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Intervale Center in Burlington Vermont

Cousin Jennie with Travis, Hale and Serein at Intervale Center

Cousin Jennie with Travis, Hale and Serein at Intervale Center

Intervale:   n. Regional. A tract of low-lying land, especially along a river. 

The Intervale  Center in Burlington, Vermont has three goals: to enhance the viability of farming; to promote the sustainable use and stewardship of agricultural lands; and to ensure community engagement in the food system.

Last weekend my husband and I went to Vermont to visit some of my cousins who grew up on a dairy farm in Charlotte. My father also worked on that 300 acre farm with Uncle Wally at different times, and all my other cousins spent part of our summer vacations on the farm. As a child I had a (very) few farm chores, but I have always given credit to The Farm for my ending up in Heath with a flock of chickens.

The Farm of my youth is gone, but my cousins still hold a tract of land, fields and woodland, where family gatherings continue to be held on the stony beach. On this trip we got to spend time with my cousin (once removed) Travis Marcotte whose journey from the University of Vermont and the University of California-Davis where his studies in community, international and economic development led him to several years working in Central America and the Caribbean. About nine years ago he returned to Burlington and the Intervale Center where he is now the Executive Director.

In 1988 Will Raap, founder the Garden Supply Company, with an interested group of citizens began establishing the Intervale Foundation, making and selling compost on what had been wasteland. Now, under the name Intervale Center, it manages 350 acres of land within the Burlington city limits. From establishing the Community Farm, the first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Vermont to establishing an incubator farm program and a host of other programs the Intervale Center works to protect land and water quality, and find ways to bring good fresh food to everyone.

Cool  and damp at the Intervale Center's greenhouses

Cool and damp at the Intervale Center’s greenhouses

It was wonderful on that very cool day to walk around the Intervale with my cousin Jennie, Travis and his two boys. We took the wooded hiking trail along the  Winooski River where some restoration work is being carried on. We passed joggers and then turned away from the river and out into an open area, a kind of street lined with large hoophouses. Some are owned by Intervale, and some are owned by businesses who lease the land they are built on. This is where the Farms Program begins, and support for farmers becomes infrastructure.

The first farm here was the 50 acre Community Farm founded about 25 years ago. “This is a very traditional CSA,” Travis explained. “Members come here to pick up their shares, but they have an interesting model. The 550 consumers own the cooperative. When they want to expand they borrow money from themselves at a very low rate of interest. After all, they are not interested in making money here, they just want to get the next job done.”

Intervale leases the land to the Community Farm which then has access to all the equipment like tractors, and washing equipment for the produce. “Three hundred people have signed up for Winter Shares. Farmers all over Vermont are working to have a four season year,” Travis said.

Ten other farms lease land from Intervale Center, including the tiny two acre Half Pint Farm. Three of these are incubator farms who lease land for five years. . “Being able to lease land and equipment makes it possible for new farmers to get a start without a heavy outlay of money,” he said. “We also help them with business plans and can provide them with referrals to other services in the state.” In addition new farmers get help and encouragement from mentors at the rooted farms. They are not isolated with their worries or lack of experience.

Ben and his chickens at the Intervale Center

Ben and his chickens at the Intervale Center

We met Ben who is in his second incubator year raising about 1000 chickens for eggs. “Ben came to us with a business plan and a lot of ideas. He needed a place to test them out. Now he can’t keep up with the demand for his eggs, most of which go to the City Market Coop in the center of town,” Travis said.

Ben’s chickens live outdoors on pasture and in shelters three seasons of the year, and in two greenhouses during the winter. Next month he will cull the non-layers and be ready for new pullets in the spring. He told us that he’ll slaughter a few birds for his own use, but will sell the rest back to the producer for a very small amount of money.

Another program is called Success on Farms.  Business plan and consulting services are available to farmers all across Vermont. Farmers need to know about more than growing crops or raising animals. They need to know about efficient production systems, good financial planning, and markets.

We were surprised when Travis explained that a lot of their funding comes from the quasi-state agency, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. “About 25 years ago Vermonters decided they didn’t want to lose this great way of life. They wanted to conserve the beautiful countryside, but they didn’t want it to be an exclusive place. That meant they needed to insure affordable housing.”

When Travis returned from his work in Caribbean nine years ago, he said he had a dream of working part-time in Vermont. He had worked as a cook in a million restaurants he said. He could do that. Instead he saw an ad for a job at Intervale Center and cooking was forgotten.

He took on the job of travelling around Vermont helping farmers with their strategic and financial planning, advice on creating value added products, amd expanding their markets. Success on Farms was his goal.

Next week I’ll talk about other Intervale Center programs. The Food Hub. The Conservation Nursery. Gleaning. Summervale! We have many of these services and opportunities in our own area, but it was absolutely stunning to find them all under one roof.

Between the Rows   November 1, 2014

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