the intervale

i’d been hearing about the intervale for some time.  it had in my mind become somewhat legendary.  an over 300 acre parcel of land in the city of burlinton that supported  one of the strongest local food movements in the country.  a large-scale municipal composting system that supported the fertility needs of the farmers.  a farm incubator system that helps new farmers get their start!  

all pretty amazing, and i dedicated a few hours of time to explore the intervale.  i managed to crash a formal tour with some folks from northern california who were kind enough to let me join the party.  the tour was led by executive director travis and development assistant chelsea.  travis was a wealth of knowledge and was able to explain the intervale in great detail.

the area know as the intervale is 700 acres of flood plain in the city of burlington.  it’s been used for agriculture for as long as anyone can remember, with native abenaki farming the land for at least 500 years before european settlers took the land. famous vermont hero ethan allen settled on the intervale and the area thrived with farms for centuries, but by the 1980′s the area was known better for dumping than for farms.  in 1986 a community effort was lead to clean up, re-zone the intervale to agricultural land, and the intervale non-profit was founded.

the non-profit now owns or leases about 300 acres of land.

our tour started at the headquarters of the intervale center – and quickly we moved over to the food hub, right next door. i admit – i’m so used to thinking of food hubs as these huge things that serve a community that is as large as detroit.  i wasn’t expecting them to only have one cube truck, or only a small packing barn.  but it was a good reminder that we can think of food hubs not as serving entire cities, but smaller food hubs that serve communities. this is the inside of the food hub, tables for packing, a walk in cooler and a couple of chest freezers and more cold storage under the barn.  really that’s it, nothing too fancy.  you could have a food hub in a garage – just think of it.  each crate represents one of that day’s customers.  the food hub has done wholesale aggregation of products from several farmers in the past, but have switched over to creating a subscription food box program similar to a community supported agriculture project.on the side of the crate it lists who the customer is and where it is to be delivered and what is the contents.  hope kelly jane thomas isn’t outed as not being a vegetarian.  they partner with about 20 businesses to act as drop sites.  the tables are tagged to show what drop site they will be delivered to. and on the wall is listed the packing list the food hub purchases from about 20 vendors to create its hybrid csa model, and folks have some flexibility over what will be in their crate – being able to order meat, dairy, eggs, and some value added products as well.  the vendors are involved in deciding what they will grow, and only provide to the food hub as much as they want.  the intent is not for the food hub to be the only source of income but just one outlet for a diversified business plan.

after checking out the food hub we were able to finally enter the depths of the intervale. a long dirt road stretches into the heart of the intervale – a surprisingly busy road with farmers, walkers, and bicyclists.  the first farm we come to is the intervale community farm (icf), it’s also the oldest of the current farms at the intervale, started in 1990 and now up to about 45 acres and 500 members in its csa.  at this point i broke off from my formal tour and headed out to explore on my own.  

the pack shed is the heart of the farm, with art work all around, toys for youth to play with while caregivers pickup shares, tents where cooking demos are given, and fields for u-pick all around.  to the left of the pack shed is where the coolers and actually processing go on.  a crew was volunteering to clean onions when i arrived.  over time the produce was being pulled out of the cooler and laid out on the tables in the pack shed. unlike many csas, the icf doesn’t deliver or pack shares for it’s customers, everyone must come to the farm, and pack their own share.  everything is laid out neatly, and signs help to guide members.  a big sign at the front lets folks know what is in their share as well as what is u-pick.  the farm helps limit labor costs and increases member fun by having some products such as cherry tomatoes, green beans, flower and okra only available via u-pick.

i left as pick up was happening, as much because i didn’t want to be in the way, but also because i could see a front moving in and didn’t want to get soaked.  i did poke around the fields for a few minutes on my way out.  great looking tomatoes in the hoop house. buckwheat growing in some new land they were starting to use.  the icf has acquired some land that is where the composting operation used to be.  due to the large amount of heavy machinery used in making of compost, the soil there is very compacted.  they are slowly using cover crops to help loosen the soils.  the compost business used to be one of the non-profit’s big projects, but a few years ago they felt as though they had increased the fertility needs of the intervale enough, and their partners wanted them to get bigger.  seemed like the right time to get out – so they sold it.  the compost business still exists, but is at another location off of the intervale.  i found this frog hiding in the buck wheat.  he is my new friend.  he wanted to come home with me, but i was worried that the journey might be too hard.  he hooped away.

