A Community Buys a Farm
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
“We need more food here.”
Robin McDermott is gazing towards the Mad River across a field dusted with early November snow. The frozen grass crunches beneath our feet as we walk past an old milking barn, standing huge and empty now for 40 years. Several acres of good agricultural soil, once carefully maintained, now lie fallow.
“We need more farmers here,” McDermott says simply. As a founding member of the Mad River Localvores, she should know.
McDermott got the idea for the Localvores at a conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in February 2006, and that summer the first Mad River Eat Local Challenge took place For one week in September, 155 people pledged to eat as much local food as possible, and the movement has since grown: in 2007, 287 Mad River Localvores participated, as did Localvore groups in the Champlain Valley, Central Vermont, the Upper Valley, and Brattleboro. By now, the Mad River Localvores are used to searching out farms and farmers for local food.
This year, however, in partnership with a number of community organizations, the Mad River Localvores are actually creating a farm.
The Kingsbury Community Farm Initiative is a coalition that includes the Mad River Localvores, the Vermont Land Trust, Friends of the Mad River, the Mad River Planning District, the Mad River Path Association, the Warren Conservation Commission, and the sustainable design/build school Yestermorrow. Together, this group has arranged for the historic 20-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren to be conserved as a multi-use agricultural, educational, and recreational community center.
The Kingsburys, a long-time dairy farming family, retired in 1964 but stayed on the land until just a few years ago, leasing it to local farmers for hay. When the property went on the market, local people wondered what might become of it. After a year or so with no takers, the price began to drop. That’s when McDermott and other members of what would become the Initiative began to talk seriously about finding a way to purchase the farm.
“Everyone kept saying it was unrealistic,” McDermott remembers, “but I thought, ‘If we don’t try, who knows what will happen to this land?’” The group gathered for meetings and called in advice from experts around the state, including Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury and Allan “Buzz” Ferver of the Intervale Foundation in Burlington. The general consensus: this is good agricultural land and should be preserved as such.
The town of Warren agreed. In mid-September of this year, the Warren Conservation Commission agreed to contribute up to $125,000 for conservation and public access easements to preserve the property for “agriculture, recreation, education, and community events.” The Mad River Conservation Partnership (a group comprised of the Mad River Valley Planning District, the Friends of the Mad River, and the Vermont Land Trust) also agreed to make a substantial contribution to the effort, and the Vermont Land Trust itself stepped in with the rest. The deal—$495,000 in the end—was closed early in November, and the Land Trust has given the group a year to make a plan and find new owners. (As a rule, the Land Trust prefers not to own land itself.)
In addition to the milking barn, the Kingsbury Farm includes a five-bay garage, a well-kept farmhouse, and a milk house that would make a perfect roadside farm stand. The farmhouse also has a sizable basement that holds considerable promise as a root cellar. The acreage—nine acres of which are considered “good agricultural soils”—rolls back to a lovely beach on the river and stretches around nearby Mac’s Convenience store.
“The farmers at the farmers’ market here sell out every week,” McDermott says. Demand for local food is fast outstripping supply, and some of the farmers at the Mad River Farmers’ Market come from as far away as Jay Peak. With the popularity of the Localvores increasing and land values skyrocketing, keeping farms as farms can only become more important.
As for what the Kingsbury Community Farm would grow or raise? Nobody is sure quite yet. One idea is to focus on storage crops like carrots and beets, to make use of that big root cellar, or even to have a community root cellar that stretches out the local food season as long as possible. Another idea is to pair with the Vermont Milk Company to make the farm a demonstration dairy and convert the farmhouse kitchen into an industrial cheese-making training center. The Initiative is dedicated to maintaining public access to the river, while the Mad River Path Association would like to link the land to nearby pedestrian paths. At the same time, the group is hoping that the final plan will include some space for community gardens and other community activities.
An appraisal in mid-February of this year will determine the value of the property once the easements are in place and development is no longer a possibility. It remains to be seen whether the eventual owners will be farmers, a non-profit group, the community, or some combination; none of the people currently working on the project is a farmer, so they’re soliciting ideas and interested parties from all sides. Regardless of the final details, the Kingsbury Community Farm looks to be a model of community involvement in agriculture—and a novel way to get more local food into that community.
More information on the Kingsbury Farm project can be found at kingsburymarketgarden.com
Photo by Caitin O'Brien