• Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    It’s hard not to notice the growth of Vermont farmers’ markets. Seems you turn around and there’s another one starting up. Or how about winter farmers’ markets? They number 14 to date, up from just a handful a year ago. And then there are CSAs of every sort, in which people pay in advance for shares of vegetables, fruit, and meat. Some shares even include canned and baked goods.

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  • Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    I’d heard rumors of what might be growing in Sylvia Davatz’s greenhouse. Wheat from an alpine village. Greens throughout the winter. A tomato that lasts until December. Even peanuts! I wondered: What might be going on at Sylvia’s? Plants like these aren’t normally grown in Vermont.

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  • A Gathering Storm

    A Gathering Storm

    In 1716, while serving as a French missionary near Montreal, Father Joseph Francis Lafitau made a discovery in the journal of a fellow priest serving in China. He read about a plant, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), that the Chinese cherished for its medicinal value, and he believed he could find this plant or a similar one in the temperate woodlands of southern Canada. He eventually did, and in doing so added a new chapter to the annals of natural resource exploitation that accompanied white settlement in North America.

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  • Growing Up in 4-H

    Growing Up in 4-H

    4-H is a national enrichment program for young people ages 8 to 18. Around the country, local clubs teach specific skills intended to give young people four types of experiences that, organizers believe, contribute to positive youth development: mastery, belonging, independence, and generosity. Developing these skills is what it means to grow up in 4-H.

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  • Set the Table with Celeriac

    Set the Table with Celeriac

    I’m in the second year of my love affair with celeriac and the romance is still aflame. My initial reaction upon “discovering” this vegetable was to think, “Where have you been all my life?” Since then I have introduced my new love to many gardening friends, insisting they take home a couple of six-packs of seedlings in the spring and just have a fling. This year I also donated quite a few plants to the Westminster West School Children’s Garden, which I coordinate, to see if the kids would take to celeriac the way they now respond to kohlrabi—another somewhat “odd” vegetable that we planted together, and that has become one of their favorite raw snacks.

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  • Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    The season started out dry at High Ledge. In early June, we watered the upper field by dragging a hose down each row of lettuce and beans, delivering water from a tank filled from the pond. We were making rain, you could say, playing God. Then the real rain came. Then the rain kept coming. And after two weeks, we were feeling very mortal. We lost a whole bed of lettuce to rot, and then another. Everything in the greenhouse stalled and some plants started to mold.

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  • Rutland's Spud Man

    Rutland's Spud Man

    His story is an exception—not the story we usually associate with Vermont farmers around his age, farmers in their 60s and 70s. These farmers grew up during the Depression and World War II, often on their parents’ land, then farmed themselves—dairying, mostly—for 40 or 50 years. And their stories, as everyone in Vermont knows, have often ended at the auction block or in a real estate agent’s office—places where fields and cows must be sold because of brutal economic forces. Or their stories have ended when the farmers have become too tired, or too injured, to keep working.

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  • Three Square—Fall 2008

    Three Square—Fall 2008

    Growing up in Vermont I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura daylilies. I recently returned to live here full time. Since then, I’ve noticed that conversation often turns to food. What’s for dinner? This is the fourth and last installment of a series in which I’ve visited a variety of Vermonters in their homes, peered into their iceboxes, and shared their thoughts about what they eat. Because of the often personal nature of their stories, I’ve chosen to omit their last names.

    “I don’t care much about cooking,” Edith tells me. “I don’t put much stock in it."

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  • Safe Ground

    Safe Ground

    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.

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  • Springing Ahead

    Springing Ahead

    Spring Lake Ranch is a farm-based therapeutic community in Cuttingsville, 10 miles from Rutland. Its mission is to help people with mental health and substance abuse issues find value and focus in their lives, primarily through community living and working the land. The work program makes up the core of our daily activities, and is divided into Farm, Gardens, Woods, and Shop. Residents come to the ranch for an average stay of six months, although there are no prescribed limits.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    I’ve always had a certain fascination with root vegetables, grown secretly and mysteriously beneath the cool, dark ground. Root crops weather the changes of the growing season in private, developing steadily out of sight all summer. This makes the harvest of these subterranean crops somewhat like the unveiling of a new work of art: the earth is opened with shovels and forks, and hands reach in. The clinging dirt is swept away and the shape and color of the root is finally revealed after months of secret creation.

