• 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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Sylvia’s Special Seeds

Sylvia Davatz Garden

Written By

Sharon Mueller

Written on

September 01 , 2008

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.

To satisfy my curiosity, I called Sylvia and asked to learn more about her work with seed saving and her trials of unusual varieties. I’d met her when she volunteered in my produce department at the Upper Valley Food Co-op a couple of winters ago. Happily, I was invited over for a visit to her home and garden in Hartland.

Sylvia’s is not your ordinary home garden. Yes, it is laid out neatly in beds and paths. Like some gardens, hers has stone walls, these terraced up the hill on two sides. And yes, she grows some common vegetables, such as lettuces, beets, and tomatoes. But she recently built a passive solar greenhouse that allows her to extend her food production into colder months, create a frost-free environment for starting seedlings, and expand her seed saving capacity by housing biennials that require overwintering.

The purpose of seed saving is to preserve heirloom seeds that have been passed down through families and communities for generations, but that are at risk of disappearing because of the dominance of industrial agriculture, which has eliminated much of the genetic diversity present in world agriculture. Seed savers around the globe plant heirloom seeds each year to make sure the seed will remain vital and usable into the future.

Sylvia is a member of the Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), a nonprofit founded more than 25 years ago. Seed Savers preserves more than 25,000 varieties of open-pollinated (non-hybrid) heirloom and rare vegetable seeds by growing them out on their farm in Decorah, Iowa, and by publishing the Seed Savers Yearbook, through which members can offer heirloom seeds grown in their own gardens to other members. Sylvia offers seed of more than 50 vegetable varieties in the Seed Savers Yearbook and maintains an additional 50 or so varieties for her own use and for trades with friends.

Additionally, as a dual American/Swiss citizen, she is involved with the Swiss seed saving organization Pro Specie Rara, for which she grows and saves seed from three to six varieties of rare or endangered vegetables each year. This year’s varieties include a dwarf barley, wheat from an alpine village, and an old and rare lettuce.

Last year, Sylvia and a friend conducted trials of chickpeas and lentils, and found they didn’t work terribly well, ours not being the Mediterranean environment in which they thrive. But grains are another story. She’s got Globe Wheat from India that’s round and good for bread, Blue Tinge Ethiopian wheat, Kamut, and several hull-less barleys. And then there are peanuts. Yes, peanuts! A black skinned variety, and Thai peanuts too. Who’d have thought?

Sylvia is also working with varieties that naturally extend the season. Have you ever heard of a long-keeping tomato? Store them on your shelf and enjoy them through December. And Valencia winter melons, still juicy and tasty two months after fall harvest—she expects they could last up to four months. Imagine fresh melon out of your root cellar in January!

Dartmouth College’s Organic Farm manager, Scott Stokoe, is helping her with another remarkable project: dehybridizing Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Hybrids are the result of crossing two varieties to obtain a new one with specific characteristics. Seed from hybrids cannot be saved, since it will either be sterile or not grow true to type. Dehybridizing is the process of growing successive generations and selecting for the desired traits, hoping to get the qualities of the hybrid, but with the ability to save the seed and have them grow true to type.

I’d never heard of such a thing, but Sylvia and Scott are in their seventh year of growing the Sun Golds out and selecting for the best characteristics, hoping the variety will be stable by the 10th year. Several Seed Saver members are helping with this effort by growing her seed in different parts of the country. Additionally, she’s working on a plum-shaped Sungold that doesn’t crack—named, you guessed it, Plum Gold.

And this is only scratching the surface of her endeavors. In keeping with her desire to spread knowledge about seed saving, Sylvia has started doing workshops at Cobb Hill Co-housing’s Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland. Folks are hungry for this know-how, and it seems a natural extension of the growing interest in home gardening. In fact, part of Sylvia’s vision is to create a regional seed bank in which all the varieties that form our traditional New England diet are represented.

“Seed saving is a critically important skill that hasn’t yet received the wide recognition that growing heirloom vegetables has,” Sylvia said at a recent workshop. “But without it, we wouldn’t have those [heirloom] varieties.”

She also said that we, as a society, will need to understand and practice seed saving “as oil supplies deplete, as we re-localize economies, and as the seed industry continues to consolidate, often removing treasured varieties and their invaluable genetic diversity from circulation. Additionally, we will need locally adapted seed supplies to meet the demands of our climate, geography, seasons, and markets.”

Sylvia feels that her work honors the hundreds of generations of farmers whose efforts, skill, attention, and caring have given us the thousands of varieties of food we’re able to grow today. In turn, I feel that Sylvia’s efforts and vision are a vital link to the more abundant future many of us are working toward.

Sylvia can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Photo by Sylvia Davatz, of her garden

About the Author

Sharon Mueller

Sharon Mueller

Sharon Mueller is the produce manager and a board member at the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction. She gardens with family and friends at her home in Springfield. Writing about local food and the future of the regional cooperative economy is a budding interest.

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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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