Winter in the Mad River Valley. Nothing exemplifies this area better. And winter up here isn’t as patient as in other parts of the country. By late October, white mountain peaks create a dramatic backdrop to a landscape still peppered with shades of red and gold. The snow capped mountains make us anxious to hear the mechanical hum of ski lifts, and feel the crisp, cold air on our cheeks as our bodies are kept warm in layers of knit socks, long underwear and thick, down coats. Eventually we’ll retire to a cozy spot in front of a blazing fire, with our hands soothed by the warmth of a mug of a hot chocolate or our favorite drink. The early snows cannot keep these thoughts from entering our minds, but no need to worry. With the slopes in Vermont opening soon (some as early as November 3rd) this winter wonderland is only days away.
Vermont. Fall. Foliage. Those three words converge with such symbiotic unity that they essentially become a consuming definition of life in the state in late September and early October. For all of Vermont’s fame as a state renowned for skiing and its powerful skiing economy, the busiest period for tourism is late summer and fall. Inns fill, camera shutters snap, and restaurants do a brisk business.
Of course it is tourism in a very different form than what consumes the winter months. Foliage tourism activity isn’t concentrated at ski areas. There are no lift lines. Instead, visitors fan out broadly, through the Mad River Valley and the rest of the state, in search of the best view — perhaps the single most vibrantly hued tree — that can take a person’s breath away.
That’s the simple part of the story. More complex are answers to a few basic questions. What exactly happens to bring on this magical transformation in the leaves of trees? Why? When? Why are some years more colorful than others? There are a few reliable scientific explanations, but, despite what naturalists or veteran Vermonters might try to tell you, the answers can be summed up as follows: Nobody really knows for sure.
A quick bit if chemistry class, then. Chlorophyll, the chemical that makes leaves appear green most of the summer, basically turns sunlight into food that gives trees the sustenance they need to grow and thrive when the weather is warm. But when sunlight intensity ebbs in the fall, the production of chlorophyll correspondingly diminishes. With that, other pigments in leaves, produced by such chemicals as carotenoids and anthocyanins, start emerging as reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples.
All of that is inevitable chemical certainty. Thereafter, variability and the annual foliage guessing game take over. Will this be a good year for foliage? When will the peak time arrive? Obviously, climatic circumstances, varying from one year to the next, play a role in answering those questions. Less variable, perhaps, are soil conditions and the basic genetics of any particular tree or any particular tree species. Even so, the same tree living in the same soil through similar weather conditions can draw from an entirely different palette from one year to the next. Go figure.
A prevailing theory is that the seasonal combination of a warm and wet spring, a more-or-less average summer, and a fall in which temperatures cool at night but don’t go below freezing produces the best foliage. But again, who really knows for sure?
Birch and poplar trees, which turn almost exclusively yellow, are somewhat more predictable, but with maples, anything can happen. A big part of the marvel of fall foliage is that it can leave human rationality in the lurch – much of what happens is brought on by natural mysteries that surpass mortal understanding.
That said, what can you do to experience the Mad River Valley’s foliage display at its glorious best? Step One is timing. There is no shortage of information, through various means of reporting, to stay up-to-date on prevailing foliage conditions on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Weather outlets, like the Weather Channel, follow foliage conditions with the unstinting fervency with which they follow hurricane activity. At least two web sites, foliagenetwork.com and yankeefoliage.com, do nothing but report on foliage conditions. A rule of thumb is that peak foliage usually comes in the first week in October, but it varies from year to year. Plan your travels accordingly.
Step Two is finding a sweet viewing spot. Every Valley resident or visitor no doubt has a favorite tree. But for a few choice spots, here goes: Along the Sugarbush golf course, the colors and the lay of the land on the 10th hole usually produce a particularly vibrant display. For a broader panorama, the seventh tee is the place to be. Nearby, ancient maples that line Golf Course Road and West Hill Road can provide an inspiring backdrop to an easy walk, run, or bike ride.
Several points on the Mad River Path near the river can be great, especially in the morning when mist is often rising off the water. The combination of cooler air and humidity near the river tends to accelerate the color transformation. Both Sugarbush and Mad River Glen offer lift rides on weekends through the foliage season, although keep in mind that above about 2,400 feet you leave the hardwood trees like maples and birches and enter the conifer zone, consisting mostly of spruces and hemlocks, where greens and browns persists into winter.
