• Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    It’s hard not to notice the growth of Vermont farmers’ markets. Seems you turn around and there’s another one starting up. Or how about winter farmers’ markets? They number 14 to date, up from just a handful a year ago. And then there are CSAs of every sort, in which people pay in advance for shares of vegetables, fruit, and meat. Some shares even include canned and baked goods.

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  • Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    I’d heard rumors of what might be growing in Sylvia Davatz’s greenhouse. Wheat from an alpine village. Greens throughout the winter. A tomato that lasts until December. Even peanuts! I wondered: What might be going on at Sylvia’s? Plants like these aren’t normally grown in Vermont.

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  • A Gathering Storm

    A Gathering Storm

    In 1716, while serving as a French missionary near Montreal, Father Joseph Francis Lafitau made a discovery in the journal of a fellow priest serving in China. He read about a plant, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), that the Chinese cherished for its medicinal value, and he believed he could find this plant or a similar one in the temperate woodlands of southern Canada. He eventually did, and in doing so added a new chapter to the annals of natural resource exploitation that accompanied white settlement in North America.

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  • Growing Up in 4-H

    Growing Up in 4-H

    4-H is a national enrichment program for young people ages 8 to 18. Around the country, local clubs teach specific skills intended to give young people four types of experiences that, organizers believe, contribute to positive youth development: mastery, belonging, independence, and generosity. Developing these skills is what it means to grow up in 4-H.

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  • Set the Table with Celeriac

    Set the Table with Celeriac

    I’m in the second year of my love affair with celeriac and the romance is still aflame. My initial reaction upon “discovering” this vegetable was to think, “Where have you been all my life?” Since then I have introduced my new love to many gardening friends, insisting they take home a couple of six-packs of seedlings in the spring and just have a fling. This year I also donated quite a few plants to the Westminster West School Children’s Garden, which I coordinate, to see if the kids would take to celeriac the way they now respond to kohlrabi—another somewhat “odd” vegetable that we planted together, and that has become one of their favorite raw snacks.

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  • Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    The season started out dry at High Ledge. In early June, we watered the upper field by dragging a hose down each row of lettuce and beans, delivering water from a tank filled from the pond. We were making rain, you could say, playing God. Then the real rain came. Then the rain kept coming. And after two weeks, we were feeling very mortal. We lost a whole bed of lettuce to rot, and then another. Everything in the greenhouse stalled and some plants started to mold.

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  • Rutland's Spud Man

    Rutland's Spud Man

    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.

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  • Three Square—Fall 2008

    Three Square—Fall 2008

    Growing up in Vermont I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura daylilies. I recently returned to live here full time. Since then, I’ve noticed that conversation often turns to food. What’s for dinner? This is the fourth and last installment of a series in which I’ve visited a variety of Vermonters in their homes, peered into their iceboxes, and shared their thoughts about what they eat. Because of the often personal nature of their stories, I’ve chosen to omit their last names.

    “I don’t care much about cooking,” Edith tells me. “I don’t put much stock in it."

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  • Safe Ground

    Safe Ground

    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.

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  • Springing Ahead

    Springing Ahead

    Spring Lake Ranch is a farm-based therapeutic community in Cuttingsville, 10 miles from Rutland. Its mission is to help people with mental health and substance abuse issues find value and focus in their lives, primarily through community living and working the land. The work program makes up the core of our daily activities, and is divided into Farm, Gardens, Woods, and Shop. Residents come to the ranch for an average stay of six months, although there are no prescribed limits.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    I’ve always had a certain fascination with root vegetables, grown secretly and mysteriously beneath the cool, dark ground. Root crops weather the changes of the growing season in private, developing steadily out of sight all summer. This makes the harvest of these subterranean crops somewhat like the unveiling of a new work of art: the earth is opened with shovels and forks, and hands reach in. The clinging dirt is swept away and the shape and color of the root is finally revealed after months of secret creation.

