Monkton berry farm turning over a new leaf: Land conserved as young couple launches new enterprise

MONKTON — Forty-four years ago, a young couple bought 108 acres on Davis Road in Monkton and started dairy farming. Over the years the farm changed its focus to berries and became beloved throughout the community as Norris Berry Farm.
This spring a new young couple will begin farming those same acres.
Stephen and Sarah Park, 33 and 23, respectively, and just married last fall, began their lease of the Monkton landmark on March 15 — smack dab in the middle of a blizzard. While that flurry of snow set back their blueberry pruning schedule by a few weeks, the young farmers aren’t a bit fazed.
Both Stephen and Sarah love being outdoors and both love the hard physical labor farming requires.
Also, both love food.
“We always have a tableful of friends around our house,” said Stephen Park. “And I have always loved the whole process, the full process of growing food and preparing it and feeding people.”
That love will be reflected in the farm’s new name: Full Belly Farm.
The Vermont Land Trust was offering the lease through its Farm Access Program. With 12 years of diverse farming experience between them, the Parks’ detailed vision for the farm brought their proposal to the top of a statewide competitive selection process.
“They were the best fit for this property,” said the land trust’s Allen Karnatz. “They had lots of good experience growing berries and vegetables so they could really hit the ground running. And they seemed to be asking all the right questions about irrigation and so forth. Their proposal also seemed to be pretty financially sound that they could qualify for financing through USDA young farmer loans.
“It’s kind of the whole package.”
The lease marks a step in a multiphase process whereby the land trust will acquire the farm, while the Parks continue to lease and operate it. Eventually the Parks will purchase the farm from the land trust, which will retain the development rights.
The complete transfer of farm ownership will take place over the next year, said Karnatz.
“We’re excited about conserving the farm and helping Stephen and Sarah become the owners,” said Karnatz. “There are still some moving parts, such as obtaining funding for purchasing the development rights. Later this year we hope to secure grants through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and USDA-NRCS. We also hope the town of Monkton will offer support through their town conservation fund; and if necessary, we might organize a local fundraising campaign. It’s a lot of work but keeping the land in farming and having an ambitious, experienced couple take it over is a great outcome.“
The Parks learned about the opportunity to take over the farm just after they’d returned from their honeymoon last fall.
“I showed it to Stephen and I wasn’t really sure why I was feeling like we should go for it because it was such a 180,” Sarah Park said of the unusual opportunity.
Most recently they had been running the Lick Skillet food truck, selling Mexican food and Southern barbeque around the state. Their plan had been to use the food truck as a value-added way of transitioning to farming over time, using their own produce.
The chance to lease the Monkton farm, said Sarah, presented “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The Parks visited the farm during a land trust open house and soon set to work on their proposal for the land trust. The couple had investigated purchasing a Bristol berry farm a year earlier, so they’d already begun to consider their farm business. They sought input and feedback through the Vermont Small Business Development Center and the Vermont Farm Viability Program. They also spent time with farm owner Norma Norris to gain an in-depth understanding of what made the farm tick.
“She was so wonderful, so helpful through this whole interview process, patient with all of our questions, too,” said Sarah Park. “We have a lot of questions.”
In late January, the couple learned that they had won the right to lease and eventually own the farm.
“It was just incredibly exciting,” said Stephen Park. “I’d spent almost 10 years working on farms and hoping that some day I’d be able to own my own land and be able to farm myself. But I kind of started doing the woodworking (Park is also a trained cabinetmaker) because I didn’t see a way of getting the financing together, especially if you’re starting from scratch. So the opportunity to take this on was kind of a dream come true in a lot of ways. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do my whole adult life.”
Stephen Park grew up in Kentucky just one generation off the farm. Before Park was born, his dad got out of hog and tobacco farming and retrained as an engineer.
Out of high school, Park said he tried college for one semester and soon realized “I couldn’t sit inside that much.”
Instead, he took an internship on an organic farm.
“That was it. I loved it,” he said. “And the next season, I found a job out in Oregon, and I worked there for eight years.”
Despite his professional experience and love of farming, Park felt it was prudent to have an alternate way to make a living, so he took classes at the Vermont Woodworking School in Cambridge.
Sarah and Stephen met when he came to do some carpentry work at Starksboro’s Lewis Creek Farm, where Sarah (then Plante) was working.
“We just hit it off,” Sarah said.
Sarah grew up “at the end of a dirt road in Moretown.” She attended Johnson State College but was at a loss, she said, for what she wanted to do.
“I had a friend who worked up at a dairy farm in Johnson, and I noticed he was happy,” she said.
“That got me thinking that nothing could make you as happy as being outside and growing food. I think it’s a great way to participate in your community.”
Soon thereafter, she transferred to the University of Vermont, where she studied agriculture and food systems. Once out of college she began working at Lewis Creek Farm.
Fate intervened and now Sarah and her husband, Stephen, are hard at work on Full Belly Farm.
The soon-to-be rechristened Full Belly Farm will continue to grow Norris Berry Farm signature crops: strawberries (including pick your own), raspberries, blueberries, currants and a full complement of veggies and some melons.
“There’s not a whole lot changing this year,” said Stephen.
Year to year, though, the Parks plan to be making some changes as they see where the market is going and see which varietals do best.
Over the next year, they plan to add asparagus, which they believe will complement their growing season nicely, coming in before the all-important strawberries. They plan to gradually transition the farm to organic. And they hope to eventually add livestock, both to supply farm-raised meat and to supply the manure to generate the mounds of compost needed to keep all those fruits and veggies growing.
And Lick Skillet still fits into the business plan.
This summer they have a friend lined up to operate their food truck on site at the farm on busy pick-your-own days.
“We really want to honor what Norma’s built here,” said Stephen. “That’s a big part of our plan — to honor and continue with our own touch.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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