Nurturing ecosystems at Scott Farm
The historic Scott Farm in Dummerston.

Nurturing ecosystems at Scott Farm

Simon Renault joins the historic farm as its first general manager and sets his sights on increasing resilience, building partnerships, and strengthening local food systems

DUMMERSTON — Scott Farm's new general manager, Simon Renault, thinks in systems and sees the almost-300-year-old farm as an ecosystem charged with caring for the community that cares for it.

“For me, it's all about relationships,” said Renault. “It's relationship with the self; it's relationship with nature, the outside, the soil; and it's relationship with the community.

“So that's very much what I'm about - cultivating relationships,” he said. “I actually think it's at the core of sustainability.”

Upheavals such as COVID-19 only cement Scott Farm's role in the local food system, said Renault, who also believes that community partnerships build resilience. The farm, a socially responsible Certified B corporation (“B Corp”), already partners with a few organizations, such as the Stone Trust and Food Connects, but he wants to cultivate more collaborations.

“The strength of food systems, I believe, resides at a local level,” he said.

Renault joined the farm in April. The Landmark Trust USA, the farm's nonprofit parent organization, created his position after a reorganization earlier this year.

Susan McMahon took the role of executive director of the Landmark Trust USA last year. In that time, she said, she has tried to help the community understand that the two organizations are tied together.

“Oh, I think Simon is the right person,” said McMahon, who noted that the board wanted to find someone with agricultural and business experience.

“What we really wanted was somebody who could report to me - because I'm the president of Scott Farm as well as the executive director of Landmark - and I can't do it all,” McMahon said.

“We couldn't be happier with our selection and his vision for the farm,” she said. “He's a perfect fit.”

McMahon said that the farm has experienced multiple phases since its founding. With the hiring of Renault, she sees the farm entering its “next and exciting chapter.”

She added that the farm is preparing for a productive year. Plans for its orchard include maintaining the farm's status as a supplier of heirloom apples as well as diversifying its crops to respond to changing market conditions.

McMahon and Renault categorize themselves as system thinkers who like to understand how individual pieces of the organization connect to one another.

During the process of applying for the job, Renault discussed his passion for relationships and community and said he felt an immediate partnership with McMahon and the board.

“Frankly, I want to say the same thing about Scott Farm,” he said. “One of the things that happily surprised me was how integrated Scott Farm is in the community.”

Staffing changes and a pandemic

The reorganization also coincided with the dismissal of the farm's longtime orchardist, Zeke Goodband, in January due to a personnel matter.

McMahon declined to comment on the staffing change but noted that Goodband “is a recognized expert in the field, and had converted the old Mac orchard into a world-class heirloom apple orchard and helped establish Scott Farm's reputation for growing quality products in an ecologically sound manner.”

Now, 130 varieties of almost-lost-to-history heirloom apple varieties grow in the orchard. The Scott Farm has issued a nationwide call for a new orchardist and is taking its time to find the right person to manage the operation, which includes stone fruits, berries, “and hopefully in the future, it will include nuts also,” Renault said.

McMahon stressed that the staffing changes and the sudden need to comply with social-distancing protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic won't change the farm's 2020 season.

“We will continue to provide food to all our wholesale and retail customers and anticipate another fruitful season,” she said, apologizing for the pun.

Landmark Trust USA has owned the Scott Farm property since the late 1990s. Scott Farm is wholly owned by the Landmark Trust USA board.

The nonprofit employs 3.5 full-time-equivalent staff members and is an offshoot of a similar charity in the United Kingdom. It has acquired, restored, and preserved a number of properties in Windham County, including Rudyard Kipling's 1892 estate in Dummerston. The Trust “preserves historic properties through creative, sustainable uses for public enjoyment and education,” according to its website.

McMahon, hired in 2018, said her efforts to turn The Landmark Trust USA from a small regional nonprofit to one that is national in scope are paying off. The organization is set to open a new property, a decommissioned town library, in September, in Rhode Island.

The Scott Farm, in active use since 1791, is one of the Trust's seven sites. Along with the orchard, the 561-acre farm is a busy place.

The farm's team grows a variety of fruit trees, berries, and items such as ginger in its greenhouse. Many Vermont breweries use the orchard's apples in their hard ciders.

New Leaf CSA and two sugaring operations lease land from the farm.

Scott Farm also operates a farm market from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. It also maintains a commercial kitchen, though Renault says it often sits unused.

McMahon said the farm also participates in the state's Use Value Appraisal Program (“current-use”) agricultural program, which ensures that owners of productive farms and forests pay taxes on the value of the property as it is being used, not by its fair-market value.

One of the program's requirements is that landowners also develop a forestry plan.

