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Family Farming in 2012 at the Elmer Farm

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Tuesday June 26, 2012

By Marcie Bolton

   Jennifer Blackwell’s favorite way to start the day is at a very early hour, stepping out on the land with her husband and business partner, Spencer Blackwell on her family farm in East Middlebury, Vermont.  She senses how the day will unfold in a peaceful moment, a smell of the sweet air and a carved out moment to catch up with Spencer.  Besides peaceful, being outdoors has a practical purpose; to examine the weather.  Since farmers rely on the weather so much, The Blackwell’s moment outdoors determines how their day will unfold, and which direction the wind will take them.  After pondering what the day will bring, the sun rises a bit more in the sky and the two blonde-haired blue eyed Blackwell children, Ida, 3, and Angus, 5, wake up and greet their parents and then it is off and running.                While those first few moments are calm, afterwards it is from one effort to the next, with barely a moment in between.  Raising a family, hosting and teaching workshops, being a huge part of farm to school efforts, hiring and training employees and students, planting and working many acres of land, managing a CSA and breathing and eating, gives the Blackwell’s a fullness to each and every day.  They feel lucky to be a part of it all, and seem to embrace their rich days with positive, “go-get-em” attitudes.   

   The Blackwell’s purchased the Elmer farm 2006, as part of Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program, which provides qualified diversified farmers with access to agricultural land and assists with the start up or expansion of commercial agricultural businesses.  Elmer Farm is a conserved 90 acre farm located in East Middlebury. They grow 25 acres of certified organic mixed vegetables, grains, and dry beans. Annually, the farm is Inspected and certified by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF). This reassures members that the crops are grown responsibly and safely without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides like so many of the old farmsteads in Addison County, the Elmer Farm has along heritage of providing food for its community. This farm belonged to the Elmer family since the early 1800’s. The receding glaciers bestowed the farm with a wonderful mix of fertile soils, almost thirty acres of sandy loam, excellent for growing vegetables and grains, according to the website.  Both Jennifer and Spencer come from agricultural families, with Jennifer’s from the St. Albans are and Spencer from East Montpelier.  They learned much more after spending a few years farming the Intervale Center, an organization that rents land through the new farmer program. Jennifer says, “Spencer started his own business there called Intervale Bean and Grain.  I joined him after we dated for a year.  Previous to working with Spencer, I worked at the Intervale Community Farm for several years which is one of about a dozen farms in the Intervale. ICF has about 500 CSA members.”  When the opportunity came about to buy the farm, they were thrilled.  It has been thriving under their hard work, and conscientious planning. 

   The Elmer Farm CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, filled this year.  They have 58 members this year. The largest number yet.  They have added flowers and recently built a somewhat enclosed area for members to pick up their vegetables.  The Blackwell’s have a couple of white leghorn chickens from Angus' pre-school class that hatched in an incubator.  In a few weeks they are adding 2 Rhode Island Reds, 3 Buff Orpingtons and 3 Araucanas, which depending on how it goes; they will offer eggs to members.  Over the last 15 to 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a very desirable way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from the farm and the land it is grown on.  In a nutshell a CSA is when a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. The weekly senior share, which is the smallest, most affordable share at the Elmer Farm, is an average of $13.75 per week, which has a built in cost savings of 10% per week. Vegetables are ever changing depending on what is in season, but right now in June it consists of ¼ lb. of snap peas, a head of lettuce, a bunch of Hakurei turnips, ¼-12 lb. of broccoli florets and a couple of other items.  Flowers are offered and eggs may be included in the future.  Jennifer spoke of the flowers; “They are solely grown for the pick your own component of the CSA so, these are included in the cost of the share. We hope to do more with the flowers in the future as I am fairly new to growing them.”  There are a few types of memberships or shares which consumers may choose from and purchase pre-season in return for a selection of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.  The advanced payment helps with the substantial cost of getting crops started and assures the farm of the customer’s commitment.  The Elmer Farm grows more than thirty five different kinds of vegetables, a variety of flowers and a selection of herbs. They harvest from mid– June through the end of October. 

