After the Fire

Destruction, adjustment, and renewal at Pete’s Greens

Pete’s barn, January 12, 2011
Pete’s barn, January 12, 2011

Written By

Julia Shipley

Written on

June 01 , 2011

Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

I. What it was

Well, at least for now, there are no parking issues at Pete Johnson’s Craftsbury Village Farm. You don’t have to wonder where to tuck your car so it’s not obstructing a tractor’s path. You don’t need to hunt for an unobtrusive parking place, which of course, is exactly where all Pete’s employees have stashed their rigs. Ever since a fire destroyed Pete’s yellow barn, the heart of his organic vegetable business, sometime during the dark morning hours of January 12, 2011, you can pretty much park anywhere you want.

On a recent spring evening, I stand at the former threshold to the old barn, a renovated dairy barn. It had contained tractors and field equipment on its upper level, in what was formerly hay storage. And the lower level, originally designed for cows, had housed a washhouse, pack house, and cold storage. Although 20 dumpsters of burnt remains have been filled and trucked out between the time of the fire and my visit, and 50 to 70 tons of ruined storage crops have been buried in the field, and although designs for the new vegetable processing facility have been drawn (and a site selected) and concrete poured (by the time you read this, the new facility will have four walls and a roof), there’s an un-ignorable gaping hole where the huge barn stood. As I examine the barn’s socket-like foundation, a black cat rubs against my leg, sits precisely on the charred footing of the barn, and begins grooming his flank. Joining us, a grey cat sashays over a burnt extension cord, and then a third cat, fluffy and black, creeps among chunks of charred wood, nails, and a rusted clamp. These felines seem like keepers of the ruin, and it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if they were white cats up until the night of January 11.

Their casual acceptance, nonchalance, and adaptation to the facts—it was a barn, and now it isn’t—is similar to Pete’s demeanor, as he admits wryly, “Before it burned it was the cleanest it had ever been. We knew exactly where everything was, so we know exactly what we lost.” And then he says with equanimity, “I wish it’d been the house instead of the barn—a house is more replaceable, less critical—but you don’t get to choose what burns.”

Then Pete Johnson—whose business, Pete’s Greens, has grown exponentially over the past decade to the point where the four-season organic farm feeds approximately 1,000 families through its 350-member CSA and its accounts with restaurants and stores—leads me over to an assortment of objects arrayed on the lawn, relics from the fire, what I’d classify as “evidence that metal doesn’t burn.”

“It’s not definitive, but this is what we think might have caused it”, Pete continues. Next to the shaft-less rake, and the handle-less potato fork, there’s a hunk of busted metal. It’s a three-phase converter. “This looks like it exploded, like it just blew apart—but the electric motor sitting right next to it was completely intact, which leads us to think, since they were both exposed to the same degree of heat, that the exploding converter began the fire.”

Pete pauses and says, “I don’t dream about it, so that’s a good thing.” But he admits to rechecking certain orange gleams he catches out of the corner of his eye, just to be sure.

“It’s a special club,” says Paul Betz of High Ledge Farm in Woodbury. “It’s a deal changer.” He and his family lost their house, greenhouses, a barn, and other outbuildings on April 9, 2009, in a fire caused by a faulty propane tank. With a short- term loan from High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott they were able to purchase a truck and a van and continue vegetable farming, but two years later, they are just now breaking ground to build a new house.

Paul says, “As a mental exercise, I like to have a plan, and so I had thought out, were this to happen…” His voice trails off, and then he says, “It’s not something you can practice for.”

“The look on Pete’s face when I went to see him 24 hours after his fire…his look was familiar. After the fire’s out, it gets worse for a long time—much worse.”

II. What it is

Pete realized the day after the fire, “We didn’t have the means to pull out of this on our own.” At the time, all the newly acquired processing equipment, substantial barn renovations, and more than $250,000 of stored meat and produce had not been added to the insurance policy. As he said in his CSA e-mail newsletter three days after the fire, “There’s no way to sugarcoat this…we were underinsured.”

For more than 40 days following the fire, his 81-year-old neighbor, Greg Williams, arrived on the farm to put in full days with Pete and a crew, plowing through rubble, hauling out burnt equipment, and dredging up ruined food. Pete notes that Greg’s motto is, “it’s just stuff,” but recalls that when Greg came upon the wasted frozen strawberries, he just lost it.

Considering the work Pete invested in his business to turn it from a bunch of rented fields and an office/living quarters in a camper-trailer into the Craftsbury Village Farm—one of the most productive organic farms in Vermont—he observes that making sacrifices and scrambling the first couple of years, as well as having key employees, allowed him to back off and not work as hard the last couple of years. He says if this fire had happened seven years ago, he would have jumped back in full bore, but it’s different now; and yet, it’s requiring him to jump back in full bore.

And a massive portion of Vermont’s organic food consumers wants to plunge back in with him, at least financially. With a torrent of fundraising benefits, donations, and people simply wanting to help, Pete’s Greens has been on the receiving end of staggering examples of support and generosity.

For Pete, perhaps one of the most touching events was the Community Dinner and Art Sale held in February in the basement of the United Church of Craftsbury. “We felt totally loved; some of the older people in the community, people I had never even met before, came.”

