Rutland's Spud Man
Written onSeptember 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?”