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  • Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Growing food in a garden gives us a close-up look at Life—like being at the New England Aquarium in Boston and pressing up against the glass to watch a giant turtle swim by. In the garden, though, we do more than just stand at the glass. Rather, we work with the web of life, cooperate with nature, collaborate with Mother Earth. Want to know how roots work? Grow food. Want to learn how to keep somebody healthy? Grow food. Want to care if it rains? Grow food.

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  • The Great Vermont Barn Census

    The Great Vermont Barn Census

    If you love barns, or history, or just love roaming around Vermont talking to people, you may enjoy participating in the Vermont Barn Census. Launched in August by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and other organizations, the Census invites volunteers to talk with barn owners about their old barns, then enter information about the architecture and past uses into an online database. The idea is to create a descriptive catalogue of Vermont’s estimated 5,000 barns before they succumb to old age, weather, or demolition. Volunteers can work individually, in pairs, or through organized groups, and plenty of information on barn architecture is provided; you don’t have to be an expert to participate.

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Rutland's Spud Man

Don Heleba

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

September 01 , 2008

His story is an exception—not the story we usually associate with Vermont farmers around his age, farmers in their 60s and 70s. These farmers grew up during the Depression and World War II, often on their parents’ land, then farmed themselves—dairying, mostly—for 40 or 50 years. And their stories, as everyone in Vermont knows, have often ended at the auction block or in a real estate agent’s office—places where fields and cows must be sold because of brutal economic forces. Or their stories have ended when the farmers have become too tired, or too injured, to keep working. Whatever the plot lines, the stories of Vermont’s older farmers often end in grief, anger, and a reluctant acceptance that life can no longer be lived beneath the hot sun or the roof of a barn.

The story of Don Heleba, a 69-year-old native of Rutland, is different. His farming story isn’t ending in old age—it’s just beginning, aided by new economic forces that are making small-scale local agriculture a viable profession again. Meeting Don Heleba, you might associate him with the tragedies experienced by so many older farmers in this state. Instead, you start hearing him talk about potatoes—he likes to talk a lot about potatoes—and you realize that at age 69, this farmer who was born a couple of years before Pearl Harbor but who didn’t farm professionally until a few years ago is riding Vermont’s new local food wave, a movement that is more associated with younger farmers “from away” than with older farmers from here.

“I never dreamed I’d be doing this—going to farmers’ markets,” Heleba said recently, in a thick Vermont accent worthy of his ancestors.

He also probably never dreamed that his specialty potatoes would sell like hotcakes at markets and co-ops, or that they’d be sought out by high-end chefs. And when he was spraying pesticides on his father’s crops as a kid, he probably never dreamed he’d one day be using the words “organic” and “sustainable,” or be talking about the importance of turning back to the “old ways” that his father’s father practiced. He is tickled by the turn his life has taken toward sustainable farming, but he also considers his new life precious.

“Some people tell me I should give this up—I should put in a subdivision and build—but that gets me irritated,” he says. “Doin’ this potato stuff is my therapy for gettin’ away from all the problems in the word, if you know what I mean.”


Unlike most Vermont farmers his age, Donald Heleba (pronounced Huh-LEE-ba) didn’t spend his adult life farming. He came to it only five or six years ago (he can’t recall exactly when), after retiring from a life of welding and fabrication work. The fact that he began farming professionally in his early 60s is unusual, but the work came naturally to him because he grew up on his family’s farm—the same West Rutland property where he lives and grows potatoes today.

His parents had a typical, mid-century Vermont agricultural life consisting of dairying, haying, and the raising of a few food crops on roughly 260 acres (about 90 of them tillable). In 1994, his father endured the all-too-common experience of having to sell off the family’s Holsteins, 75 of them, because of economic pressures. With characteristic understatement, Heleba describes it as “kind of a sad day.” His father died a few years later, and Heleba moved with his wife back into his childhood home.

His memories of growing up on his family’s farm are pleasant, but his father discouraged him from farming. “He just kinda made you feel like you should do something else.” So the younger Heleba did other work, for four decades, until he retired from True Temper, a wood products manufacturer in Wallingford. At that point his wife, Diane, who had sold crafts at local farmers’ markets for years, suggested that he begin going to the Rutland Farmers’ Market to sell some of the potatoes he’d been growing on the side.

Heleba was reluctant. Although you wouldn’t think so after hearing him talk (pauses are as rare as a hole in one of his potatoes), Heleba used to have a hard time speaking to strangers. He says the thought of standing at a farmers’ market stall petrified him. “I didn’t like talkin’ to people. I just wanted to stay away. But my wife said, ‘You’re just gonna have to learn how to do this,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to say or anything,’ and all she said is, ‘Just be yourself, just be you.’ So I did, and this is where I am.”