   This arrangement ensures farmers a certain amount of revenue and the consumer local, very fresh product. The weather is the wild card, and is an inherent risk for both the farmer and the consumer. Good years will bring a windfall of tomatoes, turnips, carrots, beans, kale, lettuce and so much more.  Bad years there may be blight, too much rain, too many pests or Irene-like weather events.  The CSA is 20% of their annual income and Elmer Farm’s wholesale accounts make up roughly 40%, with the Middlebury Natural Food Cooperative and American Flatbread being their largest customers.  They also sell to the Weybridge House and 51 Main Restaurant, both part of Middlebury College, the Swift House Inn, Vergennes Laundry, and Greg's Meat Market.  According to Bonnie Wolf of NPR, “…there's a new food vocabulary: authentic, craft, small batch, artisanal, rustic and, of course, local. It's the opposite of processed, mass produced and factory farmed…The small farmer is the new gastronomic superhero, sourced on restaurant menus.”  There is a wickedly fast growing culture of people looking to find local fresh product in their homes and restaurants, and Vermont is a big part of the movement.   

   Another way the Elmer Farm’s efforts are woven into the community is through farm to school efforts as well as gleaning for local food agencies.  They almost never turn down an opportunity to work with schools which they do in many different ways.  Jennifer attended a workshop this past winter at Shelburne Farms a group of other Vermont farmers.  She stated in her blog that the conference consisted of two days full of workshops and learning marketing farm programs to local schools, exploring hands on activities that help children discover the natural world and so much more.  They are committed to making their livelihood a learning experience for others.   They often have kids out from the Diversified Occupations Program (DO) at the Hannaford Career Center.  It is an Addison Central Supervisory Union special education program that serves students with specific academic, vocational, and behavioral needs.  The kids learn how small scale farming works on a day to day basis and they help glean, collecting leftover crops from the fields after they have been commercially harvested.  Jennifer told me about a pair of students that worked on the farm, “The same two students who worked with us for the spring session came everyday Monday through Friday for almost 2 hours over the course of 8 weeks. It is a very intensive experience. These two students planted in the field with our crew, sorted black beans on rainy days, seeded all of the flowers into trays in the greenhouse, helped clean up the perennial beds in the spring and a lot more”

   Just this year The Elmer Farm became part of a pilot program with Vermont State Employees in Addison County, along with two other counties, Windsor and Washington.  According to the Vermont Wellness Blog Spot, The State of Vermont Workplace CSA Program provides space and opportunity for employees to access local food offered through VT CSA farms. CSA shares will be delivered to designated state building drop sites every Thursday afternoon, beginning in May 2012. This program offers the opportunity for employees to support local farmers and conveniently access healthy, nutritious and locally produced food delivered to their workplace.

   The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, VT State Employees’ Wellness Program, and Building and General Services are piloting a workplace CSA delivery program for the 2012 growing season to employees working in Addison, Washington and Windsor counties. Statewide participation by all CSA farms and State of VT employees is envisioned for 2013. 

   Besides being a part of so many endeavors in regards to their business, the Blackwell’s are raising their two, very sweet, young children.  I asked Jennifer if Ida and Angus ate vegetables and she said, “Yes they eat vegetables, it kind of comes and goes of what they prefer to eat, but they tend to eat stuff they can pick themselves.  Ida, (3) loves peas and Angus (5) loves Napa cabbage and Bok Choy and they both like carrots.  They will eat broccoli out in the field [off the plant], but not in the house.  They like the Hakurei turnips, which are salad turnips, sweet and tender, not very spicy.”  Life is busy for the young family, and they seem to manage it all with a certain ease.  They accept that their days will sometimes veer down unexpected paths, but they embrace it as expecting the unexpected.   

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