• 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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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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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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