across the street from the icf is the area where all the greenhouses and tools for the farmers are.  the intervale non-profit used to own all of these greenhouses and tools but now have sold them to an equipment collective owned and run by the farmers on the intervale.  farmers can rent bench space in the greenhouses for transplant production, at the price they themselves set.  they have a broad range of tractors and farm implements, the price of using this equipment is again set by the collective, and decisions of new equipment to purchase or old equipment to sell was also made by the collective.

in this same area were some of the flower field for stray cat flowers.  finally in this same area, next to the greenhouses was were nursery stock was being grown.  the focus on these trees are ones used in the restoration of wetlands.  this is another business for the intervale non-profit, utilizing the profits from this to support the non-profit.  it was a very modest nursery operation by comparison to most.

moving on down the road i came to the community garden – a huge sprawling community garden taking up acres, and full of activity, and well-tended lots.  then on to the aptly name  half pint farms  the smallest farm on the intervale, almost more of a market garden.  they put on a great display at the market when i visited.  because of the small size they were planting things very intensively and everything was very neatly planted and cared for.  from a aesthetic point of view half pint was may favorite.  half pint farms is one of the farms that is incubating on the intervale.  part of what the intervale is doing is providing space and support for those that want to start farming but are not ready to take the risk of purchasing their own land, or need additional support.  the farmer have to show they have a viable business plan and that they have experience.  they are welcome to farm for up to five years on the intervale, the first three years at a reduced rental rate, and then for the last two years at market rate.  next door to half pint is adam’s berry farm.adam’s berries looked great, so much so that later that day i bought some at the co-op.  adam’s is another project being incubated on the intervale – i was especially impressed because creating a business with perennial crops on a location that you don’t own, seems especially ballsy.  that’s a lot of investment in crops you either have to move or abandon.  i was informed that they have already found another place to move to and were in the process of developing a new site.  i was glad they were able to incubate their project at the intervale and move on, but also couldn’t help but feel that it was a loss for burlington. how sad that youth wouldn’t be able to go to a you-pick berry farm in the city limits.

right across the dirt road was the last farm visit before i retreated in fear of getting soaked – arethusa farmsarethusa is another of the long-term farm projects that serve as mentors to the other farms on the intervale.  they farm 20 acres of vegetable for market and wholesale.  they seem to do brisk business as i saw their farm truck zipping around town.  powered by biodiesel of course.  like most of the farms on the intervale arethusa has a well planned process and pack area. including these stripped out washing machines that are used for washing and spinning out water.  i have plans for developing a packing area at work, so seeing all these ideas for washing, packing and storage are all very helpful.  with the clouds looking more and more ominous and the sun getting lower in the sky i figured it was time to head out of the intervale.  on my way out i spotted in a small pond this flock of fake flamingos. they were so well placed that at first i thought they might be real – but further exploration revealed that it was the work of some prankster.  the intervale still had much to share – there were several other farms i didn’t have a chance to check out.

the walk out the road had my mind spinning, thinking about all kinds of things.  thinking of farm incubators, farmer business development, pack sheds, collectively owned equipment, food hubs, farming.  so much to take in such a short period of time.  i think now weeks later i’m still unpacking it all.  the intervale would certainly rank as one of the best urban agriculture projects i’ve visited, and i’m very glad i visited.

7 responses to “the intervale

  1. This was a great post. Thanks for documenting all this.

  2. Great post Patrick, a lot of information there to *borrow* or adapt.

  3. Could you imagine such a place developing in Detroit? Could it be done outside the boundaries of an academic institution? How could it work within?

    • i could imagine it, but my question is there the need or the want – how many communities in detroit want a 300 parcel incubating a dozen farmers? I hope that it could be done outside of the academy – would be awesome if it was organized as a work owned co-op or something like that.

      • It’s a good question. Ann Arbor has some sort of formal ag-incubator, does Detroit? The environment seems pretty conducive to making good outcomes already so there are certainly questions about the value (and outcomes) of a more formal or intensive incubator.

        It’s probably a conversation worth having. It seems like the city is willing to give away their holdings in a neighborhood if people (or just some dude) can come up with a reasonably plausible land management program.

  4. Pingback: farm to school tour burlington | little house on the urban prairie

  5. Pingback: burlington all the rest | little house on the urban prairie

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