Digging in the Dirt — the Local Farming Scene

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.