Deep Meadows-Weathersfield's Organic Farm #weathersfieldVT #VT #organic #farming

Weathersfield Vermont
Nancy Nutile-McMenemy

"How did I get so lucky?" says Jon Cohen of Deep Meadows Farm in Weathersfield, VT. It's a rainy Monday but the farm is buzzing with folks picking vegetables in the fields; garlic is being cleaned up in the former trotter horse farm's barn. And the Vermont Foodbank's van is being loaded with fresh produce from the former horse stall that has been converted into a cold room for vegetable storage.

Cohen grew up in Westchester County and Manhattan in New York state. He was always interested in organic gardening. He had a small organic garden while living in New York city's suburbs, back when organic farming and gardening weren't really buzz words. It's all I ever knew"  Cohen says with a smile.  He left New York at the age of seventeen.

In 1986 he leased to purchase a 23 acre farm in Durham, NH, "That's kind of where I cut my teeth" says this self taught organic farmer. The desire was to grow all his own food, to understand where his food came from and how to make farming sustainable drove his passion to farm. "It was a kind of back-to-the land kind of thing. We were planting wheat and trying to make our own bread; growing soybeans and making our own tofu; raising some meat birds;  we had some sheep and eggs. We were trying to do as much as possible (on our own.) At the same time that I was going to graduate school for counseling."

He lived on this farm in Durham for a year with a small garden. One day he asked his neighbor with a tractor to turnover some of the acreage and the next thing he knew he had five acres of land ready for planting. Being the ambitious guy that he is, he got to it. He quickly discovered they had way too much food, so what do you do?

Thus began his path to large scale organic farming. He researched farming practices; spoke with other farmers; started selling at farmer's markets and to local restaurants. In their second year, they were the 10th farm to be certified organic by the State of New Hampshire (back before the USDA took over certification.) "I jumped into it (organic faming) full force, which is kind of the way things happen for me." He continued farming in Durham for about seven years.

He starting looking at land in Vermont to farm at the same time his ex-wife was looking at graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania for midwifery. "She won."  For eight years, Cohen put his organic farming on hold to pursue his counseling career in Philadelphia and a few places in Maryland. He quit farming-cold turkey-eight long years with no dirt under his fingernails.

In 2001, after his marriage fell part he left Maryland and headed back to New England and landed in southern Vermont with the intention to start farming once again. He was looking for 15-20 acres to farm, something small scale and manageable-green truck farming for farmer's markets, CSA, wholesale. He found some land in Westminster, VT.

He approached the owner set up a barter and worked this farm land for about three years. While in Westminster, he struck up a friendship with Paul Harlow, a third generation Vermont farmer. The Harlow Farm has been in the Harlow family since 1917 and has been certified organic since 1985. 

In cooperation with Harlow, Cohen worked about 10 acres at Kestral Farm and began learning the business of sustainable organic farming with Harlow as a mentor. After about five years, Cohen felt comfortable enough with his business skills to begin looking for a place of his own. Vermont Farm and Forest Viability program helped him develop a business plan. He started speaking with area realtors and also began a relationship with Jon Ramsay, the Director of Farmland Access Program at Vermont Land Trust.

Cohen had driven by the land that would eventually become Deep Meadows about three or four times on his way to Green Mountain Smokehouse on Route 5 in Windsor VT. He was delivering some pigs for processing. "One day on the way back (from the smokehouse) I said to myself, I wonder how much they want for that property just out of curiosity? I called the realtor and they wanted $1 million for it. I went, Oh God, I'll never be able to afford that, not really connecting that maybe I could get the Land Trust involved."

"It was such a beautiful property, I'll never have a place like that."  The property Cohen was referring to was most recently the former Robert Farm where trotter horses were being raised.

The farm, the former Kelly Farm, had been through many incarnations. Back in the 1970s, the open land along the Connecticut River was considered no longer viable for farming. Zoning was adjusted accordingly for commercial or industrial use, opening the land to development. Towns were being pressured to find a stable tax base and as a result, many lands were vulnerable to uses other than farming. The Kelly Farm was one of these lands. A car demolition track, a wood chip plant, a brewery were all under consideration. It eventually was transformed into a trotter horse farm and training facility-complete with a training track, which was purchased by the Robert family from Connecticut. The land sat in the family trust for about 10 years after the patriarch died of a heart attack.

After acquiring the Kelly Farm, as it was known locally in Weathersfield, the Vermont Land Trust issued a public request for business plans from farmers interested in purchasing the land. Jon and his partner Ruth Nangeroni were one of 50 applicants for the property-74 acres, five of which were pulled for the Ascutney Fire District water supply well in the center of the property. Cohen and Nangeroni had the best plan and experience according to the Vermont land Trust and made the purchase. In addition, the land is now protected, if Cohen sells, the land must produce 50% of it's income from food or fiber.

Cohen and Nangeroni began the conversion from trotter horse farm to vegetable production in 2011.

In their fifth season, they are making their payments, learning as they go and managing their 40 acres of organic vegetables-artichokes to zucchinis. They are now certified by the USDA as organic, the only organic farm within a 15 mile radius. They operate four greenhouses-one for propagation and three for production. "Early vegetables are the best sellers."

They have eight full time employees and two H-2A temporary agricultural visa workers from Jamaica, who have been with them for five years. When asked if it was hard to find employees, Cohen said no but it's hard to keep them. There is a certain skill set needed to work on a farm and Cohen has found that he's constantly training his work force as result of high turns over. "That's the bigger challenge, you can work with somebody who's not as expedient as our Jamaicans are... it's spending too much time training them. Then (when) they finally get some of it and they leave." That's were the value of hiring folks is lost.  He's looking for a committed mid-management employee with long term commitment. The farm runs pretty much year round now that they participate in winter farmer's markets so he can offer almost full time year round employment.

Deep Meadows supplies wholesale indirectly to Wholefoods, directly to Black River Produce, Hannafords and many local restaurants generating the bulk of their income. They sell at farmer's markets, including Woodstock.

Cohen operates a farm stand too. It has moved from the roadside down to the barn. The newly renovated space, includes electricity, display shelves, a freezer for cold storage, and is staffed with regular hours for better customer service.

Former horse stalls are being converted to cold storage areas for winter crops to increase their available produce through the winter months.

"This has been a real community effort." Cohen credits the farm's success with early mentoring from Paul Harlow, support from the Vermont Land Trust, The Ascutney Fire District, Black River Produce, Farm Service Agency and Jon Ramsay at VLT.

"We're five years in and we're covering our expenses" he says with a big smile.

Deep Meadows Organic Farm
Rte 5
Ascutney,  VT,  August 1, 2016
Copyright ©2016 Nancy Nutile-McMenemy

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