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A search for balance

Diversified and organic, Lilac Ridge Farm marks 75 years and an even longer lineage of Windham County farmers

WEST BRATTLEBORO—Calling a 75-year-old West Brattleboro family farm paradise on a dazzling autumn day doesn’t take a lot of imagination, but it’s a tempting metaphor on this clear September Sunday.

Huge, round clouds in the sharp, blue skies floated around Round Mountain, and cows made their determined way, on the worn path from the uphill pasture, to the free-stall barn down below, the first stop on the way to daily milking.

On this afternoon, the routine has changed slightly as a celebration is being held to mark the 75th anniversary of the Lilac Ridge Farm.

More than 100 guests came to the upper farmhouse, which belongs now to second-generation owners and hosts Stuart Thurber Jr., and his wife Beverley.

Stuart’s parents, Stuart J. Thurber Sr. and Marjorie Van der Vliet, started the farm in 1937 with raspberries, strawberries, and six cows. Seventy-five years later, the farm — which offers certified organic production of milk, produce, maple syrup, and fruit, and has haying and logging operations — belongs to Stuart Thurber Jr. and Beverley Thurber.

Their son and daughter-in-law, Ross Thurber and Amanda Ellis-Thurber, live with their three children in the house on the lower part of the farm, where Amanda also runs and supplies the farm stand with produce, flowers, and eggs.

Ross and his three sisters, the third generation, are closely connected to the farm, at least in spirit; all are married and among the four siblings they’ve supplied nine grandchildren to the fourth generation.

At an anniversary celebration on Sept. 23, sisters Sara, Hanna, and Jessica and sister-in-law Amanda served refreshments to more than 100 guests.

Former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee and his wife, Ann Allbee, of Townshend joined the crowd of friends and neighbors, farm workers and farmers, and other supporters of the farm.

Ross began the farm’s transformation to all certified organic production in 1996, returning to the farm a year after graduating from the University of Vermont with a self-designed agriculture concentration and degree.

The farm was state organic certified in 2006.

“I’d been introduced to the environment, and [I realized] that it wasn’t being addressed in straight farming production,” Ross said.

“And I was introduced to the concept of organic production and to biological systems that mimic what happens in nature,” he said, also believing that no matter how you look at it farming is an intervention on the landscape, and farmers do the best they can.

“The goal,” he said, “is balance.”

Stuart was born on the farm and, according to a brief history of Lilac Ridge published by the Vermont Land Trust, Stuart Sr. bought the first 75 acres in 1937. The history notes that the family had been farming in Guilford for five generations.

“We’ve been in Vermont since the Revolution,” Ross said.

Ross and Amanda met at the University of Vermont, where she studied plant and soil science. They married in 1996. “I grew the vegetables and flowers for the wedding,” she said.

Over the years, the two Thurber families bought connecting and nearby properties, eventually adding more than 525 acres to the Lilac Ridge operation.

They expanded the farm’s production to include logging on about 400 acres and sugaring a 2,000-tap sugarbush, yielding between 400 and 500 gallons of maple syrup each season.

Amanda, in charge of growing and selling produce and flowers, delivers in bulk to such nearby businesses as the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Amy’s Bakery Arts Café, Fireworks Restaurant, and T. J. Buckley’s, and to food trucks and caterers. Lilac Hill also sells to the public directly at a busy roadside stand and at farmers’ markets.

Amanda was recently named to the newly appointed Working Lands Enterprise Board, set up this year by the Legislature to support land-based business in Vermont. The 15-member board met for the first time in August and is in the process of producing request-for-proposal forms.

Besides grants and technical support, the board is charged with working with other agencies to strengthen the state’s infrastructure for agriculture and forestry.

Ten years ago, Lilac Ridge won the 2002 Sustainable Farm of the Year Award from the Northeast Organic Farming Association, which cited the farm’s diversity of agricultural activities in addition to its dairy operation and Amanda’s horticulture production.

Farmland in perpetuity

Further, the Thurbers have joined the Vermont Land Trust property conserving program, ensuring that the farmland remains farmed in perpetuity, no matter who owns the farm. That process, according to the Trust’s website, requires landowners to donate conservation easements or to give their property outright to the Land Trust.

Among the benefits of operating with the Land Trust are income tax and estate tax deductions. “Conservation easement donations can offset capital gains taxes, reduce estate taxes and help landowners achieve their philanthropic goals,” Land Trust literature points out.

The Lilac Ridge dairy operation dominates the farm and has been constant. The herd of 48 to 50 mostly Holsteins, with a few Brown Swiss, produces 700,000 pounds of milk per year — or at 8.6 pounds to a gallon, about 83,333 gallons.

The cows amble to the free-stall barn from the lush pasture any time from about 2 p.m. on and are then moved to another barn, six at a time, onto a platform where they are milked in three minutes. The milk then goes into a bulk tank, with most shipped to the Agri-Mark Cooperative.

Female calves are usually kept and male calves are either sold or go to auction. The farm does not raise veal.

The cows feed on hay and grass and an organic grain mix. “We get higher production with grain,” Ross said.

The farm keeps about 75 Red Star laying hens that produce about 70 eggs a day, mostly sold at the farm stand.

Poetry and farming

Ross is indebted to Sir Albert Howard, generally considered the founder of the organic farming movement.

Howard worked for 25 years as an agricultural investigator in India, first as agricultural adviser to states in central India and Rajputana, then as director of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore. There, he developed the famed Indore composting process, which put the ancient art of composting on a firm scientific footing.

Ross, who between farm chores finds time to write poetry, said his early influences include poet and farmer Wendell Berry.

Considering that days on the farm begin at about 5 a.m., and end about 6 p.m., finding time for reading or writing can be a challenge, but Ross continues to search for meaning in poetry.

“Poetry for me is a link to tradition,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #173 (Wednesday, October 10, 2012).

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