• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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Safe Ground

Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left
Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left

Written By

Katie Ross

Written on

September 01 , 2008

Smokey House Center is not your run-of-the-mill farm by any means. And Natasha was the first to teach me this in no uncertain terms.

A fight makes it sound too violent. A confrontation sounds too technical. I’d call it a challenge. My run-in with Natasha was definitely the first big challenge I faced as a crew leader at Smokey House. She was the first kid to test me, the first to stand her ground. I’m pretty sure she didn’t like me at first, and when Natasha doesn’t like you, you better watch out.

But let’s rewind. I’m pretty sure Tim told me about Natasha during my first job interview. I was trying out for a position doing farm and forestry work with at-risk high school kids at Smokey House, a nonprofit organization and farm embedded at the base of Dorset Peak in Danby. The Center’s mission is to teach academic, social, and workplace skills to at-risk teens through hands-on forestry and farm work. During the school year kids go to their regular schools in the morning and come to work on the farm in the afternoon, getting paid minimum wage and getting school credit. Definitely a good deal if I’ve ever heard one. And the veggies, meat, syrup, yarn, and charcoal from the farm are sold through a CSA and at the Rutland Farmers’ Market.

I knew I would love living and working here because even on that day in late November—a month that is usually my least favorite because it’s so bleak and brown—the place managed to be beautiful, with snow creeping halfway down Dorset Peak. At the end of my all-day interview, which included herding sheep and cutting down Christmas trees, Tim, who is in charge of the youthwork program, told me about Natasha. “She plays football and is on the wrestling team and does ballet and is way tougher than any of the guys here. She is way hard core.”

I would soon get to know her well, as Natasha was part of my first six-member youthwork crew. My tasks as a crew leader were daunting. Over the course of a year I had to take care of the farm’s eight cows, harvest four cords of firewood from my assigned woodlot, and tap and collect sap from 300 maple trees in the sugarbush during sugaring season. I had little farm experience; during that first year, mine was more like a learning mountain than a learning curve.

The half-dozen teenagers who would be helping me complete my list of tasks each had a story that was either heartbreaking or inspiring, depending on your view. The kids who work at Smokey House come here tagged with a number of different labels. “At-risk” is the most common. “Disadvantaged” is the more politically correct term. “Pre-employable” is perhaps the most descriptive.

On any given day working with a crew, you’re bound to get an impressive amount of work done, but you’re also bound to find yourself in the middle of an argument between two crew members, and it’s likely you’ll have to take a break from weeding the summer squash to talk with a kid about issues he’s having at home.

Or you may have to just stand your ground, as I did during my first “challenge” with Natasha. It was a winter day, probably in January or February, and I was explaining Smokey House’s new rule for operating the wood splitter: anyone loading the splitter was supposed to keep their hands away from the wood on the machine as the wedge moved forward and split the log in half. But Natasha simply refused to follow the rule: “No way! We’ve always been able to touch the edges of the wood if we’re careful.” I’ve never been big on confrontation, and to have a student so brazenly challenge my authority was unsettling. But I held my ground and she held hers. That day Natasha stormed away to the office, but she learned that I wasn’t going to budge when it came to safety. The next time we used the splitter she followed the rule, if grudgingly.

The relationship between Natasha and I has improved since then, and her relationship with the Center has been just as positive. Due to family issues, she is currently in foster care, and Smokey House is a consistent place for her to go, a solid rock in a life of waves. “I’ve always felt safe here,” she told me one day. “I have a lot of home issues but at Smokey House I can just chill out.” She makes money, works with responsible adults, and learns some skills in the process. And even though I’d love to think that Natasha and the other kids I work with will all become farmers or foresters, that’s just not the reality. While they do gain land-based skills that they’ll always be able to fall back on, such as knowing how to split wood by hand or knowing when a pea is plump enough to sell at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, what we’re really giving them are the soft skills needed to hold down a ‘real’ job and work comfortably with other people.

When I recently asked Natasha about the best thing she gets out of Smokey House, she answered without skipping a beat. “I have a lot of trouble with my anger. Smokey House helps me deal with people I don’t like.” Signs of her improvement are popping up everywhere. One day this summer she helped the sheep crew trim hooves. Laura, the crew leader, was blown away by the leadership she showed that day, demonstrating to other students how to trim hooves and being patient with the other, less-experienced girls. And I witnessed Natasha’s growth firsthand as I saw her charging down the rugby field. Colleges have already started talking to her about playing rugby for them when the time comes, and if she sticks with it and carries with her the lessons she’s learned while working sheep and collecting maple sap at Smokey House, I think rugby will be her ticket to a solid future.

Long after Natasha leaves Smokey House, I’ll always remember her wide-as-her-face grin the time she slipped in the mud in the sugarbush. Or how eloquently she raved about Smokey House when Senator Bernie Sanders visited last winter. Or how excited she was after swimming all the way across Little Rock Pond when we took some of the girls camping a few weeks ago. She is just one of hundreds of kids whose lives have collided with a different kind of chaos as they pack bags of spinach and radishes into weekly CSA shares, herd cows down the road to a new pasture, deliver newborn lambs into the world, and haul gallons of sap to the sugarhouse. It’s pretty cool that these kids make it possible for us to run a farm, but it’s even cooler to see the way they grow by leaps and bounds here, knowing this place can be a refuge.

Photo courtesy of Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left.

About the Author

Katie Ross

Katie Ross

Katie Ross is the gardener and farm assistant at The Putney School in Putney. She feels lucky that, in addition to getting paid to grow vegetables and teach, her job often requires her to do things like make ice cream, play “Capture the Flag,” visit local farms, and sing.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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