Field Trip

The Farm School’s Learn to Farm Program has always included a Vermont farm trip in the summer, and we went up for our annual tour this past weekend. This year’s itinerary included stops at Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Maple Wind Farm in Richmond and Huntington, and Vermont Shepherd in Putney.

We left The Farm School early Friday morning, made a quick stop at the Brattleboro Co-op for supplies, and headed north for a 10am appointment at Shelburne Farms. Head grower Josh Carter met us at the Visitor’s Center, and we spent the next couple of hours checking out their impressive operation. With 1,400 acres of conserved land, Shelburne Farms is a magical kingdom of rolling hills, open pastures and deep forest. The action certainly spreads out a bit over all that land, with cows, sheep and tidy veggie beds coming into view around every turn. We stopped at the Farm Barn to see cheese making, the bakery, and some delightful animals in the barnyard. We took a quick look at The Breeding Barn, with its massive open indoor space and fascinating history. We saw the greenhouses, orchards, sugar-shack, compost area and campers in action picking berries. The visit was a whirlwind, but we got a good sense of the incredible breadth and quality of the work being done at Shelburne Farms.

Our next stop was Maple Wind Farm, which is spread over three properties near the Camels Hump State Park about half an hour south-east of Burlington Vt. Bruce Hennessy and Beth Whiting lead the charge at Maple Wind, and it is quite an undertaking. The heart of the operation is the Andrews Farm in Richmond, where they have built a USDA inspected modern processing and storage facility for the 40,000 pastured broilers that they produce yearly. This new building also includes cool storage for vegetables coming out of their seventeen acres in cultivation. The Andrews Barn sits above the Winooski River, and the property includes beautiful river-bottom pastures where about thirty steers graze to finishing weight. Above the barn, on the other side of Rt. 2, are further high hillside meadows where the rest of the ninety cows and calves graze. Bruce describes their pasture management as ‘soil-first’ and ‘tall-grass-grazing’, and the work they have done to develop the fertility and health of their pastures shows in the vibrant grass and healthy animals. Maple Wind Farm also raises about a hundred pigs for processing each year, and 1000 organic turkeys for the Thanksgiving market. Their home farm, where the whole thing started seventeen years ago, is home to the sows that produce each year’s piglets, bulls for breeding the beef herd, and winter housing for all the animals. Bruce and Beth are very clear in their commitment to producing the highest quality food possible, and they take that obligation to heart. There are no corners cut, nothing is half done, and every single part of every one of the many components of their farm is considered, researched and executed to the highest standard. All of that focus and persistence is in service of their singular goal of super high quality food.

The last stop on our Vermont farm tour, on Saturday morning, was Vermont Shepherd, in Putney, Vt. David Major and Yesenia Ielpi own and operate this historic farm, milking between 150 and 200 ewes twice per day, and producing award winning sheep’s milk and sheep and cow’s milk blended cheese. David’s parents owned and operated a sheep farm on the sight before Vermont Shepherd began, and the current generation of farmers was able to add a neighboring property to bring the whole place up to its current size. They make all their own hay over hundreds of acres, graze several groups of sheep, and manage the whole thing with a team of border collies born and bred on the farm. David took our groups through the entire cheese creation process, from milking the sheep, processing the milk, forming individual cheeses and finally into the cheese cave. We even got a taste of this years batch, and it was wonderful!

Each stop on our tour added to our growing sense of the depth and diversity of the farming community in New England. Every farmer has to find a way to keep their farm healthy and thriving, from the veggies to the bottom line, and the three great farms we toured on this trip offered insights only they could share, knowledge gained only in their experiences, and expertise found only on their farm. Every chance that we have to dig into that process with a farmer is inspiring and precious for our burgeoning new farmers.

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