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Backstory: Most Withering Outcome

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Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Route 100 in the Granville Gulf between Warren and Granville - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Route 100 in the Granville Gulf between Warren and Granville

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.


My first taste of journalism was a postcollege summer internship at Vermont Magazine, a bimonthly publication then based in a converted chicken barn just over the New York State border from my hometown of Arlington.

That gig led to a very part-time role compiling the magazine's "Essential Events" calendar, for which I was tasked with sourcing a handful of unique goings-on around the state. The events should "reflect the flavor of Vermont," my editor instructed, "and if they are somewhat obscure, quaint and countrified, so much the better."

My favorite inclusion from five years of calendar compilation was Wardsboro's Gilfeather Turnip Festival. The town's annual celebration of the rutabaga-turnip hybrid with southern Vermont roots fit my editor's criteria to a T — even before the Gilfeather became the official state vegetable in 2016. It featured steaming bowls of Gilfeather soup, a biggest turnip contest, stories about John Gilfeather's mysterious development of the vegetable and the kind of volunteer-led gusto only a small town could muster.

So, when the Seven Days culture team was brainstorming our epic road trip up Route 100 over the summer, I jumped on the opportunity to explore its southernmost stretch. Despite my enthusiasm for the festival, I'd never been to Wardsboro; this assignment would take me to the home of the Gilfeather.

I'd miss the event, which took place on October 22 this year, but I'd read that the nonprofit Friends of the Wardsboro Library sells otherwise hard-to-source Gilfeather seeds year-round to fund the library's maintenance. If I planned my itinerary right, I could pick up a packet.

The Route 100 adventure was technically not a story about food, which is my usual beat: Four other reporters and I set out to explore the essence of the 217-mile, state-long highway — roughly 40 miles each — and see what it had to say about Vermont. But most of my stops between Stamford and Jamaica centered on eating and drinking. Old habits.

After a Saturday morning breakfast of Skinny Goose doughnuts from West River Provisions in Jamaica, I looped back south to the Wardsboro Public Library and found the seed packets, tucked carefully into a Gilfeather-themed kiosk near the door.

Gilfeather turnip - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Gilfeather turnip

As soon as I got home that afternoon, I prepped my garden for a midsummer turnip planting. I planted the Gilfeather seeds in four neat rows and crossed my fingers. With an estimated 85 days to maturity, they'd be ready to harvest right after the first fall frost, which would concentrate the turnip's sugars.

I watched the seedlings peek through the soil over the next few weeks, noticing that my precise rows were a little paltry. Only a third of the seeds had germinated. My dream of a John Gilfeather-style wagonload of turnips was dashed.

A few days after the first October frost, I dug up one of the successful plants, hoping it would rival the record-setting 52-pound Gilfeather from this year's festival in Wardsboro. It was smaller than my fist. I didn't even bother weighing it.

I left the rest of the turnips in the ground, embarrassed at my attempt to grow the state vegetable I'd become so obsessed with. I'll try again next year, starting earlier and planting them in a different spot — and I'll be sure the 2023 festival is marked on my calendar, just in case my turnip thumbs are black. But for now, I've resigned myself to another fall without Gilfeather soup or turnip-laced latkes.