Young trio of farmers leave ‘footprints’ in Starksboro
STARKSBORO — Those who have unhappily watched the trends of young people leaving the state and farms closing up shop have reason to celebrate the launch of Footprint Farm in Starksboro this year.
Three young farmers — St. George native Jake Mendell, 25, and California natives Taylor Hutchison, 25, and Nathan Hammer, 32 — started work in April on their diversified, 9-acre farm at Starksboro’s Common Ground Center.
And already the trio says they have found a warm welcome for their mix of vegetables, flowers and animals.
“There’s a huge excitement that I wasn’t really prepared for,” said Hutchison. “Driving through Vermont, there are so many farms. At first you think, ‘OK, we’ll start a farm, but that’s what everybody does.’ But everybody is so excited about young farmers coming back to Vermont. That feels really good to be part of.”
Mendell and Hutchison met in 2011 while apprentices at Slide Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm in Muir Beach, Calif. The following year they took an internship at Hidden Villa, an organic nonprofit farm in the Silicon Valley, where they met Hammer. They describe those California farms as “a West Coast equivalent to Shelburne Farms, or Stone Barn in New York.”
The three friends moved to Vermont early this year. Mendell’s parents, the co-founders of the Common Ground Center, had offered to lease them a chunk of land to start their own farm. Mendell sold Hutchison and Hammer — natives of Yosemite and Weathersville in their home state, respectively — on the eastward move.
He had already spent some time planting that particular seed.
“Jake didn’t stop talking about how great Vermont was for the last two years,” Hutchison noted. “So the two of us decided to come check it out. Turns out, Vermont really is awesome.”
“(Weathersville) is about the same population as Bristol,” added Hammer, who had never been to Vermont before moving just three months ago. “Coming right from the Silicon Valley, which is a really populated area, to a small town in a more rural area feels in some ways like coming home.”
The three are already putting their combined farming experience to good use. On a recent tour of the farm, they showed off rows of well tended, flourishing plants and their recently constructed mobile chicken coop.
“This year we’re really trying to experiment to find out what works for the land here and for us,” Hammer explained. “We’re doing different things even for the same crop to see how each thing grows, trying to learn the soil and the climate.”
About three-fourths of an acre of Footprint Farms will be in production by the year’s end, Hammer estimated. The area that is currently planted is already blooming with salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, beets, eggplant, squash and many other vegetables as well as flowers. Three piglets and many more chickens have the run of a five-acre pasture. They are already talking about adding sheep or goats.
“It worked out well that our backgrounds are really different,” Hutchison said. “Jake did mostly animals, Nathan did a lot of CSA management (vegetables and perennials), and I worked a lot with flowers and weddings. It works out great that I’m not very good with numbers and measuring things for a chicken coop, but they’re awesome at it. Our division of labor really naturally unfolded.”
As the group works to get the farm an organic certification — a tedious ordeal for a first-year farm without empirical data on their growing operations — even the business side of farm labor was allocated naturally.
“Taylor recently had a minor knee surgery, which has been a blessing in disguise for me and Nathan,” said Mendell with a laugh. “She sat down and did all the paperwork.”
Footprint Farm has opened booths at the Hinesburg Farmers’ Market on Thursday and the Bristol Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. It also offers two types of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) market shares, as well as seasonal flower arrangement services for weddings, and has its first restaurant account, selling basil and oregano to Folino’s Pizza in Charlotte. It will soon offer pasture-raised eggs from the chickens, and the farmers hope to expand to a full-diet CSA and pick up more restaurant accounts.
In the meantime, the three farmers are finding their place in the local ag community.
“We’ve had a lot of support from people locally, and also some of the farmers, who have come up and plowed our fields when we didn’t have a tractor, in exchange for us doing some work for them. It’s been really helpful,” Hammer said.
And the excitement over a successful first year is still going strong.
“Last week I said to someone, ‘I own a farm,’” Hutchison said. “Then I thought, ‘Whoa! What?’”
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