MONKTON — For Monkton natives Galen and Moriah Helms and Starksboro native Sara Paule Koeller, what began as a quarter-acre garden on a family property in Monkton four years ago has expanded into a burgeoning farming and foraging business called Mountain Warrior.
The Helms siblings (Moriah, 27, and Galen, 24) and Koeller, 28, have carved out a niche in area farmer’s markets by focusing their efforts on unique value-added products, including a chai tea made of chaga mushrooms, pickled ramps, ginger-rhubarb chutney and a range of pesto and other spreads. They currently have stalls in farmer’s markets in Bristol and Shelburne.
“It wasn’t an ambition I always had, but it evolved very organically,” Moriah Helms said of starting Mountain Warrior in 2009. “I had been out of college for a few months, my brother had been farming and we just kind of got to talking. At the end of our first season we met our farm partner Sara Paule, and she has been with us ever since.”
As they conceptualized the goals and founding principles of the launch of their business, they came up with an image that said it all.
“At the time we were really into the idea of the ‘warrior,’ the peaceful warrior,” Helms recalled. “We kind of thought of farmers as warriors who are really on the front lines of communities, doing this amazing thing of producing food for the world. So we ended up naming our farm Mountain Warrior.”
Having grown up in the Green Mountains, aware of the bounty of food that grows in the wild, the Helmses incorporated foraging into their operation early on.
“It seemed that there was already a lot of produce (on the market) so we wanted to do something different,” Helms said. “We do a lot of foraging. We think of our farm as not just being on the property where we grow our plants but also extending into the surrounding ecosystem. There’s a lot of thinking about how to sustainably harvest foods.”
Some of those foods, including chaga and ramps, form the backbone of the value-added products that have become customer favorites, and set Mountain Warrior apart at the market.
“We’ve definitely pared down the crops we grow to sell,” Helms said. “At first we kind of did everything and then, as we realized we were going to be doing more value-added products and because we don’t have a big refrigeration system or anything, we cut back.”
The farm now has almost an acre in production, and currently focuses its growing efforts on garlic, potatoes, rhubarb, green beans and basil.
“Those are our cash crops right now,” Helms said.
Mountain Warrior also grows native corn. Some of the corn is for their own consumption, but they mostly grow it to feed the farm’s 70 chickens.
“The three of us really equally share the work, though the work we do is different,” Helms explained. “Sara Paule and Galen really manage the chickens…I call Sara Paule the chicken whisperer because she’s just so in tune with those birds and she really loves them. She’ll like bring them into the house if they’re sick and figure out what’s wrong and fix them.”
All the nurturing and hard work pays off, said Helms, who claims the chickens have made a name for themselves at the market as the layers of the best eggs.
“We sell out of eggs right away at the farmer’s market and they’re all different colors, because we have different kinds of chickens,” Helms said with a laugh. “So now to market them we have clear containers so you can really see all the colors and that attracts customers.”
She thinks the secret goes beyond the uniquely colored assortment in each container.
“I think it’s not just what they’re fed — which is just grain and they have a lot of space to forage in — but the love that goes into raising them,” Helms said. “I think that goes for all of our products, it’s just the energy and the love we put into it.”
But for Mountain Warriors the best part of farming is the quality of the work itself, and the solidarity that grows around it in the county’s agriculture community.
“Our founding goal was really about community and having fun,” Helms said. “We wanted our work to be fun and we also really valued community. We wanted to have friends that came and worked on our farm, maybe in exchange for produce, and it would be this thing. That didn’t really materialize in the first season and it was a little bit of a challenge for us at first, but now four years later, I look around and we totally have that.”
Helms says the farm now has a steady stream of friends and farm community acquaintances stopping by at the farmer’s markets to hang out. The group also has friends who are deeply involved in the creation of Mountain Warrior products, even if they are not farm partners, who sometimes staff the farmer’s market stand.
“The vendor next to me at the farmer’s market last week was like, ‘Who are all these people who always come and talk to you and know so much about your products?’” Helms recalled. “And I was like, ‘They’re my people!’”