• Editor's Note Summer 2009

    Editor's Note Summer 2009

    Anyone who has walked across the Vermont State House lawn in Montpelier knows it is different from any other lawn in the state. A wooden statue reputed to be Ceres, the Greek goddess of agriculture, stares down from the State House dome, appearing to sow seeds on the grass. A marble Ethan Allen standing at the State House door glares with fiery eyes at all who pass. A stately walkway guides visitors to an imposing granite building where important (and sometimes infuriating) decisions are made. No other place in Vermont feels so formal and heavy with history.

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  • Backyard Poultry

    Backyard Poultry

    Chickens are the new black. Like many things once associated with poverty and largely left behind when industrial goods became impossibly cheap (whole wheat bread, hand-knit sweaters, walking to work), backyard poultry has become fashionable. People want to save money and to feel more connected to the source of their food. And if there’s one sure way to feel connected to something, it’s by having to constantly feed it and clean up its poop. Ask any parent.

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  • Drink Local

    Drink Local

    My husband and I love beer. We used to be wine drinkers, until we discovered that a well-chosen beer actually pairs better with most of our meals than wine. He was also a homebrewer for years (my job was capping the bottles) until his recent recruitment into the ranks of the professional brewers at Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.

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  • One Acre Grows a Long Way

    One Acre Grows a Long Way

    Here are some facts about an acre. It is 43,560 square feet. It’s about 40 percent of a hectare, the metric system’s equivalent of an acre. It can be estimated by picturing a football field without the end zones. Most U.S. agricultural production takes place on a much, much grander scale—an average of 440 acres, to be exact—but to many Americans, having even a single acre of productive land seems like a pretty good deal.

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  • Grocery Stores Taking Stock  of Local Foods

    Grocery Stores Taking Stock of Local Foods

    Pyramids of green apples and red tomatoes elbow each other for space. Not far away is the deli, where wedges of cheese mingle with lunch meat and sliced bread. Shoppers meander through aisles of canned soup and boxed cereal, and navigate a maze of produce and dairy. The lights are bright but not overly so. This is, of course, a supermarket, and the size and ambience of these chain grocery stores is the opposite of what you find at small neighborhood farmers’ markets, where Vermonters tend to shop for locally produced food.

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  • A Harvest Wedding

    A Harvest Wedding

    Bowls overflowing with local blueberries, plates of Neighborly Farms and Jasper Hill cheese, fresh bread made by Red Hen Bakery, plus sunflowers from Gardens at Seven Gables (Barre) and Fool’s Farm Flowers (Hardwick) lining the path to a clearing filled with family, friends, and—at the end of the grassy aisle—each other (and our dog, Ella). This is how we remember our wedding day last year. After a very rainy July, the land around us was bursting with green beans, red peppers, purple delphinium, and green hillsides as far as the eye could see.

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  • Rutland Area Farm & Food Link

    Rutland Area Farm & Food Link

    What started out as an economic analysis of agriculture in Rutland County has become a movement to preserve and grow a sustainable food system. More than five years ago, as an employee of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, India Burnett Farmer collected a group of people passionate about agriculture in the area to get a read on the industry. At the time, a pervasive melancholy attitude about the future of farming in the Rutland area had settled into the soil.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Summer

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Summer

    When George Gershwin wrote “Summertime, and the living is easy...” one gets the impression he wasn’t really thinking of the farming population. In the words of Ann Robinson Minturn in August 1862, “there be those whose souls rejoice in the yellowness of their butter, the whiteness of their bread, and the exceeding cleanliness of their houses... to sit with the hands folded is an abomination–and such women should I think be farmers wives.”

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Goat Goodies

    Farmers' Kitchen—Goat Goodies

    People often ask us how many calories are in our goat milk caramel. My answer is none. Which is a complete and total lie, but I figure if you’re going to eat it you probably don’t want to know the exact number of calories in it. What you might want to know instead is that the caramel is made from fresh goat milk produced on my family’s small farm in Brookfield. We take care of a goat herd of 50 fiercely independent and utterly adorable goats. We milk 22 does and have a family of babies, bucks, and teenagers who complete the herd.

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  • Last Morsel—Visionary “food policy”

    Last Morsel—Visionary “food policy”

    Back in 1988, the 6th grade class at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier worked on a visionary “food policy” for their city. With the help of folks at Food Works, a nonprofit that connects children and communities to local food sources, the students produced a document that included this final page. It shows that long before today’s local food movement, Vermont children were envisioning a food-centered future.

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One Acre Grows a Long Way

Market Garden

Written By

Helen Labun

Written on

June 01 , 2009

Here are some facts about an acre. It is 43,560 square feet. It’s about 40 percent of a hectare, the metric system’s equivalent of an acre. It can be estimated by picturing a football field without the end zones. Most U.S. agricultural production takes place on a much, much grander scale—an average of 440 acres, to be exact—but to many Americans, having even a single acre of productive land seems like a pretty good deal.

