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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Jack Manix of Walker Farm in Dummerston.


A Saturday at the farms

Inaugural Dummerston Farm Tour shows diversity, creativity of town’s agricultural sector

DUMMERSTON—It was fitting that the weather for the first Dummerston Open Farms Day was cool and cloudy to start, and only slowly warming the rest of the day.

After a long and cold winter, a rainy spring, and a summer with no heat waves and more days in the 60s and 70s than in the 80s and 90s, it’s been a mixed bag for this town’s farms.

For Read Miller at Dwight Miller & Son Farm, his peach crop was wiped out and his apple crop is down about 20 percent.

For Jack Manix at Walker Farm, it’s been a banner year for kale, spinach, and other greens, but a so-so year for tomatoes.

For Randy Hickin at Mountain Mowings Farm, he’s seen a veritable stampede of slugs in his cucumber fields.

And for Jen O’Donnell at Bunker Farm, the cool summer has meant the chickens, turkeys, and cows have been comfortable and happy.

But ups and downs are part of farming, and making do is a way of life.

“The old-timers say a dry year will scare you, but a wet year will starve you,” said Manix, whose great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Miller, was hired by the town of Dummerston in 1770 to be a surveyor, and picked the 30 acres near today’s Route 5 for his farm.

“Those 70 degree nights when it’s hard to sleep, the plants love it. It’s like another day of growing. This year, it seems like everything is still two weeks behind schedule. All I can say is thank God for diversification and greenhouses.”

Diversification is the big buzz word in Vermont agriculture, but for Reed Miller, whose family has been farming on Middle Road since before Vermont was a state, it’s nothing new.

“This will be an off-year for peaches and apples, but we’ll sell enough spinach, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup to make up for it,” he said. “We’ve had hard times before, but this is nowhere near the worst. When I talk to the young farmers, I tell them that hard times are part of the farming life and they just need to take a deep breath and move on to the next season.”

The Miller Farm, one of the oldest continually operating farms in the state, is best-known for apples and cider, but they also grow other fruits and vegetables, as well as pastured pork and chicken. It has been a certified organic farm for two decades. Reed Miller said the farm was already headed in that direction long before the boom in organic foods.

“Back in the 1970s, the University of Vermont surveyed farms around the state and found we had the lowest inputs of any farm in the state, yet we had some of the biggest yields of any farm in the state,” he said. “We thought the way we were doing things worked and was the best way to do things.”

Dummerston’s newest farm, the Bunker Farm, tucked away on Bunker Road about a mile from the Putney town line, is very much in keeping with the Miller and Walker Farm models. They don’t have orchards, but they do have lots of vegetables, flowers, poultry, and beef.

Noah Hoskins, Mike Euphrat, and Helen and Jen O’Donnell bought the 169-acre farm from Larry and Lynn Cassidy earlier this year through the Vermont Land Trust’s Farm Access Program, which helps young farmers who have potential, but lack financing, to buy productive land.

“It’s been a jam-packed year,” said Jen O’Donnell. “We’vc been overwhelmed by all the public support.”

Relationship-building has been a big part of the Bunker Farm’s first year, and they use social media to get the word out to their customers. Their beef and chicken has been in great demand.

“The Gleanery (a Putney restaurant) is one of our best customers,” Jen said. “Some days, they clean us out of everything.”

Keeping customers happy is important, said Reed Miller.

“You can sell yourself, or you can sell what people want,” he said. His father, Dwight Miller Jr., started up the first pick-your-own apple orchard in 1962 when a late-season hailstorm knocked most of that year’s crop off the trees.

The apples were still good, but weren’t the perfect, unblemished fruits that the retail market wanted. By opening his orchards to people who just wanted good apples, and didn’t care about appearance, the Millers were able to salvage that season and create a new market for apples.

“We lost one customer base and gained another,” Reed said.

With the busiest retail business of the town’s farms, Walker Farm knows a little something about keeping customers happy, even in a mixed year for his crops. Manix says the many large greenhouses on the farm have made a big difference to his bottom line.

“The tomatoes grown outside got hit with blight this year, but the tomatoes in the greenhouses came out great,” he said. “This has been a good year for the greens and the root vegetables. They’re growing like crazy, but so are the weeds, and it’s been tough staying ahead of the weeds because of all the wet days we’ve had.”

As for diversification, the Manix family took a big step recently when it bought Elysian Hills Tree Farm on East Knapp Road. Besides its signature Christmas trees, Elysian Hills also has heirloom organic rhubarb, strawberries, and 100 acres of managed woodlands that include a working sugarbush. Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt, the founders of the farm, continue to live at Elysian Hills.

Selling the year’s crop and making a decent profit is a priority for all the farmers in town, but there is one farm that is trying to downsize.

At the 34-acre Mountain Mowing Farm on Black Mountain Road, the second and third generation of the Hickin family is keeping the farm going.

Randy Hickin has been running the farm since the death of his mother, Mary Hickin, at age 90 in October 2011. She and his late father, Frank, founded the farm in 1942, and the jams and pickles they made are known far and wide, thanks to their mail-order business.

Randy said he moved into Mary and Frank’s farmhouse after Mary’s death. He had been helping on the farm for years, but now, the responsibility has fallen on him and his children.

“We downsized quite a bit,” he said. “I had to since I’m getting older. But we’re still going to the farmers’ markets and keeping the mail order business going.”

He said the farmers’ markets were particularly important for reaching the local customers.

“The jam sells itself, but with pickles, you have to taste them first. That’s why we always have samples out at the farmers’ market.”

Randy takes great pride in his pickles. “Mary always did the jams, but I’ve been doing the pickles for a long time.”

Other farms on the tour included New Leaf CSA on Dutton Farm Road and the Scott Farm on Kipling Road. At the end of the day, a picnic was served at the Bunker Farm with food from the farms on the tour and prepared by Sallie May and the Evening Star Grange cooks. Proceeds from the picnic were earmarked for the town Farmland Protection Fund.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #269 (Wednesday, August 27, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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