A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors
Food Works’ Two Rivers Center Opens a New Root Cellar and Builds from There
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.
But their deep commitment to the issue compelled them to create a nonprofit organization that to this day is devoted to teaching gardening, food preparation, and nutrition to children in public schools.
“Historically, Vermont has long met its food needs and we can do so again,” Kiefer says. “We want to move beyond food shelving and hunger relief. We work to strengthen local food systems and empower children and others to grow, prepare, eat, and preserve their own foods—because we all have a need for that connection.”
As founders and mangers of a nonprofit, Kiefer and Kemple are multi-taskers who exercise, daily, a variety of skills as educators, fundraisers, philosophers, and visionaries. And recently, they’ve added another role: “farmstead revivifiers.”
In 2001, Food Works purchased an historic farmhouse and acreage on the edge of Montpelier. The goal was to create a food and agriculture center that would strengthen central Vermont’s local food system. “The geography and the history of this place is special. This is sacred earth,” Kiefer says. “We feel that this is meant to be a gathering place, a commons, as we learn to feed ourselves in changing times.”
Ownership of the new property, known as the Two Rivers Center, has put Food Works on the cusp of a new phase. The staff are developing new programs and partnerships within the community as they breathe new life into the Two Rivers building and the land.
“It had felt awkward to us to preach about growing your own food from a third-floor office,” Kemple says. “Expanding to become the Food Works at the Two Rivers Center allows us to be on the land and walk our talk.”
The Two Rivers Center is located at the confluence of Stevens Brook and the Winooski River. A confluence—a place where two or more rivers join and flow together—creates a synergy in the natural world and is a rich place for plant and animal life. But humans are drawn to these natural junctions, too. River bottom land provides rich agricultural soils for farmers, and communities dependent on river transport have often been built at confluences.
And so it is fitting that the confluence at the Two Rivers Center has been significant in Vermont’s history. It was owned and farmed by a settler named Jacob Davis, who traveled up from Connecticut and established the first permanent homestead in what is now known as Montpelier. (An interesting aside: Davis donated his original land holding for the site of the Vermont State House.) In Davis’s time, all food was local food, and the task of feeding himself motivated him to establish his farmstead where Stevens Brook joins the Winooski River. That location, and the original 1836 farmhouse, is the Two Rivers Center today.
There have been many changes in the intervening 175 years. The farm’s original land base of 200 acres has been reduced to fewer than 20, and it is easy to miss sight of the farmhouse amid the traffic and business signs. The new rotary at the junction of Routes 2 and 302 is the common point of reference for the Center’s location, not the rivers.
And yet, “ideal” is the word Kemple uses to describe the property. “It is an island in the middle of a lot of change,” he explains enthusiastically. He connects the site to the mission of the Center saying, “Our surroundings are emblematic of what it means to live on the land in an age of development and industrialization.”
After Food Works bought the property from the Margaret and Sam Hoare family in 2001, four acres were recultivated, sprouting crops such as salad greens, potatoes, and garlic. Three greenhouses were built, making it possible to harvest fresh produce in the “shoulder” seasons of late spring and early fall. And in the summer months, the land became the site of day camps for children in the Center’s Gardens for Learning.
Each summer, campers engage in the age-old pleasure of being outside with friends, mentors, and the natural world. They tend and harvest seasonal vegetables and culinary and medicinal herbs, and prepare meals with food they’ve grown in the gardens. Not only is this skill-building, it is fear-dispelling: for many of these children, summertime means an unwelcome rise in their food insecurity as the assurance of a daily meal through their school lunch program ends with the academic year.
“We’re very serious about this as a way to reduce hunger,” Kiefer says. “It’s empowering.“
A Solid Foundation
Progress is taking place not just on the land but at the farmhouse, too. Initial work has been done to reverse the damage caused by vandals when the house was unoccupied. Interior walls have been stripped of crumbling plaster, setting the stage for future renovations.
But the most recent—and most dramatic—transformation to date is the creation of a below-ground community root cellar and space for a first-floor community kitchen. The first step was to suspend the farmhouse ell on overhead supports. Will Eberle, a central Vermont carpenter and timber framer, then worked on the project with a crew of young people who were on an alternate path through high school. They built a firm foundation from cinderblocks and capped it with a solid hardwood floor of local lumber.
Then the recession hit, funds ran out, and the project was put on hold. But it got a lucky break when Brian Van Hoy moved to central Vermont. Van Hoy is a certified “green” builder who, in the fall of 2009, was healing a broken leg. During his recovery, he donated his expertise to the root cellar project. Young people installed insulation, ventilation ducts, and climate control mechanisms under his supervision.
To the casual eye, the root cellar may seem to be just a hole in the ground, or the foundation of a weathered building. But when it opened in November 2009, it became a new link in the local food system. Now Food Works is able to operate its Farm to Table program—through which farm-grown produce is sold at wholesale prices to central Vermont institutions—in winter as well as summer.
On a recent winter day, Food Works’ Farm to Table Coordinator Sara Lisniansky, assisted by Leah Erlbaum, were busy filling bulk orders for 25 customers. The vegetables had been grown on 11 central Vermont farms and stored in the root cellar. The variety was astounding: potatoes, garlic, winter squash, parsnips, celeriac, beets, cabbage, and more. Banish the thought that local food is only available in the growing season!
The buyers of these products were diverse, too. Eaters of all ages and varying economic backgrounds later enjoyed this fresh produce in schools, hospitals, senior centers, the cafeteria at the National Life building, and at Goddard College, among other locations.
“The farmers love it,” says Kiefer. “They can grow food for people who might otherwise not be able to afford it.”
A Time for Partnerships
“We’re at a critical juncture,” Kemple reflects as he describes the next phase of progress on the house. “We are actively looking for community partners to join with us.”
Food Works is collaborating with members of the community on the planning of a teaching/processing kitchen and food business incubator on the first floor. They also envision building a Quebec-style bread oven and creating a living history museum, library, local foods eatery, and general store.
Kiefer is filled with enthusiasm as he talks about the future. “We want people to say, ‘Wow!’ Here’s what a food-based economy looks like. See all it can do!”
Photo courtesy of Food Works