Small spaces for agricultural production likely had more respect a hundred years ago, when home gardens provided a quarter of the average household’s diet. (An acre of fertile land can provide a lot for a family.) Today, when most home gardens have been replaced by commercial operations, an acre might be better viewed as a transition point between a backyard garden that is within many Vermonters’ grasp and a growing space for professional farmers. Given that small operations may offer the most accessible way for our next generation of farmers to get their start, a humble acre can be very important.

So, then, what does one acre mean for agricultural production in Vermont?

My parents’ home gardens on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom—complete with figs, kiwis, peaches, lemons, and mulberries—offer one example of what can be done with an acre. The gardens aren’t just about novelty. My mother estimates that she gets almost all her produce from the backyard in summer and plenty of it lasts throughout the year. But the more exotic offerings fit right in with her original goal: to provide food that is otherwise hard to find locally in its fresh-from-the-fields state—or at least that was hard to find when she started the garden 30 years ago (a time before artisan bread, fancy cheese, and flourishing farmers’ markets were signatures of Vermont’s eating scene). Our family’s productive land may weigh in at less than an acre, but it’s had a much greater influence on our diet than the thousand-acre fields that produce most Americans’ food.

When home gardens expand into a business, they offer a modern twist on the traditional farming homestead. One such enterprise, Flowers in Season, is flourishing in the Lake Champlain Islands. Flowers in Season is operated by mother-daughter team Gwen and Minner Hobbs out of Gwen’s home in South Hero. They began selling cut flowers, then responded to customer demand by incorporating Minner’s skills in art. Now it’s a booked-solid flower arranging service that incorporates homemade art into every arrangement.

“It’s not FTD,” Minner says of her personalized arrangements that push creativity to accommodate client requests—one being bright orange deer head sculptures to adorn a wedding bar. And don’t call it a hobby. She and her mother have a full plate of customers. They look stressed at even the thought of expanding beyond their current small footprint.

An acre operation doesn’t always mean a backyard, though. Krista Harness, Duffy Gardner, and Jaiel Pulskamp located their one-acre farm on Vermont Compost Company’s land, a mile from downtown Montpelier. Their small production space means they need to pay attention to every detail in order to perfect their yields. When they started, they worked by hand to avoid compacting the soil, placed the beds just a footpath’s width apart, and interplanted for dense growth they could sort through at harvest. Then they added compost. Lots of compost. Kale, lettuce, scallions, collards, mesclun, peas, summer squash, winter squash, onions, beets, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and herbs resulted. The Montpelier Market Garden owners estimate that even in their first year of operation they were producing enough veggies for 50 to 75 families, including their own.

There are plenty of pragmatic reasons why ventures like the Montpelier Market Garden and Flowers in Season would want to build a business on an acre. Smaller space means less mechanical equipment. It also means less money invested up front in land, and perhaps an easier time finding a parcel for sale. Locating on land closer to more densely populated market areas means that less time and money go into transporting the product. Some landowners, like the owner of the Market Garden’s land, simply believe it’s wrong to allow pockets of productive land to sit dormant.

But these benefits aren’t necessarily primary in new producers’ minds. Instead, many of them do this work for more or less the same reason that led my mother down the home gardening path 30 years ago: a one-acre ag business provides the right kind of life. Krista Harness has high praise for her Market Garden’s opportunity to combine the “solitude of farming and the camaraderie of community,” as she phrases it. “I didn’t want to give up my job, arts, activism for isolation,” she says, comparing the activity of Montpelier to the vast fields of the West.

Minner Hobbs of Flowers in Season sees a lot of farmers following the same logic in the Islands. The makeup of the farmland there still includes large dairies and orchards, but these are increasingly mixed with smaller operations supplying particular niches in the market. Land prices and national market forces have played a role in this transition, but anecdotally what Minner sees is people following what they love to do—which doesn’t necessarily require an expansive spread.

Gwen Hobbs points to her gardens of long-stemmed flowers, birches, Japanese maple, and patches of flowering things that all find their way into her arrangements. “This is my home, too,” she says, “I don’t want it to feel like a commercial flower operation.”

Starting small allows for many styles of businesses. Some arrangements reflect broader micro-business trends, such as spouses with completely separate careers, and enterprises that mature gradually from a hobby to a job. The USDA notes this diversity, defining a farm as any operation selling $1,000 of product or more in an average year. Vermont still averages 197 acres per farm, but recognizing farms of every size makes the goal of producing at least part of a living from the land seem more accessible. That accessibility can help usher in the next farming generation.

And for the rest of us? We’ll benefit from the bridal bouquets, fresh spring salads, mulberries, and homemade preserves that result.

To learn more about turning a home garden into a commercial operation, see UVM Extension’s New Farmer Guide (www.vermontagriculture.com/agdev/newfarm.htm) or explore the introductory courses offered by the Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN) at www.uvm.edu/~wagn/.

Photo by Helen Labun Jordan

About the Author

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun is the Executive Director of Vermont Fresh Network, a farmer-chef collaborative organization. After many years as a Local Banquet writer, she is also currently Local Banquet's publisher from her home in Montpelier. 

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