Farms of the Champlain Valley, Vermont | The Land, the Animals, and the People Who Care for Them
Do you know where your food comes from? It’s a loaded question, one that often leads to even more questions. For the farmers of the Champlain Valley, the region that encompasses some of western Vermont in the area south of Burlington, that question has become a livelihood. I recently traveled to three farms in the […]
Do you know where your food comes from? It’s a loaded question, one that often leads to even more questions. For the farmers of the Champlain Valley, the region that encompasses some of western Vermont in the area south of Burlington, that question has become a livelihood. I recently traveled to three farms in the area: an alpaca farm, a pig farm, and a dairy, to meet some of the people who work the land and tell their stories.
Foliage peaked in the Champlain Valley a few weeks ago, and only a few resolute oaks still cling to their browning leaves. This is one of my favorite times of year. The leaves rattle in the wind that sweeps across the vast open pastures dotted with grazing Holsteins.
To the east, the Green Mountains slope gently into the valley, no longer a patchwork of red, orange, and evergreen, but rather a resigned slate that nearly matches the waters of the lake and its many tributaries. This is the time of year I begin to look nervously west—when the peaks of the Adirondacks start to turn white, you know it’s time to get out the parka.
But there is no snow on the mountains yet, and a thick wool sweater will do. It’s late morning when I approach my first destination from the south on VT-22A. I know I’m getting close when I reach the familiar crossroads in Bridport near Pratt’s Store and make a left down a dirt road.
I pull into Champlain Valley Alpacas, where I’m greeted by two adorable crias (baby alpacas) wooing the wedding party touring today. Jenny Foshay and her husband Les meet me in front of their home amid a few stray chickens and a barn cat, and we begin the tour.
There are only eight alpacas on the farm today; the rest of their 70-animal herd has been moved to a second farm about a mile west of this one. The ones still here, Jenny explains, are the ones who need a little extra TLC: four youngsters, two nursing mothers, and a few older alpacas.
Alpacas used to be strictly fiber animals, and it’s not hard to see why with their incredibly soft fur. As alpacas age however, like humans, their hair becomes more bristly, so they’re not as optimal for producing these fibers. With changing markets and reflections on sustainability, there grew a market for alpaca meat, which, for Jenny and Les, is part of the lifestyle. It comes down to using the whole animal instead of letting all but the fiber go to waste. I also met the Foshay’s small beef herd, mostly Black and Red Angus, and a few Herfords. Les delivers a load of apple pomace, which they enjoy with relish.
The largest part of their business, however, just kind of fell into their lap, says Jenny. It started five years ago when they were approached by a bride who wanted to have her ceremony in their barn. Their reaction: “You want to get married in our barn?!” (At the time, it was filled with hay and farm equipment.) Surprised but open to the idea, they hosted their first wedding that year, and the requests started pouring in. Now they do a wedding nearly every weekend during the warmer months, and have opened to other events as well.
The heart of the operation, however, remains the farm, and it’s clear the couple really know their stuff. They moved back east from Arizona in 1998 with their two young daughters and some of their alpacas, beginning at the farm down the road. They’ve since moved to this location. For Alpacas, like all other livestock, pedigree is important, and the Foshays are very proud of their stock. Les explains how the alpaca business has changed over the years and how the recession of 2008 impacted the landscape. The people who know alpacas, he says, really know them. A breeder once took one look at one of his alpacas and told him the exact lineage.
By now, we’ve completed the loop around the property and it’s time to feed Hershey and Ninny, the two crias (kree-uhs) I was instantly smitten with when I arrived. Their mothers both died of natural causes soon after they were born, so they’ve been bottle-feeding them.
“Would you like to feed one?”
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. The babies get warm whole milk a few times a day, and Ninny, the one I’m feeding, suckles voraciously for about 60 seconds before growing bored. Hershey’s having a harder time and has spilled milk down his soft brown fur. After the feeding, they both lay down, bowing to get their long necks out of the wind.
I say goodbye to Jenny and Les, but I had a little time before my next stop, so I head a few miles down VT-125 (the stretch between Middlebury and Chimney Point is one of my favorite drives ever) to the Crown Point bridge, the bridge that crosses Lake Champlain into New York.
My next farm, Understory Farm, is a bit south in the small town of Sudbury (pop. 560).
Gregory Witscher greets me from atop his manure spreader pulled by two large draft horses. After returning them to the barn, we head to the farmhouse across the street where we meet up with his wife, Jessie, their daughter Sawyer, 7, and the family dog. They show me around their property, starting with the pigs.
