By JOHN FLOWERS
EAST MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Land Trust (VLT) confirmed last week that it had sold a conserved East Middlebury farm to a young family who plans to grow beans, grains and organic vegetables at the 90-acre spread located off Route 116 and Airport Road.
The VLT purchased the former Elmer Farm earlier this year for $445,000 with support from the town of Middlebury, the Freeman Foundation and several individual donors. The VLT immediately conserved the farm in order to sell it for less money to a family dedicated to agricultural pursuits.
Through its new “Farm Access Program,” the VLT solicited interest from farm families interested in buying the Elmer Farm in order to launch a diversified agriculture business.
More than 30 prospective buyers showed interest in the farm, according to Gil Livingston, the VLT’s president-elect. From that group, a committee selected Spencer and Jennifer Blackwell, a couple that currently farms at the Intervale Center in Burlington. The nonprofit center manages 354 acres of farmland, nurseries, trails, wildlife corridors and compost production along the Winooski River. The center leases land to farmers, who are also given access to equipment thereby cutting down on the capital expenses they usually face when starting their own businesses.
The Blackwells currently operate “Intervale Bean & Grain,” a business they will transfer to the Elmer Farm. They are native Vermonters with more than 20 years of farming experience between them.
“They bring a depth of farming experience, business sophistication, and commitment to community that will help them succeed,” Livingston said. “At VLT, we were thoroughly impressed with their vision for the farm, their comprehensive business plan, and, of course, their enthusiasm.”
Jennifer Blackwell, 35, said she and her husband, who is 33, heard about the availability of the Elmer Farm back in June.
“We immediately thought it was a great opportunity,” Blackwell said. “There is already a lot of excitement in Middlebury about local foods.”
The Blackwells hope the Middlebury market will become excited about their crops, which now include black beans, vegetables and a variety of grains, including winter rye, winter wheat and buckwheat.
Blackwell said black beans have been solid sellers at restaurants and farmer’s markets. The unprocessed grains, meanwhile, have been popular among farmers, who plant the seeds during the fall as a cover crop.
In East Middlebury, the Blackwells plan to start processing their grain to make flour they will sell wholesale and at farmer’s markets and food co-ops in Addison County.
Plans also call for them to establish a “community supported agriculture” (CSA) program, through which consumers can buy shares in the operation that will entitle them to regular installments of produce.
When they move into the farm next spring, they will start out small, planting on roughly five acres, according to Blackwell. But as they get the hang of it, the couple plans to ramp up planting to around 40 acres, diversifying their products along the way.
“We have a lot of ideas, but we also don’t want to grow too quickly,” Blackwell said. “Because of the ‘eat local challenge’ we have received calls from people all over the state looking for local grains. We know the market is there, but we want to take our time and grow at the right pace.”
Area residents will not only be able to enjoy the Blackwells’ products. The Middlebury Area Land Trust will hold a public trail easement on a portion of the Blackwells’ land, with the hope of creating a four-season trail linking East Middlebury Village to the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM).
The Blackwells, who are expecting their first child in December, are still pinching themselves over their good fortune. Not only will they be able to work their own land, but they’ll be able to do it in the their home state. Spencer originally hails from East Montpelier, while Jennifer is from St. Albans.
“To be able to afford the farm and stay near our families … is really special,” Jennifer Blackwell said.