While the rubble of his barn was still steaming in a grey heap, dozens of other fundraisers broke out in surrounding communities. A partial list includes: the Applecheek Farm dinner; American Flatbread’s fundraiser; the Vegetable Valentine Pete’s Barn Fundraiser at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center; Go Green for Pete’s Greens on St. Patrick’s Day at Clare’s Restaurant in Hardwick; the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ benefit contra dance; the Juniper Moon Farm fundraiser; the Highland Lodge fundraising dinner; and the Three Course Vermont Dinner Benefit at the Blue Moon Café in Stowe.

Larger events included The Bid for the Barn, an online auction that generated more than $64,000, and the Hug Your Farmer Benefit Concert at Higher Ground in Burlington, with performances by 13 musicians, including Jon Fishman and Page McConnell of Phish. There was even a wool CSA from Virginia that auctioned off, among other things, a miniature donkey and raised $11,000. As this article went to press, more than $150,000 had been raised to restore operations at Pete’s Greens, and on April 28, Governor Shumlin, who had stood in the statehouse the morning after the fire and publically pledged to aid Pete’s Greens, announced the business had been approved for a $300,000 low-interest loan.

As I’m interviewing Pete over dinner at Clare’s, a man comes to our table and exclaims, “Hey! I wrote you a check—I remember writing it.” After he leaves I ask Pete about being on the receiving end of a fire-hose force of generosity. He attests, “I’m super appreciative, but I’m not used to… [he searches for the words]…it makes me uncomfortable.”

And meanwhile there have been other agriculturally catastrophic events. How does anybody account for the disproportionate responses to tragedies such as the fire on May 26, 2010, in North Walden that destroyed a barn and 150 cows, or the fire on April 15, 2011, in Mt. Holly that consumed an historic barn and killed more than 200 animals? Or what about when Paul Betz and his family lost everything, or when cheesemaker Jon Wright of Taylor Farmin Londonderry suffered a barn collapse on February 6, 2011? What begets this monumental response to Pete’s plight, and not to other farm businesses?

The way Paul Betz sees it, Pete’s community isn’t just where Pete lives (Craftsbury has a population of roughly 1,200). “He has direct relationships with people all over the state.”

Caitlin Gildrien, outreach coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA) of Vermont, cites the apparent relationship between direct marketing and the size of a response. She writes, “Pete has a huge CSA, and a farmers’ market and self-branded wholesale presence in Vermont. I think a lot has to do with the range of people who see themselves as connected to the farm—the size of the community from which the farmer can draw their support. For a dairy shipping milk, it seems that community is limited really to the people who personally know the farmer, whereas a direct-marketing farmer clearly has a much wider pool of people who feel invested in their farm.”

Betz takes the idea a step further, reflecting on the fact that dairy farming is a system that mandates that “you put your product into a bulk tank [and in doing so] you become anonymous.” He wishes there was a human face on a carton of milk—instead of people thinking it’s a commodity on a shelf—so that when people went to buy milk they would feel there was a person and a story behind it. Then those consumers would be more likely to personally respond to a catastrophic farm event, such as a fire. “That’s a shortcoming of the dairy industry, an unfortunate reality, and it sucks…”

III. What it will be

Pete’s discomfort with the mounting total of donations, and a desire to pay it back, helped him conceive of the Vermont Farm Fund. The new fund, established with Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick, will repay the donations “forward,” once Pete’s Greens becomes profitable again, toward emergency farm relief, small farm loan funds, and farm-to-school initiatives. It will act like a battery, Pete says, and eventually channel the good directed his way toward other farmers in dire circumstances.

On the drive back from dinner, I ask if he feels stronger. He misunderstands. “You mean because of driving this truck?” No, I clarify, “You’ve literally, ‘been through the fire.’”

“I don’t think I’m stronger.” In the dark cab, there’s a kind of relaxation of our roles, interviewer (writer), interviewee (farmer), and we resume being two neighbors who met before Pete bought a farm with a big yellow barn. He confesses, “Either I don’t deal with adversity and I’m shallow, or I deal with it really well.”

While acknowledging his wish that this hadn’t happened (my barn burned down), he also welcomes the awesome opportunity the fire brought (now I can see the moon).

The new facility under construction is based on a building belonging to Dutch farmer Gerjan Snippe of Bio Brass, a producer of organic cabbages and other brassica crops sold throughout Europe. Snippe’s operation had survived a fire, and the “anal” attention to detail and precision of the large operation also appealed to Pete’s sensibilities and needs.

And although Pete concedes, “We’ve worked all weekend, four weekends in a row; I’m tired,” beyond his burned down barn you can see the new facility taking shape, near where the five greenhouses gleam.

Parked close to the charred three-way converter, there’s a tractor with fresh soil clinging to its tines.

What about the gaping space where the huge barn stood—what will it be? Pete grins. “We’re thinking maybe an ice rink, a racquet ball court, something for the community.”

About the Author

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley wrote this article on a desk she stuck in her cow barn. With a grant from the Vermont Arts Council, she’s completing a book of braided essays titled, Hewn: Dispatches from Broken Ground. Since July she has been a writer in residence at the Helen Day Art Center’s Habitat for Artists in Stowe, both drawing and writing about farm tools. Readers who know of farmer-writers she may have overlooked, or who simply wish to chime in with thoughts on the literature of agriculture.

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