The family moved to Vermont several years ago, seeking a more steady water source. They lease this farm, where they grow a market garden which provides organic produce and cut flowers for their farm stand and farmer’s markets in the area. They hope to begin growing wholesale medicinal herbs as part of the new VT Medicinal Herb Co-op. Their major livelihood, however, is the pork from their stock of heritage pigs. Their milk-fed pigs provide meat to the Middlebury Whole Foods Co-op, restaurants in New York City, and they sell some whole or half pigs directly to customers each year.
We circle the barn, through a zig-zag of electric fences which he carefully lowers so that Sawyer and I can pass, and down a gentle slope to where the pigs live. We spot a few beef cattle grazing, unperturbed by the visitors.
“Where are they?” asks Sawyer, who read my mind. Just then, a few pigs begin to emerge from the wooded area, having heard the telltale signs of food. Soon twenty or so pigs begin to circle each other and swarm the food bucket. There’s no food, just a nosy editorial intern here to visit. These pigs eat mostly milk from a local dairy, filling a niche in the pork industry.
Now it’s back up the hill we go, over to the market garden, past the chickens. One plot is covered with winter rye, and the others are being prepared for winter. “We’re small now, but growing. We’re in a good place,” says Gregory.
I wave goodbye to the Witschers and head to my third and final stop, driving over the Brandon gap to another small town, Rochester. Now, strictly speaking, Rochester is located more on the Green Mountains side of things than the Champlain Valley, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Liberty Hill Farm & Inn.
The story of how Bob and Beth Kennett found their farm begins in 1975. The couple, then engaged, were planning their mountain honeymoon. Beth was staunchly opposed to the idea of spending her honeymoon without flush toilets, but agreed to go under the condition that their destination had such amenities.
And where else would they find their getaway than in the June 1975 issue of Yankee Magazine?At right is the ad that led them to their cottage in neighboring Pittsfield, just on the other side of the hill.
Little did they know they would soon return to this hill to buy the farm they had explored as newlyweds. They had been searching all over New England for a suitable farm, and one day in January 1979, a realtor called and said he had just listed the perfect farm. The young couple were visiting Bob’s family in Vermont for a late Christmas, and needed to head back to Maine to milk the cows that evening. The realtor insisted they go by way of Rochester to see the property (“which was really quite out of the way!” remarks Beth). When she saw it, Beth says, she knew, “That’s our farm!” The farm was on the market for less than a day.
Fast-forward 36 years and the farm is still in operation. Bob, Beth, their son David and his family now run the dairy operation and inn, which opened in 1984. Three generations are now in the business; granddaughter Ella recently made the local paper showing one of her calves. I’ve caught Beth in the middle of dinner preparations; she’s made a ham, vegetables, rolls, baked beans, and chocolate cake for the 13 guests coming tonight. She says it’s always a mix between newcomers and “regulars,” guests who have been coming for years. I catch a waft of ham from the oven, and I suddenly regret that I can’t stay for dinner.
The herd includes 120 mature cows, most of whom need to be milked twice a day, everyday, 365 days a year. They also have about 150 youngsters. They’re all Holsteins, and award-winning Holsteins at that, with one of the best pedigrees around according to the Kennetts.
The cows are used to visitors by now, but they still turn toward the door as I enter the barn, offering their heads for pats from me, licking my camera and trying to nibble at the cuff of my sweater. I get to see the “maternity ward,” where two pregnant cows lie in the hay (a calf had been born the day before my arrival), and a few juveniles approach the fence to see what’s up. The cows are adorable, but the barn cat and her kittens almost steal the show, playing with my boot laces and sparring with each other in the hay.
A family has arrived for their stay. The tire swing out front welcomes the children, as do 25 or so calves across the road, who peek curiously out of their stalls as visitors approach, some unsure, some marching right up to their outstretched hands.
There are almost 7,000 farms in the state of Vermont, the majority of which are in the Champlain Valley, a region that is sometimes called “Vermont’s bread basket.” Besides being one of the most beautiful places in New England, it’s also one of the most agriculturally productive. These farms and the people they employ are the lifeblood of the region, so if you’re ever in the area, be sure to check them out.
The Vermont Wedding Barn at Champlain Valley Alpacas | Bridport, VT
The Farmers: Les and Jenny Foshay
The Animals: Alpacas, cattle, and chickens
The Land: Vineyard, The Vermont Wedding Barn, breathtaking views of the Adirondacks