“There's also some open land and empty barns that aren't being used as fully as they could be,” she said. “So there are some opportunities there.”

McMahon said the farm is considering purchasing a high-speed cider press, which could be used to process apples for juice to sell to other cider producers.

“That's the beauty of Simon having a business background as well as [experience] in agriculture,” McMahon said. “He can run the numbers and say, 'OK, does this really makes sense for us?'”

Renault added, “The way I see the future of Scott Farm, and the way I understand Scott Farm, is as an ecosystem.

“It's a natural ecosystem of course of plants and trees that we nurse and care for, but it's also a human ecosystem of people who work here,” he said. “The people aspect of Scott Farm is very important.”

Renault added that caring for an ecosystem means caring for the people within it. In his mind, this concept ties into Scott Farm's status as a B Corp.

Renault said that every day, he learns something new. For example, the number of community partnerships that already existed at Scott Farm caught him by surprise.

“I did not know that Scott Farm is so tied on a deep level to the community,” he said. “I also did not know that you could find Scott Farm apples in most of the ciders you buy at the store.”

Last year, Scott Farm started partnering with Food Connects, which distributes local food to buyers in southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire. The organization also offers several educational programs and consulting services.

Renault expects that soon, the farm will take an active role in community conversations around resilience and building a sustainable local food system.

A family (apple) tree

Renault grew up in a town the size of Brattleboro, in Brittany, a region in northwest France, where his family participated in a long regional tradition of making apple cider.

Both sets of Renault's grandparents lived on farms. His paternal grandparents farmed a large orchard.

“They were farmers, so they had many, many ventures and, as most farms in Brittany, orchard was very much a part of it, and for countless generations, we have been making hard cider, sweet cider, apple brandy, and all kinds of apple brandy derivatives and liquors,” he said.

“And, you know, my grandparents were still of that generation that never drank water because water wasn't safe, and they drank cider all day long,” he added. “On Sundays, they drank a glass of red wine.”

Renault moved to the U.S. when he was 28. He lives with his wife Dana and their three children in Putney.

Before arriving at Scott Farm, he worked for 12 years as a farmer and farm manager at Sun Hill Farm in Putney. He was also involved with founding the Putney Farmers' Market and the Putney Community Garden. He served on the board of the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market.

Approximately three years ago, Renault said, he felt as if he was coming to the end of a chapter. He enrolled in the Marlboro College Graduate School and obtained his degree in nonprofit management.

“For the last six months, I've been keeping an eye on local opportunities,” he said. “When I saw that Scott Farm was looking for a manager, I just jumped at the opportunity.”

Renault said, “I really feel like this might unite so many parts of both my French heritage, and family traditions, my interest for historic preservation, my strong interest in agriculture, and in local food systems.”

“I mean, I'm quite amazed that I was able to really bring all of those [qualities] together in this new position at Scott Farm,” he added.

When life gives you COVID-19, make crepes

Renault said that he operated a crepe stand for three years at the Brattleboro Farmer's Market called Holy Crepe. He hopes to bring the thin French pancake to the Scott Farm in some form.

“I'm thinking about a crepe night and dreaming about an apple/Nutella crepe already,” he said.

McMahon added that once people are allowed to gather again, she hopes to start benefit nights, where proceeds from sales of products such as Renault's crepes would go to a local charity.

COVID-19 has devastated so many social service organizations and the people they support, she said.

Then, McMahon laughed.

“Simon... I haven't even discussed this with you,” she admitted.

“No, we have talked about it,” Renault replied. “Absolutely. I mean, we're so on the same page, Susan. I really appreciate you adding that.”

Such ideas are in the forefront of McMahon and Renault's strategies for not letting the community take Scott Farm for granted.

“I think the ecosystem thrives with activity and connections, and those connections only happen when people not only buy from us but also visit us,” Renault said. “Again, we cannot exist without the support of the community. And I think it's an exchange thing, we provide a lot and our existence depends on the community.”

According to Renault, $1 spent locally translates into $3 added to the local economy.

“And all the ripples that that has,” he said. “It means people staying employed at Scott Farm, it means Scott Farm still being able to exist,” he said.

The farm employs five full-time-equivalent staff all year long, as well as seasonal workers. McMahon is expecting eight workers to arrive soon under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The program allows immigration of foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs.

On a recent bike ride into work, Renault said he felt struck by the immense beauty of Scott Farm. At the same moment, he felt a deep appreciation for the people who work at the farm and their deep love for the place.

“And that just creates a really good energy, and I'm so glad to be joining a team that is passionate, and enthusiastic, and loving of their work, and loving of this place, and their community,” he said.

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