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  • Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Growing food in a garden gives us a close-up look at Life—like being at the New England Aquarium in Boston and pressing up against the glass to watch a giant turtle swim by. In the garden, though, we do more than just stand at the glass. Rather, we work with the web of life, cooperate with nature, collaborate with Mother Earth. Want to know how roots work? Grow food. Want to learn how to keep somebody healthy? Grow food. Want to care if it rains? Grow food.

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  • The Great Vermont Barn Census

    The Great Vermont Barn Census

    If you love barns, or history, or just love roaming around Vermont talking to people, you may enjoy participating in the Vermont Barn Census. Launched in August by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and other organizations, the Census invites volunteers to talk with barn owners about their old barns, then enter information about the architecture and past uses into an online database. The idea is to create a descriptive catalogue of Vermont’s estimated 5,000 barns before they succumb to old age, weather, or demolition. Volunteers can work individually, in pairs, or through organized groups, and plenty of information on barn architecture is provided; you don’t have to be an expert to participate.

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Growing Up in 4-H

Brooke Russell of Russell Gorge Farm, Tunbridge, with her Holstein

Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

September 01 , 2008

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
And my health to better living,
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.
—4-H pledge

There’s often a special quality about kids who grow up on farms. It has to do with capability, and having an ease or familiarity with so many aspects of life, from caring for young animals to tending large ones, from having mechanical skills to engaging in improvisational problem-solving.

For more than 100 years, young people in 4-H have pledged to contribute with skill and thoughtfulness to the world around them. That tradition continues—and is evolving—in Vermont, where there are several 4-H clubs in every county of the state, and where 4-H leaders are providing learning opportunities for young people both on and off the farm.

Hands, Hearts, Heads, and Health

4-H is a national enrichment program for young people ages 8 to 18. Around the country, local clubs teach specific skills intended to give young people four types of experiences that, organizers believe, contribute to positive youth development: mastery, belonging, independence, and generosity. Developing these skills is what it means to grow up in 4-H.

The organization began forming in the late 1890s to address young people’s need for better agricultural education. Yet today, farm and livestock work is only one way that 4-H offers hands-on learning and experimentation to children. Clubs cover an array of other topics under the broad categories of Healthy Living, Citizenship, and Science, Engineering, and Technology.

“It isn’t just cows and corn,” says Wendy Sorrell, Vermont State 4-H livestock educator. “These days, you can see PowerPoint presentations on sheep, as well as sheep themselves.”

The agricultural programs are developed cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Cooperative Extensions at land grant universities (such as the University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, and Cornell University); and local volunteers. The idea, Sorrell says, is “to give kids basic information and enough room to come up with their own way of doing something. It’s learning-by-doing, then reflecting on how each step contributed positively or negatively to the process. ‘What decisions did I make along the way? How did I contribute to the group?’”

Sorrell herself grew up in 4-H in Grand Isle, in a club that focused “pretty much on dairy.” She has worked as a 4-H educator since 2000 and reports “an ebb and flow of what’s popular. There’s been a huge surge of interest in sheep. But the most popular now are horse clubs.”

Steered Right

Horses may be popular, but one of the more unusual 4-H clubs in Vermont teaches children to work with steers (neutered male cattle younger than four years of age).

The Green Mountain Teamsters is run by Terri Chamberlin and her father, Neil Lamson. They have been 4-H club leaders since 1992, and share with young people a skill that’s been carried on by their family for as long as there have been Lamsons in Pomfret.

Before the advent of tractors in Vermont, working steer and oxen were used for heavy work on the farm: plowing fields in spring, haying in summer, logging in the winter, and sugaring in late winter. Today, kids may become interested in working steers by seeing them at a fair or reading about them in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or maybe their family has an old farm with an ox yoke hanging somewhere. (A working steer becomes an ox at age 4.)

