lakers, shiners, smelts.  We learned the rules of the game, the hours, the baits, and the best times for biting.  We saw the clean aquarium look of a live well, the red bubbles on fish with the bends, the black tint of the second and third feet of ice below our feet.  For the hundredth time in the last four months, I wondered what I would be like, if I had been one of the kids we met there, growing up in Vermont.  Having grown up in Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Italy, and Brooklyn….I’ve had a good life.  But until this weekend, I’d never gone ice fishing.  Nor eaten venison, nor even heard of a deep fried turkey.

At least, for that matter, I’m growing up here now.

When we arrived at 7am, John showed us how a tip-up worked, how the flag whipped up as the wheel turned because the line was being pulled.  He showed us how the power auger drilled, in his case, an 8-inch hole in the ice, big enough to fit any fish, small enough to catch a toddler from falling through.  His son played in the snow while his daughter warmed water on the stove for oatmeal.  He told us how people had arrived for the derby long before the 4am start time.

Russell cooked up pounds of venison sausage at the grill in his shanty, placing the cooked meat beside a plate piled high with bacon from the morning.  He handed us a few hot patties in paper towels while Peter showed us how their car had gotten stuck the night before (when they arrived on the lake, straight after work), and how the ruts had conveniently forged their live well.  “Come back at noon!” he and his buddies offered as we began to walk away.  “We’ll be deep-frying a turkey!”

Chuck, who had plowed the snow on the lake (and who plows the snow everywhere, will pull your car out of a ditch anywhere within a 10-mile radius, do your logging, mow your lawn, and come to your barbecue) gave us little Snickers bars as he drove us across the lake to a few fishermen who in time handed us beers and cleaned a trout for us to have for lunch.  They were the only real fishermen whom we met, not just out for a day, for the party, the competition, or the family time.  They were out to fish, and had caught seven trout by the time we met them at 10am (at which point we indeed found ourselves drinking beer).  They could tell you what bait to use, what time to come, what spot to choose on the lake.  They had just come from a 4-day ice-fishing derby on Lake Memphremagog.

Around 11:30, we brought the laker home and baked it in the oven according to the fisherman’s mother’s recipe.  A splash of milk in the pan, butter, onions, and garlic in the cavity, heavy salting.  We warmed up, over our break from the derby, at home, eating the trout, with fresh bread and salad.  Try and tell me the story of a better Saturday.

We returned by 2 o’clock, to learn that the best fish of the competition was a 27.5-inch brown trout caught in the Black’s Cove section of the lake at about 7am.  We learned the largest fish ever caught at a Greensboro Derby was a 34-inch laker in 1989.  We learned that one of the firemen’s sons had caught the first legal fish of the day, an 11.75-inch perch.  We were reminded to write in the local paper that this was a catch-and-release event, and always had been.  Amidst the primarily male crowd of green camouflage and black carhartt jackets, baseball caps and furry hunting hats, and the occasional neon orange scarf or royal blue beanie, little boys shared their triumphs of the day with the old-timers of Greensboro, who knew all of their names.  One loud-mouthed two-foot tall redhead couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  “I caught a pretty big perch out there!” he announced proudly.  “And he was plenty alive!”

The only publicity I saw for the derby was a note with the details in marker taped to the outside wall of the local general store, and a small blurb in the proceeding week’s local paper.  The cash prizes and the equipment raffled off at 2pm were funded by businesses in Greensboro and surrounding towns.  The Greensboro Fire Department organized the event, taking over for a family that had put on the derby for the past 37 years.  Three generations of that family were there, fishing.  If there is a more beautiful, low-key, locally supported event, anywhere, I have yet to see it.

The derby was not an agriculture-related affair.  It was not the kind of event an essay here might have covered in the past.  But it was the kind of thing I’ve come to witness, having visited and lived in a few rural places, just in the past year or so.  The derby made for the kind of day that I crave – one based on a mildly crazy concept (to sit out on a frozen lake for ten hours), which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t explicitly represent any world-changing effort, and yet which generations of people appreciate and enjoy, together.  I’m not quite sure what to compare it to.  The atmosphere at the derby fit right in with the questions and debates of the annual Town Meetings that took place in each town across the state last Tuesday, and with the basketball game in Plainfield this weekend where three generations of women watched their daughters, granddaughters, and older sisters play at the local high school.  The derby was one more ridiculous, colorful day that built upon the white landscape where I have come to farm.  It was one more event that reminded me, after the millionth inch of snow fell and the temperature dropped below zero yet again, that life in Vermont can be plenty alive.

 




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Vermont Models

This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living.  My years in New York had been full.  I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school.  I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it.  And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them.  However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would.  And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live.  I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.

The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily.  Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities).  I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable.    But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over.  Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed.  Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer.  I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work.  When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them.  I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.

I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time.  I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation.  Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future.  If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that.  If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets.  I would grow heirloom produce.  I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally.  I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out.  I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds.  I would not grow zucchini.  I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra.  My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good.  I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and  I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.

Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.

In November, I moved to Northern Vermont.  The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general).  And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can.  Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy.  Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd.  They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast.  They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region.  I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day.  They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.

In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill.  You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours.  If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought.  If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much.  The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute.  Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country.  Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York.  The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts.  Look at how they’ve come together since the fire.  I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.

Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies.  The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous.  You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City).  Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.

That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.

Yet.  If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle?  If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense.  If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom.  Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do –  are deciding to farm.  And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals.  The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live.  As it has here.  We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless.  And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.

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