BRATTLEBORO—The Retreat Farm will unearth stories buried in the history of the property, starting with the Abenaki people and continuing through its days housing a tavern and its decades of connection to the Brattleboro Retreat psychiatric hospital.
The nonprofit has received a $40,000 Historic Places planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which will fund planning and creating interpretive walking paths and interactive museum exhibits that encompass generations of human activity on the 600-acre site.
The farm is participating in 2020 Vermont Open Farm Week from Aug. 10 to 16. By then, staff anticipate that most of the new interpretive signage for its nine historic barns will be installed.
The community is also invited to the unveiling and celebrating of a new marker reclaiming the Indigenous name for Wantastegok, more recently known as the Retreat Meadows, on Thursday, Aug. 13 from 4 to 6 p.m.
In addition to the signage, “we have made some additions to the farm and really enhanced some of our existing features,” said Wendy Ferris, the farm’s advancement director. “We’re really trying to get the word out so that everyone knows that we’re open and free.”
She said that the farm provides places for people to exercise, have a picnic, find solitude, or explore and learn with children. Not all of these opportunities are visible from Route 30, but they are available.
Lindsay Fahey, chief operation officer, said that the farm is taking the time created by the pandemic as an opportunity to “invest in the property.” Staff members have completed new work on the trails, for example.
Visitors can expect to see more historic markers and interpretive signage around the farm in August.
The signs will describe the farm in the 19th Century, its buildings, how the land contributed to the local food system, and “acknowledging that clearly the history of the farm has a long arc,” Fahey said.
The project is led by Jan Albers, award-winning author of Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape.
The advisors helping with the project include historians Jill Lepore of Harvard and Kathryn Morse of Middlebury College; Chief Roger Longtoe and Rich Holschuh, representing the Elnu Abenaki community; University of Vermont geologist Paul Bierman; former Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Roger Allbee; and two librarians, Paul Carnahan of the Vermont Historical Society and Starr LaTronica of the Brooks Memorial Library, Brattleboro.
“We’re overlaying a history lens on the property,” she said.
Returning to the local food system
The Retreat Farm wants to be part of the community’s past, present, and future food system.
So far this summer, farm staff have harvested more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables which have gone either to the Vermont Foodbank or into the farm’s own food program.
According to Ferris, these harvests have included cucumbers, carrots, and melons.
These vegetables represent the organization’s desire to support food-insecure community members.
The effort could be seen as a return to the farm’s historic roots, when it supplied the food and fuel for the Brattleboro Retreat. The farm also played a role in many patients’ therapy in an era when the hospital used work therapy as one of its treatments.
According to one of the soon-to-be-installed historic signs, in the 1930s the farm’s head of cattle reached 200, providing food for the hospital’s 600 patients and staff, who consumed an average of 1,500 quarts of milk daily. The farm also produced cheese, butter, and ice cream.
Ferris said that the work therapy side of the farm has been controversial. At the same time, what the farm produced and how it met the needs of the hospital’s patients and staff was also “at a scale that very few people had done collectively.”
“We’re left with the legacy of that, both in the land and in the buildings, and there are a lot of stories connected to that and a lot of information about how people raised that much food,” Ferris said.
The pandemic has shifted the farm’s focus to its own agricultural abilities: This is the first year that the nascent nonprofit has invested heavily in farming.
“Maybe it’s less of a pivot and more of a re-imagining our expansion and how we’re supporting the community,” Fahey said.
The farm’s agricultural activities have traditionally taken place through its children’s programing and partnerships with local farms, such as nearby Wild Carrot Farm.
But this year, the farm has already cultivated a thousand pounds of vegetables including cucumbers, lettuce, melons, with more to come. All of it is being distributed through the Vermont Foodbank or the farm’s own food program to food-insecure households.
The local farms “have been wonderful stewards of the land for us in haying that land and nurturing the soil, but this is really our first opportunity to nurture the community by growing food and raising pastured animals,” Fahey said.
“As we look to the future, we certainly want to continue to grow our farming capacity and our ability to nourish the local food system locally,” she said, adding that the Retreat Farm’s experience this year “will certainly inform our strategy moving forward.”
Recently, the farm became a partner organization with the Vermont Foodbank. To avoid competing with smaller farms that sell directly to consumers, the farm hopes to use its nonprofit status to fill in the gaps for households dealing with food insecurity.
Staff envision a model where people pay what they can for fresh produce, Fahey said.
The first year has been tough with an ongoing drought this spring and summer, she said. “But we’re certainly going to meet our goals in terms of pounds of vegetables that we wanted to cultivate,” she said.
She also noted that she and her colleagues are “really intentionally and thoughtfully planning for next year.”
Earlier this summer, the Retreat Farm and the Windham Foundation entered conversations about the farm potentially purchasing the building that houses the Grafton Village Cheese production facilities [“Parties explore new uses for cheese facility,” News, June 24].
Fahey said those conversations are still underway.
“We are still pursing that, but it looks like much more of a long-term venture for the organization,” she said. “We want to make sure we do it the right way with the right partners, and it has taken on a longer horizon than we initially thought.”
Providing outdoor space for the community to grow
Like most organizations in Vermont, the Retreat Farm closed its doors to in-person programs earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, staff focused on how the land could serve the community in new ways.
While the farm’s animals graze in the farm’s pastures and staff harvest food for the Vermont Foodbank, the farm has also added new public features.
A new labyrinth garden has emerged, as have arts installations, walking paths and trails, and new interpretive history signs. Outdoor sculpture by local artists Bob Boemig and Steve Proctor have been added to the public areas of the farm.
A tribute in memory of artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason will soon be installed in one of the barns as an “arts corridor.” The couple, both fine artists of international renown, lived part-time in Brattleboro. Mason died last December at age 87; Kahn, in March, at 92.
Executive Director Buzz Schmidt, in a news release, said that free public access to the space, including the long-established network of walking trails “can help improve people’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.”
The Retreat Farm has developed activities for families, including the Pollinator Pathway and the Forest Playground. Kids can walk along the Lil’ Lamb Loop and find the many books along the Storybook Walk. The Woodlands Interpretive Trail contains natural history lessons.
Fahey said that she believes the Retreat Farm has succeeded at communicating its larger mission: its connection to nature, stewardship of the land, its programming for children, and now its long-term commitment to supporting the local food system, she said.
The pandemic has also caused the farm to highlight the importance of its own community of support. The farm has made its memberships free to everyone.
Joining Retreat Farm as a member provides a vote of confidence and a connection to the organization from the public even if no money changes hands by showing major funders that property, programs, and events are needed and valued, staff members say.
The community of support is reflected in its members as well as the businesses that have stepped up, even during a pandemic, noted Vickie Case, who is responsible for Community Engagement at the Farm.
No restrooms or public facilities are available at this time. Please come prepared to walk short to moderate distances.