Children soon find that working with steers takes a lot of dedication—from the club member and on the part of his or her family. Many members don’t live on farms; the steers are often the only livestock in the family, so to speak. And, Lamson points out, it’s not just one animal that must be looked after, it’s a pair. Part of the challenge for a club member is figuring out how to shelter, feed, and train his or her team, in addition to transporting them to club meetings. (New England is the only region in the United States to have 4-H clubs with these draft animals.)

Lamson and Chamberlin teach all aspects of handling steers. In the winter months, their club members learn to make equipment such as a grain scoop, a whip, and a yoke, and prepare signs that they will use at 4-H demonstrations at local fairs. As warm weather comes they start to train the animals to five commands: ‘come up’ to start, ‘whoa’ to stop, ‘gee’ to turn right, ‘haw’ to turn left, and ‘back.’

Clubs compete at qualifying events held throughout the summer with an eye on attending the Eastern States Exposition, commonly known as The Big E, in Springfield, MA, in September. Outside of 4-H, the children sometimes compete against adults in “open class” competitions or parade their animals at July 4th events or local Old Home Days gatherings.

“Cattle are herd animals,” Lamson explains. “They are very comfortable following one another.” Building on that instinct, a child who is a driver must take on the role of “lead cow.” It takes patience, presence, concentration, and responsibility for one person to be in charge of the movements of two additional animals whose weight and strength is several times that of the driver!

Yet it all adds up to one. “When you go into the show ring,” Chamberlain says, “it’s three of you who are one team.”

A Teamster in Training

Currently, the Green Mountain Teamsters have three members, and Brooke Russell, 14, is one of them.

Brooke lives on a dairy farm and had a familiarity with cattle before she started working with steers through 4-H at age 12. She considered joining a club with a focus on horses, but chose steer on the encouragement of a trusted schoolteacher.

In her first year as a Teamster, Brooke trained a pair of Jersey steers that she borrowed from a neighbor. She had the heady experience of competing in an open class competition—and placed second after Chamberlin.

“One of the best things,” Chamberlin says about being a 4-H leader, “is to be in the show ring and watch your kids beat you.” She pauses, judging whether the next words will seem too self-complimentary. “It’s the mark of a good teacher.”

In March 2008, Brooke bought a pair of Holsteins and trains with them every day. “They are my little babies,” she says as tenderly as a mother. “They are so cute, even though they are growing.” She isn’t daunted by their size. “If you work with them every day, you get used to how fast they grow.”

Taking steers into the ring at various fairs is clearly Brooke’s favorite part of the 4-H experience. The animals are judged on three criteria: cleanliness, their ability to pull a cart, and pulling 50 percent of their weight. The biggest challenge, Brooke says, “is keeping them clean. They have white legs. I use Head and Shoulders shampoo on them, and Quic Silver [a product that brightens the whites in an animal’s coat].”

Brooke even made a yoke for her team. Poplar (or popple) is best for calves, she explains, because it’s light enough for them to carry. The bows are made of hickory because the wood can readily be shaped. She made a five-inch yoke in her club—“five-inch means that there are five inches between the bows”—but by the time of the Tunbridge Fair in mid-September, the calves will have outgrown it. For that event, and for The Big E if she qualifies, she will borrow a 6-inch yoke from her club leaders.

Brooke appreciates the personal attention that she gets in 4-H, noting that “school doesn’t have as many people to work with you.” All club members—not just the leaders—work cooperatively and help each other out, fulfilling the 4-H motto “to make the best better.”

We live in changing times. Perhaps the life skills learned through 4-H, and the specific skills of working with steers, will gain greater recognition in the future. Positive youth development and a greater understanding of farming among young people can only contribute to a positive future for us all.

For more information about 4-H in Vermont, call Sarah Kleinman, state 4-H coordinator, at 800-571-0668, or go towww.uvm.edu/%7Euvmext/programs/4h/default.php.

Photo of Brooke Russell of Russell Gorge Farm, Tunbridge, with her Holstein steer by Elizabeth Ferry © 2008

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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