At 20, Maple Wind Farm Takes Stock, and Simplifies | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

At 20, Maple Wind Farm Takes Stock, and Simplifies

by

Maple Wind Farm turkeys - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Maple Wind Farm turkeys

This fall had its ups and downs for Beth Whiting and Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm. On October 11, the couple celebrated their 20th farming anniversary with a party at the Richmond location of their agricultural operation, which also has sites in Bolton and Huntington. About 200 friends, neighbors, customers and other supporters gathered to feast on Maple Wind beef, pork, turkey, chicken and cornbread made with farm eggs. There was beer and ice cream, music and dancing.

"I was overwhelmed by the sheer joy of everyone enjoying themselves, that everyone had come out to celebrate this milestone with us," Whiting said. "It's like we're running a marathon and we've got all these people on the sidelines cheering."

About three weeks later, on Halloween night, the farm lost more than 2,000 chickens and turkeys to unexpected flash flooding in Richmond.

Over two decades, Hennessey, 59, and Whiting, 51, have grown their diversified, pasture-based operation to 250 acres of active production with about $1.2 million in gross annual sales and 16 full-time, seasonal employees. They are farmers but also businesspeople running a good-size operation in a sector with slim margins and above-average risk.

The livestock loss was much less financially damaging than a 2014 fire that destroyed the historic Andrews Barn in Richmond just six months after the couple had purchased the property. In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene ruined some major pieces of equipment and cost them 300 bales of winter feed and three acres of land that "washed downriver," in Hennessey's words.

But the premature death of poultry hit the couple in a way those previous incidents did not. "The loss of life is something that is much more heartbreaking than anything else," Hennessey said.

"We care for these animals, and we've allowed them to express their true nature and enjoy their life on the planet," Whiting said.

"We put them in harm's way because we're doing things radically different than 99 percent of agriculture in America," her husband continued. "They're out in the environment. They're not sequestered in a climate-controlled barn. We think it's important enough for soil health, for our customer health and for animal health to have them outdoors on the grass, moving to new grass every day. It's extremely challenging to do, and it doesn't come without significant risk."

On Halloween, the farmers had been paying close attention to the weather. "We took precautions. We did what we thought was necessary," Hennessey said. They expected up to two inches of rain, a level that had already fallen several times this year.

Instead, Hennessey said, four to five inches fell specifically on their part of the Winooski River, which rose 12 feet in six hours starting at midnight. "What actually happened was not what was forecast," he said. "It was a terrible thing, beyond what we expected, which is, I think, the nature of many of the weather events that we've seen in the last 20 years of farming."

Beyond headline-grabbing events like the barn fire and weather-related losses, farming involves an unrelenting march of trade-offs, a constant negotiation between goals and bottom-line realities, rewards and risks.

The couple is frank about the challenges of building a financially viable farming business. "At each stage, we've asked ourselves, 'Should we keep going?'" Whiting said.

In 2013, to address a livestock-processing bottleneck, Whiting and Hennessey invested in their own USDA-inspected poultry plant, where they now process more than 20,000 of their chickens and turkeys annually, along with some from other farms. To keep their May-through-November team of 16 full-time employees functioning as smoothly as possible, they budget time to train everyone for every job and hold daily check-in meetings.

They made a decision to gradually expand so that they could keep some workers on year-round. In "the middle space," Hennessey explained, "you're doing enough that you need help, but you can't afford more than seasonal help." That choice had unintended consequences: One year, the farm had too much product and had to sell some at cost.

"We've continually made the decision to commit even further," Hennessey said. "Each of those turning points has meant we're deeper in than we were before."

The couple has also continually sought to educate themselves on better management practices. To streamline over the past few years, they stopped sugaring, using horse power, and raising vegetables and lamb.

"We realized we had way too many — way too many — enterprises," Hennessey said.

Maple Wind's 21st year in business will bring more changes.

Beth Whiting (left) and Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm in their turkey pasture - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Beth Whiting (left) and Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm in their turkey pasture

This year was the first that the farmers did not breed their own piglets; next year, they will not raise their own beef cattle from birth. Instead, Whiting and Hennessey have decided to buy more mature animals from farms that share their pasture-based approach, starting with one in Virginia.

"If you make babies with cows and pigs, that's very different than just growing weaned animals to finishing size," Hennessey explained. "If you're [birthing piglets] and doing a million other things at the same time, you just don't do it as well. We're trying to consolidate and simplify, so everything we do, we can do extremely well."