Today, they call him the “mayor” of the Rutland Farmers’ Market, and his 35 unique varieties of potatoes, which he digs and sorts by hand, are sought out by patrons of the Rutland, Dorset, and Manchester farmers’ markets, some of whom have sent him letters of potato praise (“I got postcards from Boston and out West.”) His spuds are also staples at the Rutland Food Co-op—German Butterballs and Red Golds were on display there recently—and they’ve been purchased by highly accomplished chefs through the Vermont Fresh Network, including chefs at the prestigious Dorset Inn.

“I’m not braggin’, but I get very high marks from the customers,” he says. Later he says, “I’m not braggin’ or anything, but we sell ‘em all.” Lest anyone think that’s too much bragging, Heleba describes himself as plain, “just plain...the way I talk and everything, that’s just the way I am. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not.” Traipsing through his fields with him (he is short, but takes big steps), it’s not his plainness that’s striking but his warm, crooked smile, his moments of honesty, and the fact that his short, round fingers almost resemble the fingerling potatoes he likes to grow.


Purple Majesties, Rose Finn Apples, Amandines, Green Mountains, Red Thumbs, Purple Peruvians, Russian Bananas, Red Golds. Adirondack Blues, Gold Rushes, Granolas, Magic Mollies. Who knew potatoes could taste and look so different? But all these varieties and more are growing on Heleba’s potato field—five or six acres located across the road from the farmhouse he grew up in, next to the forest where a maple tree once fell on his head when he was a kid, up the hill from the stretch of Route 4 that wasn’t there when he was a kid.

There are also German Butterballs in Heleba’s potato field, plenty of them, because they’re his most popular potato. “I keep thinking, if German Butterballs are the best selling, why do I grow all these other ones? It’s kinda hard to keep track of ‘em all.” He’s also got a few varieties of sweet potatoes growing near his storage facility, which is located in the same basement area where his father’s less sophisticated root cellar used to be.

There are certainly other farmers Heleba’s age who are growing vegetables for local markets in Vermont, but not all of them forswears synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Heleba’s farm is not certified organic, but he uses only organic-grade inputs and buys the bulk of his seed from places like Fedco, a supplier of organic, untreated, and non-genetically modified seeds. He is distrustful of large agribusinesses and their increasing control of seed supplies, and he shakes his head over the chemicals used on so many large-scale potato fields. Maybe it’s because he remembers when his father farmed sustainably, before the “poison.”

“This buy local and organic stuff is what we used to do before the Second World War,” he says. “When the war started I was little, and I remember my father doin’ all this kinda stuff, and then all this poison stuff come out and everything, herbicides and all that, and they were great for a while but then after a few years they pulled ‘em off the market, banned ‘em ‘cause they caused cancer and birth defects. But my father used all of it. I remember when he used to spray DDT. Then he used worse stuff than that. You had to stay out of the field for two weeks—nobody could even walk in. I sprayed some of it by hand one time and my legs started to burn. I was sick for two days after that, but I didn’t tell anybody.”

Farming organically makes his work more challenging, but Heleba is proud he can do it at his age. His son David, a field research technician in the University of Vermont’s Department of Plant and Soil Science, comes down and helps him once a week, but other than that he’s “a one-man show.” He prefers working with the potatoes by hand, although you wouldn’t think so given all the old tractors and random machines scattered around his property: a homemade rock picker, a vegetable washer, a chipper, a 1953 tractor, a 1940 one, a potato digger from Italy, a rototiller made in France. He’s so enamored with antique machines that for a while he was a member of a local tractor club; members buy and fix up old tractors, then show them off at events.

“The reason I like the old stuff is, it’s not computerized, and you can get the parts easy,” he says. “I’d even go back to a hoe if you ask me, and I think it’s headin’ that way.”

Heleba is not used to the attention he’s been getting for his potatoes, and he doesn’t seek it, but he says it inspires him to keep going. Given his zeal for farming, it’s natural to wonder whether he regrets going into welding when he was younger. Does he wish he’d been a farmer all his life?

There’s a pause. He looks down at the ground. “Yuh.”

“But to me it’s not all about money.... It’s like, just—” he starts to get tears in his eyes as he gestures to the land around him— “it’s all free, all this around ya’. Does that make sense?”

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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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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