• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    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.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Safe Ground

Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left
Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left

Written By

Katie Ross

Written on

September 01 , 2008

Smokey House Center is not your run-of-the-mill farm by any means. And Natasha was the first to teach me this in no uncertain terms.

A fight makes it sound too violent. A confrontation sounds too technical. I’d call it a challenge. My run-in with Natasha was definitely the first big challenge I faced as a crew leader at Smokey House. She was the first kid to test me, the first to stand her ground. I’m pretty sure she didn’t like me at first, and when Natasha doesn’t like you, you better watch out.

But let’s rewind. I’m pretty sure Tim told me about Natasha during my first job interview. I was trying out for a position doing farm and forestry work with at-risk high school kids at Smokey House, a nonprofit organization and farm embedded at the base of Dorset Peak in Danby. The Center’s mission is to teach academic, social, and workplace skills to at-risk teens through hands-on forestry and farm work. During the school year kids go to their regular schools in the morning and come to work on the farm in the afternoon, getting paid minimum wage and getting school credit. Definitely a good deal if I’ve ever heard one. And the veggies, meat, syrup, yarn, and charcoal from the farm are sold through a CSA and at the Rutland Farmers’ Market.

I knew I would love living and working here because even on that day in late November—a month that is usually my least favorite because it’s so bleak and brown—the place managed to be beautiful, with snow creeping halfway down Dorset Peak. At the end of my all-day interview, which included herding sheep and cutting down Christmas trees, Tim, who is in charge of the youthwork program, told me about Natasha. “She plays football and is on the wrestling team and does ballet and is way tougher than any of the guys here. She is way hard core.”

I would soon get to know her well, as Natasha was part of my first six-member youthwork crew. My tasks as a crew leader were daunting. Over the course of a year I had to take care of the farm’s eight cows, harvest four cords of firewood from my assigned woodlot, and tap and collect sap from 300 maple trees in the sugarbush during sugaring season. I had little farm experience; during that first year, mine was more like a learning mountain than a learning curve.

The half-dozen teenagers who would be helping me complete my list of tasks each had a story that was either heartbreaking or inspiring, depending on your view. The kids who work at Smokey House come here tagged with a number of different labels. “At-risk” is the most common. “Disadvantaged” is the more politically correct term. “Pre-employable” is perhaps the most descriptive.

On any given day working with a crew, you’re bound to get an impressive amount of work done, but you’re also bound to find yourself in the middle of an argument between two crew members, and it’s likely you’ll have to take a break from weeding the summer squash to talk with a kid about issues he’s having at home.

Or you may have to just stand your ground, as I did during my first “challenge” with Natasha. It was a winter day, probably in January or February, and I was explaining Smokey House’s new rule for operating the wood splitter: anyone loading the splitter was supposed to keep their hands away from the wood on the machine as the wedge moved forward and split the log in half. But Natasha simply refused to follow the rule: “No way! We’ve always been able to touch the edges of the wood if we’re careful.” I’ve never been big on confrontation, and to have a student so brazenly challenge my authority was unsettling. But I held my ground and she held hers. That day Natasha stormed away to the office, but she learned that I wasn’t going to budge when it came to safety. The next time we used the splitter she followed the rule, if grudgingly.

The relationship between Natasha and I has improved since then, and her relationship with the Center has been just as positive. Due to family issues, she is currently in foster care, and Smokey House is a consistent place for her to go, a solid rock in a life of waves. “I’ve always felt safe here,” she told me one day. “I have a lot of home issues but at Smokey House I can just chill out.” She makes money, works with responsible adults, and learns some skills in the process. And even though I’d love to think that Natasha and the other kids I work with will all become farmers or foresters, that’s just not the reality. While they do gain land-based skills that they’ll always be able to fall back on, such as knowing how to split wood by hand or knowing when a pea is plump enough to sell at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, what we’re really giving them are the soft skills needed to hold down a ‘real’ job and work comfortably with other people.

When I recently asked Natasha about the best thing she gets out of Smokey House, she answered without skipping a beat. “I have a lot of trouble with my anger. Smokey House helps me deal with people I don’t like.” Signs of her improvement are popping up everywhere. One day this summer she helped the sheep crew trim hooves. Laura, the crew leader, was blown away by the leadership she showed that day, demonstrating to other students how to trim hooves and being patient with the other, less-experienced girls. And I witnessed Natasha’s growth firsthand as I saw her charging down the rugby field. Colleges have already started talking to her about playing rugby for them when the time comes, and if she sticks with it and carries with her the lessons she’s learned while working sheep and collecting maple sap at Smokey House, I think rugby will be her ticket to a solid future.

Long after Natasha leaves Smokey House, I’ll always remember her wide-as-her-face grin the time she slipped in the mud in the sugarbush. Or how eloquently she raved about Smokey House when Senator Bernie Sanders visited last winter. Or how excited she was after swimming all the way across Little Rock Pond when we took some of the girls camping a few weeks ago. She is just one of hundreds of kids whose lives have collided with a different kind of chaos as they pack bags of spinach and radishes into weekly CSA shares, herd cows down the road to a new pasture, deliver newborn lambs into the world, and haul gallons of sap to the sugarhouse. It’s pretty cool that these kids make it possible for us to run a farm, but it’s even cooler to see the way they grow by leaps and bounds here, knowing this place can be a refuge.

Photo courtesy of Smokey House Center; Natasha is third from left.

About the Author

Katie Ross

Katie Ross

Katie Ross is the gardener and farm assistant at The Putney School in Putney. She feels lucky that, in addition to getting paid to grow vegetables and teach, her job often requires her to do things like make ice cream, play “Capture the Flag,” visit local farms, and sing.

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