Dispatches from Vermont | Civil Eats

Dispatches from Vermont

shelburnefarms

“Shelburne Farms!” “Oh you got to visit Shelburne Farms?” “Isn’t Shelburne Farms amazing?” “Isn’t Shelburne Farms beautiful?” “Are they still making cheese at Shelburne Farms?” This is all I heard when I got home from my very first trip to Vermont. The night of my return to San Francisco I helped run our fifth installment of Kitchen Table Talks (on Mayor Newsom’s new sustainability directive, watch for a re-cap post) and chatted with a lot of people who are very found of Shelburne Farms. And, yes, it is amazing and beautiful and they are still making cheese there. Bread too!

So, what is Shelburne Farms? I certainly had no idea before I went there. All I knew was that I had an invitation to stay at a friend’s father’s place near Burlington. I knew it was in a gorgeous spot near Lake Champlain. But with zero concept of Vermont aside from knowing it’s the home of rural farm lovers, Ben & Jerry’s, and Burton and that it lacks billboards of any kind (which is truly radical and wonderful to see), I was clueless. Of course, after three nights and three days on the property, I now have an understanding of the love, attraction and appreciation for Shelburne Farms.

Once a 4,000-acre “model agricultural estate” created in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, it has, since 1972, become a National Historic Landmark, working farm, and educational non-profit who’s mission is to cultivate a conservation ethic. That ethic is abundantly evident and demonstrated in the stewardship of the land, the condition of the barns, the impressive archiving, preservation and utilization of materials found on the property and in the ways in which their farm and forestry programs play a major role in sustainability education for visitors and the folks who are fortunate enough to live there.

The current property sits on 1,400 acres of woodlands that are Green Certified from the Forest Stewardship Council (the remaining acreage was sold off in plots). And, their grass-based dairy has 125 purebred, registered Brown Swiss cows whose milk is used to make award-winning farmhouse cheddar cheese on the property. During my visit, I didn’t see the cheese-making facility, but I did enjoy the bakery’s dark rye and olive pugliese. Every morning I woke to an impressive view of Lake Champlain and the sounds of wild turkeys, hawks, and geese; each day included a long beautiful walk along the property’s many trails. Suffice it to say, I left feeling at peace, grateful for an opportunity to enjoy the quiet of a country estate. (I feel compelled to mention that my host rents one of the many modest homes on the farm. And we had run of all the public spaces, which are abundant.)

I also learned a lot about the sustainable food community in and near Burlington. I especially love what’s happening around Intervale Compost. This business takes the city’s organic waste, mixes it with milky wastewater from Ben & Jerry’s and transforms them both into enormous mountains of compost. As a soil lover I really enjoyed watching backhoes move three-story high piles of black gold goodness. The compost is sold to local gardeners and landscapers and the entire operation is moved every few years so that a farm can enjoy the soil and new farmland can be cultivated.

The really cool thing, though, are Intervale Compost’s neighbors. Community and independently-owned small farms, a garden supply store, and a wood-burning power plant. The whole area, known as The Intervale, all 700 acres of it, is a green flood plain on the banks of the Winooski River that was once an industrial wasteland, literally on the other side of the tracks, where folks came to throw their used tires.

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The person who led the transformation was Gardener’s Supply’s founder, Will Raap, who settled his business near the McNeil power plant to take advantage of saving energy by heating his building and greenhouses with the power plant’s waste heat. With the vision of creating new resources from other waste, and in partnership with the city and the utility, the area is now home to bike and hiking trails, a community garden, and 350 acres of organic farms that provide the Burlington area with fresh produce and flowers. Each farm is under the guidance of the Intervale Center which exists to manage the land and provide education resources to the community and associated businesses. According to their website “there are three categories of farms that operate in the Intervale. Incubator farms are the newest farms and receive business planning support, mentoring and reduced prices for land and equipment. Enterprise Farms have operated for at least three years. Mentor Farms are mature farms who have been operating in the Intervale for at least five years and take on the role of mentoring incubator farms.” What’s not to love?

Of course, back in the day the area was rich farmland for the Abenaki Indians and Ehtan Allen had a homestead there. However it’s only been since 1985 that it’s slowly transformed into the productive and bio-diverse farmland I saw on my trip.

I also enjoyed a wonderful meal at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury. The picturesque restaurant is housed in an old grist mil, complete with recessed stone and wood walls and a roaring river’s waterfall outside. They are known for serving exceptional local, seasonal cuisine. I enjoyed some local Vermont cheeses, a superbly autumn hen of the wood and dumpling dish, and the tastiest fried oysters that side of NOLA.

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My discoveries aren’t new, especially to those who are deeply entrenched in the good food movement or to folks who love Vermont, but having never been there I was so grateful to experience them firsthand. My trip reminded me that when communities work together with the shared value of growing good food, feeding people good food, and preserving the land on which we grow good food, the world is beautiful indeed … just like Shelburne Farms.

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Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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  1. Joanna Dillon
    It's great to hear about someone's first account of Vermont. 7 years ago, I fell in love with Vermont and now work in an organization coordinating local food purchases and garden education in schools and senior meal sites in the Northeast Kingdom of the state. I hope you come back to Vermont soon... and have a taste of the REAL Vermont, outside of the Burlington area and the Rte. 89 corridor!

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