"With more consistency and certainty," his wife added. "It's all part of our resiliency. To stay farming, we have to make hard decisions."

The farmers are also working to add more direct consumer sales to their predominantly wholesale revenue. They plan to start shipping and doing some home delivery. Direct sales cut out the middleman, generating more money per sale.

"We want to capture as much value as we can on things we produce," Hennessey said.

"And we want to continue to connect with customers," Whiting added. "More people are losing sight of the actual origins and integrity of food. When you can talk to somebody, you can tell them the difference."

One thing that has not changed is the couple's commitment to raising livestock on pasture. It is deeply rooted in their original drive to start farming.

Whiting and Hennessey are outdoor enthusiasts who met "living the ski bum life" in Wyoming, as the couple described it. They moved to New England to work at summer camps and earn master's degrees in education. Farming was not a career goal for either of them.

"Honestly, we backed into it," Hennessey admitted. "I didn't feel good eating conventionally produced meat," he said, explaining that he wanted to find a way to eat meat "that dovetailed with my environmental sensibilities."

In 2001, the pair was raising some cows, laying hens and pigs on their Huntington home farm and running an adventure travel company. They had just invested in an expanded menu of worldwide trip offerings.

Then 9/11 happened, and everyone canceled.

"Our adventure travel business was essentially dead," Hennessey said, "and we had just lost a lot of money."

At the same time, Whiting learned she was pregnant with their first child. "We decided we were going to focus on the farm," she said.

Her husband added, "We were not going to travel anymore. We were going to stay here and expand the farm. We were putting our eggs in this basket."

Maple Wind's eggs now number about 1,000 a day, produced by 1,800 laying hens.

When Seven Days visited the farm's Bolton site in early November, the hens were out on pasture one field over from 180 holiday turkeys, the last of those the couple raised this year.

About 500 turkeys had already been processed and frozen, but this flock was still actively pecking away at the vibrant green under their feet. The birds are moved daily to fresh paddocks, from which Hennessey estimates they get about 30 percent of their nutrition.

"They love grasshoppers. They're eating ticks. They're foraging grasses and clovers," Whiting said. The rest of the birds' food is U.S.-grown, nongenetically modified grain.

At one point, the turkeys stopped and looked skyward. "They do that when they sense a predator," Whiting explained. Sometimes they seek cover in their 30-by-48-foot mobile range coop. The birds are also protected by an electric fence and a large white, fluffy Great Pyrenees-Akbash mix named Cassie, who watches over them like a benevolent babysitter.

The risk of predation is balanced by the benefits of raising the animals on pasture. Whiting grabbed a handful of clover and perennial rye grass from the field. "See how lush this is?"

Maple Wind is in its 14th year of leasing the 75-acre Bolton parcel. When the couple started farming there, it had been hayed for 10 years with nothing applied to the soil, Hennessey said. "It was badly depleted with very low density of grass."

As cattle and poultry rotate through the fields, they add organic matter and aerate the soil with their activity. Hennessey said the land has gone from producing 1.5 tons of forage per acre per year to four tons. Healthy soils filled with living organisms sequester more carbon, help land better absorb excess water and filter out toxins.

"Our pastured livestock program has transformed this acreage," Hennessey said.

"People pay a lot of money for poultry poo," Whiting said with a grin.

When things get tough, this is what keeps Hennessey and Whiting going: their mission to produce high-quality food while also regenerating and protecting natural resources.

For the past 10 years, Whiting has faced an additional and very personal challenge with her family's support. She has been coping with the onset of symptoms from a rare genetic, degenerative neuromuscular disease called adrenoleukodystrophy.

As her physical limitations have increased, she has shifted to focusing on administration, sales and marketing. A fixture at the Burlington Farmers Market, Whiting thrives on direct consumer connections. "It gives me pleasure, fires me up," she said. "I'm gonna keep going until I can't go."

For her and her husband, this 20th anniversary year has brought maybe one of the hardest decisions of all. After exhaustive number crunching, the family has reluctantly concluded that they must put their 136-acre, conserved home farm in Huntington up for sale.

That farm is where they started, where they raised their two teenage children, David and Bryn — but it is not an efficient part of their operation. "It's been extremely hard emotionally for us," Hennessey conceded, "but we must face the reality of our financial analysis and act on it.

"Our journey has really been about becoming more financially sustainable and business literate," he concluded.

"That's what farmers have to be," Whiting said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Risky Business | At 20 years, Maple Wind Farm takes stock and simplifies"