(Host) The number of dairy farms in Vermont has been dwindling for decades. This May, it dipped below a thousand – an all-time low. But the fact that the dairy market has soured for many farmers doesn’t mean the land has gone bad.
VPR’s Angela Evancie has this story about a Shelburne family farm in transition.
(Evancie) All farmers know how to grow food. But many are now asking, how do you grow community? At Bread and Butter Farm, the answer is to throw a party at the barn every week.
(Corie Pierce) "We have live music, and it’s just a…
(Man) Open to the public?
(Pierce) Open to everybody, yeah. There’s our menu for tonight. We always have burgers and sausage and then we have a rotating menu of salads and then tonight we’re featuring Ricky’s Root Beer.
(Man) Every Friday night?
(Pierce) Every Friday. ‘Til the weather won’t let us’"
(Evancie) That’s Corie Pierce. When she and Adam Wilson opened for business in May, they knew they wanted their farm to be a gathering place. It’s part of their business model. Burger Night profits are at least five times what the farm store makes in a day. But it’s also about building relationships.
(Pierce) "Taking the whole idea of local one step further and having people be able to meet us and meet the animals and see the plants growing and walk out into the fields."
(Evancie) And if you grill it, they will come. Tonight, 400 people show up to have a farm-raised burger and listen to the music of Jeremy Harple. There are almost as many kids here as there are adults. Kids in the hoop house, kids looking at cows, kids jumping off of hay bales. Eric and Erica Laessig are here with their newborn baby. This is their fourth Burger Night.
(Evancie) "It seems like you like it if you keep coming back?"
(Laessigs) "Yeah, absolutely, it’s pretty awesome. It’s beautiful. Can’t think of a better thing to do on a Friday night. Especially if you have little ones."
(Evancie) There’s no question that Bread and Butter Farm’s location – right on the border between South Burlington and Shelburne – contributes to its success. But Corie Pierce says she and Adam Wilson couldn’t have purchased it without help from the Vermont Land Trust and many others.
(Pierce) "It was a huge effort put forth by the Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, both towns of South Burlington and Shelburne, and numerous other private landowners and neighbors to come together and purchase the development rights so that we could then buy this land for ag purposes at a reasonable rate. It was a huge deal to be able to conserve 143 acres in these two towns."
(Evancie) It’s a huge deal because developers, not farmers, are usually the ones buying land in Chittenden County. Sarah Dopp started the South Burlington Land Trust in 2003.
(Dopp) "And I think it was just a feeling that was rising up in the community that we were losing an awful lot of land in South Burlington to rampant development, as we saw it."
(Evancie) That same year, Maurice Leduc closed down his dairy.
(Leduc) "That’s when I got rid of my cows. And I said, well, I ain’t gonna farm no more."
(Evancie) But Leduc wanted the land to stay in farming. He had the opportunity to sell to a developer. But he didn’t.
(Leduc) "I didn’t want any building lots. Because they had one person who wanted to buy the whole thing. They were gonna put all houses, and then they were gonna put a bunch of houses over there."
(Evancie) With the help of the Vermont Land Trust and many donations, the Leducs were able to put their land into a conservation easement worth $720,000. Then Pierce and Wilson were able to buy the land for its agricultural value – $225,000. Elise Annes is vice president for community relations at the Vermont Land Trust.
(Annes) "The chance to conserve land can come once in a lifetime with certain pieces of land that are very developable. Our role is to figure out how we can act working with communities and with farmers and make it possible for that land to stay open."
(Evancie) After the final sale, Wilson was in charge of converting old cow stalls into an insulated bakery. Pierce’s partner started booking gigs. Leduc and his four siblings stayed nearby. Wilson says they’re part of the new team.
(Wilson) "Maurice just spent the last few days mowing some fields for us. The other siblings do anything from rototilling for us, to snowplowing, bringing over clothes for Corie’s new baby."
(Pierce) "Hanging out with us, and keeping us up too late before we have to go to market the next morning."
(Leduc) "Very good neighbors. We didn’t know what was gonna happen at first, but it worked out good. I enjoy it now."
(Evancie) A lot of Vermonters say they want to preserve the state’s agricultural heritage. The challenge, especially in places like Chittenden County, is to figure out how. Elise Annes says that’s where the Vermont Land Trust comes in.
(Annes) "Matching farmers with affordable farmland can be a challenge in Vermont. We have a list now of farmers who are looking to farm and we contact them when we think we have an opportunity for them. Or people who contact us who are not farming their land and who are interested in having other people farm their land."
(Evancie) But Annes says in the end, farmers need to be creative to make it all work.
(Annes) "Protecting farmland is critical to Vermont’s future, but I think that it’s the ingenuity and the energy of the farmers themselves who will truly make a difference."
(Evancie) Pierce and Wilson say that’s what they’re trying to do on their farm. They’re trying to make a difference. And they’re trying to have some fun while they’re at it.
For VPR News, I’m Angela Evancie.
Note: Bread and Butter Farm will hold Burger Nights every Friday night from 4-7 until the weather turns. Flat Top Trio will be performing on Friday, August 19th.