ORWELL — The decision to go to auction didn’t come easily to the Barnes family, longtime dairy farmers at Red Sky Farm in Orwell. But a silver lining to the family’s choice to leave the dairy industry in 2004 is a budding farm stand that has ensured the exodus of cows hasn’t given way to fallow agricultural land.
Vermonters in a 2007 poll identified loss of farms and farmland as the most serious issue related to agriculture in the state. As increasing numbers of dairy farmers contemplating leaving the business, more farmers will find themselves facing the question the Barnes asked themselves in 2004: What next?
A sign outside their Orwell farm last week advertised homemade ice cream and fresh rhubarb, and bright flowers and potted herbs lined the tables set up in front of the Route 73 farm stand. Motorists careening past the farm slowed to check the wares, and one man hopped out of his car to peer into the self-serve freezer. The ice cream reserves were running low, but Paula Barnes assured the would-be customer that she’d be churning out another batch that evening.
“You’re not the one who has to tell my wife that,” the man joked.
Paula Barnes, her husband Ed and her son Matt run the farm stand. All three have jobs off farm, so that means that most of the time the stand is unmanned. Customers drop checks or cash into a lockbox, and in some cases dash off an “I owe you” note if they’re running short.
They started in 2005, a few months after their dairy went to auction. It was a tough operation to get up off the ground, in part because they’d sold all of their farm equipment in the auction. The Barnes family had kept a garden for themselves, but they hadn’t grown vegetables on a large scale. So they tossed a few pumpkin seeds in the ground — and lo and behold, by September, a truckload of pumpkins had sprung up.
Continuing to work the farm was important to the family.
“It’s a pretty sad thing to have an auction,” Paula Barnes said. “It’s tough to see the animals go and you’re really connected to the land. We really wanted to stay connected to that.”
Since then, they’ve grown a bit each year. Matt Barnes repaired the pole barn that was once their commodity shed. By the family’s third year, they’d bought a new tractor and tilled their land.
They bring in some items from other growers, like their bedding plants and potted herbs. They also sell cider in the fall from a local orchard, and maple syrup from nearby sugarmakers.
In addition to that, the Barnes now grow their own vegetables on around 2.5 acres of land.
There was a learning curve, Paula Barnes said, but the University of Vermont Extension chipped in with expertise and other farmers have lent advice, too. Matt had studied dairy herd management at Vermont Technical College, and his father had at one point thought all he knew how to do was milk cows, but the family learned the new territory as they grew.
“We missed the animals for awhile, but there’s nothing like working with the land,” Paula Barnes said. “To plant something in the ground and watch it come up, to me, that’s pretty special. We get pretty excited.”
And so far, the community has responded enthusiastically to the honor-system farm stand. Customers like that they can pull in, grab what they need, and go. When the Barnes come home at the end of the day in the summer, they’ll often find most of the vegetables gone and their till full, so they rush out to pick another round of fresh vegetables for the evening crowd.
They also see tourists in the fall, and summer residents from nearby lakes and camps.
Though it’s extra work on top of other jobs, the Barnes family says its fulfilling.
“It’s in your blood,” Paula Barnes said. “I couldn’t really imagine giving it up altogether. When we get home at night, we can’t wait to get out there.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.