And every year, some tree somewhere seems to decide to become a peacock, bursting with a multiplicity of colors that shames its neighbors. It happens without discernable or explicable reason. That’s Vermont foliage at its best, where nature’s beauty and its unfathomable mysteries merge to such inspiring effect.
By Peter Oliver
Every Saturday morning, from May into October, the center of Waitsfield is transformed into a farmers market, where local farmers — as well as artisans producing non-foodstuff items — gather to sell their goods. Valley residents and visitors alike (along with many dogs) make a weekly ritual of attending, almost as if it were a secular religious gathering.
The market, however, is more than just an event for social mingling and stocking up on locally grown food products for the week. It is a key showcase of the current health of the Mad River Valley farming community.
There have been many stories in the last few decades about the decline of the American family farm, and in many ways that trend extends into Vermont. Over the last 30 years, farm acreage in Vermont has declined by about 25 percent, and agriculture, once Vermont’s chief industry, has given way to tourism.
But over the last 200 years, farming in Vermont and the Mad River Valley has been in a state of constant flux. In the mid-1800s, sheep farming was the big thing, and at one time, roughly 4,000 sheep grazed on Warren pastures. That number is more than three times the town’s present-day human population.
Toward the end of the 19th century, dairy farming took over as the leading agricultural activity, and in 1880 in Waitsfield alone there were 135 farms. By 1870, about 70 percent of all Vermont land had been cleared for agriculture.
As a sign of how times have changed, however, roughly 80 percent of the state’s land today is classified as forested. And the total number of dairy farms in Vermont today is about a third the number 30 years ago. That might suggest a farming decline, but here’s the curious counterpoint: the total number of Vermont farms in the last 30 years has actually gone up by about 20 percent.
While larger farms — those of 180 acres and more — are on the decline, the number of farms under 10 acres has almost quadrupled, according to the most recent agricultural census. It has been almost 15 years since the last Valley farm of more than 1,000 acres closed its doors.
Susan Klein, head of the Valley chamber of commerce, calls the smaller operations “boutique farms,” offering “specialized or organic products.” The Waitsfield town plan for 2010-2015 seems to confirm this, pointing out a “trend toward increasing numbers of small, diversified farms and local food production.”
This is good news to someone like Robin McDermott, a cofounder of the Mad River Valley Localvore Project. In the last few years, several smaller farms or producers of specialty agricultural products have opened, offering everything from vegetables to flowers to mushrooms to specialty cheese. “There are a lot of exciting new things going on,” says McDermott.
In many cases, the excitement comes not just in what these new farms are producing but in the ways in which they were enabled to come into being. The growing of shiitake mushrooms at Nick Laskovsi’s Dana Forest Farm in Waitsfield, for example, has been spurred on by a grant and support from the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. According to McDermott, the recently opened Solstice Farm in Moretown has the Vermont Land Trust to thank. The Small Step Farm in Waitsfield recently opened primarily to supply vegetables for the restaurant at the Big Picture.
Perhaps the most interesting of these enabling arrangements is the partnership between the Kingsbury Market Garden, straddling the Warren-Waitsfield town line on Route 100, and the Vermont Foodbank. The Foodbank owns the land, but in exchange for 30,000 pounds of root vegetables to be produced on the roughly seven tillable acres, proprietors Aaron Locker and Suzanne Slomin can operate a for-profit vegetable-farming business.
How has this swell of newcomers affected some of the farms — such as the Gaylord and Harshorn farms — that have been well-established in the Valley for years? McDermott concedes that, with new farms emerging, “There is some overlap. But people are trying not to step on anyone’s feet.” Indeed, the Hartshorn and Gaylord farms, both active participants at the farmers market and suppliers to local restaurants, have been attentive to current trends and have switched to certified organic production in recent years.
The vitality of Valley farming extends beyond the economic success of local farmers. It also is an essential component of what makes the area unique within the ski-and-summer-resort world. The balance between the Valley’s resort attractions and amenities and its rural roots is something that has become harder to find, where elsewhere resort development so often creeps outward to consume the rural landscape.
“The strength of the Mad River Valley is that it is a collection of real, vibrant communities not beholden to the resort,” says Adam Greshin, Sugarbush Executive Vice-President who also represents the Valley in the state legislature. “The farm economy is important to the resort — it’s a part of our brand. We are intimately related to the Vermont brand — vital, beautiful, and rural.”
The Vermont brand — if that’s what you want to call it — is on display every Saturday in the summer from 9am to 1pm at the Waitsfield Farmers Market.