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For Stowe farmers, the past foretells the future

Posted Thursday, November 4, 2021
NewsRicketson Farm

For Stowe farmers, the past foretells the future

By Aaron Calvin, published on 11/4/2021 in the Stowe Reporter

Editor's Note - This article is part three in a three-part series on the past, present and future of farming in Stowe.

When Annie and Andrew Paradee purchased their Long Winter Farm in Stowe’s Nebraska Valley in 2016, they ran into a problem: an aged and leaning grain silo stood right where the couple wanted to put their self-service farmstand.

The Paradees wanted to find a way to keep the remnant of Stowe’s farming past, which they inherited when they purchased the land from Christine Kaiser after it was conserved in a partnership between the Stowe and Vermont land trust.

Kaiser’s family had owned the land since 1945.

When the Paradees were first looking to purchase a farm in Vermont, they thought they would be running a sheep operation — Andrew grew up on a more traditional dairy farm in Franklin County — but quickly found a great demand for locally-grown produce.

In the summer months, they provide around 70 customers with boxes of produce and other farm goods in their community-supported agriculture program. The other half of their operation is a self-service stand where customers stop in and pick up seasonal products at their convenience.

The Paradees tried to negotiate with the old grain silo and even considered transforming it into a farmstand, but that idea proved unfeasible. In the end, they had to face the fact that the grain silo was a relic, unsalvageable and needed to be torn down to make way for an essential part of their modern farm.

A smaller future

The Paradees do a lot with their 49 acres of land, some of which stretches back into the woodland hillside. Every possible inch that can be devoted to crops seems to be cultivated. Four long greenhouses contribute to the quest for a year-round growing season that gave the farm its name.

A passel of hogs rooting on a small slope between the fields and the farmhouse, a handful of cattle on about 12 acres of pasture, and a clutch of chickens fluttering around a small coop all supplement the produce-focused operation with boutique meat and fresh eggs.

The Long Winter way of doing things has become the growing norm in Vermont, with farms trending smaller in acreage on average across Lamoille County since the 1970s. Newer operations also tend to be more focused on a ultra-efficient, space-maximizing, sustainability-focused, localized form of production and distribution.

“I think what you’re seeing now in the Stowe area are a lot of smaller diversified farms that are providing the products into the restaurants or some farmstand activity as well,” said Diane Bothfeld, director of administrative services at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Long Winter doesn’t supply many restaurants; they aren’t producing the consistent volume to meet that kind of demand. But the Paradees have found a strong niche meeting a demand for farm-fresh goods. They don’t have much ambition beyond this, either.

“We’re always just trying to follow up at this point,” Annie Paradee said. “We’re trying to just be more efficient within the area that we’re growing, basically.”

While Long Winter may not look much like the average Stowe farm of 50 years past, it does somewhat resemble, aside from the greenhouses, what a farm in the area might have looked like 150 years ago back when farms served hyper-local supply networks.

The economics of farming, however, are very different in the 21st century. Long Winter and other small farms in the area are on the bleeding edge of Stowe’s economy of contradictions. Its popularity as a resort town and the attendant value of the land for developers makes farming costly and constantly under threat, but it also attracts the kind of residents eager and willing to pay higher prices for quality, local farm products.

The coronavirus pandemic only emphasized the contradictions of the Paradee’s position, particularly with an infant son and no access to child care.

“He was 3 months old, 4 months old and the pandemic began,” Annie said. “It was a pretty nutty farming year during the pandemic. Demand was just insane. And we were just trying to survive.”

Affordable access to child care and health care is what Annie believes would make life as a family farmer more accessible. But above all, the cost of land remains the main challenge for young farmers.

The Stowe Land Trust’s conservation of the land made it so the Paradees could afford the land at all, mitigating a massive barrier for young farmers looking to make it work as a business.

“We’re making it work with what we’re doing, but if we had a mortgage that was four times … there’s no way the numbers would still work because we can’t sell our products for four times the value just because the land is valuable,” Andrew said.

For its part, the Stowe Land Trust has been keeping its farmland acquisitions accessible for younger, smaller farmers. The Ricketson property the organization is now trying to conserve could potentially be subdivided along pre-approved boundaries.

“The thinking is that the demand locally and statewide is highest for small-acreage farms — especially for new farmers just starting out — so allowing the subdivision into two farm parcels increases the likelihood of the property staying viable as a working farm, said Kristen Sharpless, the organization’s executive director.

Dairy tradition

While Stowe only remains home to a handful of farming operations compared to its agrarian peak, there’s still diversity among its group.

Ryan Percy oversees part of an expansive dairy operation he’s set to inherit from his father, Paul. Percy is currently a Stowe Land Trust board member and some of the land he farms has been conserved by the organization. His father’s dairy operation has survived while others haven’t through tenacious expansion and a commitment to staying the course when it comes to milk and cheese.

Still, Percy is realistic about the troubles on the horizon for dairy production.

“There needs to be a place to sell besides the price nationally,” he said. “There also needs to be people that are looking to, of course, buy milk in the Northeast.”

The Percys are stable, with steady contracts for their milk with New England-based co-op Cabot Creamery. Despite seeing millions in government subsidies, the price of milk has declined, however, and demand is not what it once was with dairy alternatives undermining the dominance cow’s milk enjoyed during the days of its 20th-century hegemony.

Still, Percy’s commitment to milk is unwavering, if not so much a firm belief in its future viability than what it means to his family and its tradition. Percy’s family started farming land in Stowe in the 1940s and then expanded in the 1970s and 1980s.

“My dad’s the eternal optimist. He’s feeling like something’s going to work out and the prices will correct themselves and then eventually, things will be better,” Percy said. “Once I’m, you know, in control — my dad’s been able to make it work, so I like to think I’ll be able to.”

Percy admits that it might be more economically feasible to raise a younger stock or not put the cows out to pasture, but it’s a sort of anachronism he’s held on to even as the market tightens.

“We make that effort to kind of put them out on pasture,” he said. “People want to see the animals. That’s not why we’re in business. We’re in the business of making milk, obviously, but I like seeing them out there myself.”

Despite its shifting economics, the Agency of Agriculture firmly believes the future of farming in Vermont has a place for dairy. Bothfeld noted that Vermont dairy supplies a wide swath of the Northeast and cheese like the kind produced by Cabot enjoys respect due to the quality of its brand. But she also believes that the gap between very large milk producers and small artisan farms will continue to grow.

“Dairy is a tough one,” she said. “There is demand for our products and national pricing is always difficult. I think there will be farms that always take part in that, but there will be a growing number of people choosing to make their own dairy products and market those, so I think we’ll continue to see this. We will always have dairy farms in Vermont. I think the dichotomy will be there of the very large and the very small.”

For their part, it’s not possible for Stowe Land Trust to conserve every bit of farmland in Stowe to keep it accessible to the next generation of farmers, but its benefactors have pledged to do their best.

“Under any circumstances, I don’t think it is realistic that all the remaining farmland will be conserved, but I do hope we can protect the best farmland,” Sharpless said. “What happens will depend a lot on the value the Stowe community places on keeping farmland and farming part of our town.”