- Matthew Thorsen
- Rachel Schattman and Hanna Aitken
As Rachel Schattman escorts a visitor to the three active acres of her 20-acre farm, it’s hard to miss the tattoo on her sun-browned calf. It depicts sprouting basil, a plant with which her name is now well associated. But Fairfax native Schattman got the permanent art years before she began growing basil and turning it into Vermont’s most coveted pesto, sold under the brand name Bella Farm.
She was still living in Savannah, Ga., where she went post-college, when Schattman’s mother encouraged her to get the basil tattoo. The plant symbolized Schattman’s love for her close-knit friends and family: Her favorite kind of relaxed get-together, she says, involved preparing pesto for them.
Now Schattman is making the stuff for a much larger group. At Bella Farm, which relocated from Burlington’s Intervale to Monkton last year, Schattman whips up pesto about 30 times during the summer growing season, each session yielding 200 batches. That makes her pesto a limited commodity but a hot one in the minds of fans who buy it at the Burlington Farmers Market, City Market (where it’s found in the “hippie cooler”) and other stores.
Packaged pesto doesn’t have a great reputation; for most foodies, it conjures images of chopped basil and garlic floating in a sea of oil. Unlike most manufacturers, however, Schattman keeps the ratio of pure olive oil to fresh ingredients low. Straight from the plastic tub, the texture of Bella Farm pesto is thick and spreadable. The taste is pure, herbaceous and kissed with tangy garlic. Another ingredient — sunflower seeds — adds a rich nuttiness that Schattman says early testers couldn’t distinguish from the taste of Parmesan cheese.
In the past three years, “Bella Farm” and “pesto” have become synonymous in the Burlington area. But now Schattman is putting down roots on a bigger plot — and branching out beyond the popular sauce. Last winter, she moved to Monkton with life and farm partner Patrick Rowe, a dentist and former oral-health director at the Vermont Department of Health. During the first full season at their new farm, the couple has grown a broad spectrum of vegetables, including cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries and braising greens. They have sold that produce to City Market, Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren, Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, and the kitchens of Basin Harbor Club and Wake Robin.
Even before Schattman launched the new farm, other food producers, such as Peter Colman of Vermont Salumi, prized her produce. The Plainfield sausage maker recently received 100 pounds of her garlic. “I met Rachel two years ago, while trying to source the best local, organic garlic possible,” Colman says. “It’s been a key ingredient to my products ever since. Its quality and flavor, and her professionalism, are unmatched.”
Bella Farm’s expansion is impressive not only in size and scope but also in speed. Its story started a little more than three years ago, in July 2009, when Schattman and her then-business-partner, Kelli Brooks, won approval to join the Intervale Center’s incubator Farms Program. Despite Schattman’s tattoo, she says, growing culinary herbs and selling pesto was Brooks’ idea.
That summer was busy: It was Schattman and Brooks’ first growing season, and it was when they both defended their food-systems master’s theses at the University of Vermont. The two farmers began developing their pesto recipe and raising money to start a business. “We used the ‘friends, family and fools’ financing method,” Schattman jokes.
That fall, Schattman and Brooks began selling garlic. When the second season of the Burlington Winter Farmers Market began, the women were ready to share their carefully tested sauce with the public.
In 2010, Brooks decided to leave the business to have a second child — a change that put Schattman at a crossroads, since the pair had been processing pesto at Brooks’ home. Fortunately, Schattman’s mother had recently purchased a plot of land in Monkton. While she prepared the new property to be livable and farmable, Schattman continued to grow her produce at the Intervale and work as the local food-program coordinator at UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Last month, she left that job to return to school and is now studying for a PhD in UVM Extension’s plant and soil science division. “It was like, Hmm, back to being a student?” Schattman says. “But school feels comfortable to me; business does not.”
Though Schattman says her foothold in academia sometimes makes her feel like she’s leading a double life, she believes those connections have been invaluable in helping her establish her farming business. She names Vern Grubinger, a fruit and vegetable expert and director of the UVM Brattleboro Extension; and Linda Berlin, director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, as her mentors on the cerebral side of the agricultural world.
But starting a farm is about more than policy and strategy. Schattman says she got her initial hands-on education back in 2007, from George van Vlaanderen and Kristan Doolan of Does’ Leap Farm, where she apprenticed upon her return to Vermont after living in Georgia. It was during her time with the goatherd in East Fairfield that Schattman realized farm life was for her. “I arrived in February,” she remembers. “Goats all have their kids at the same time of year. I had just moved up from Savannah, and there was a huge snowstorm. I was covered in blood and placenta, and I was the happiest I had ever been.”
Schattman credits van Vlaanderen and Doolan with particular intellectual generosity during and after her tenure with their cheese-producing herd. But she notes that Doolan’s most important lesson had nothing to do with playing nurse to goats. The key to farming, Schattman says she learned, is choosing a lifestyle before choosing a farm.
Now Schattman has a farm to fit her lifestyle and her already thriving brand. She’s expanding, but not wildly — don’t expect to see Bella Farm goat cheese, for instance. Schattman says she has realized that caring for animals isn’t compatible with the time she spends at school. Her original plans for an oat or wheat farm also proved a no-go. “Maybe once this place feels more familiar,” she says of expanding on the Monkton land. For now, Schattman says she’s happy with herbs, garlic and her new slew of veggies.
As for her pesto biz, Schattman plans to keep it close to its current size. Despite its popularity, the value-added product doesn’t create a large profit, she explains.
The farmer and her small staff are busy making upgrades to their existing equipment. Last Wednesday, Schattman and a helper were putting in posts to hold up a pair of high greenhouse tunnels that will allow them to grow winter greens.
Next on Schattman and Rowe’s agenda is getting a tractor with which to keep the weeds down at Bella Farm. They’re also working on installing a proper irrigation system.
As the new incarnation of Bella Farm continues to evolve, one thing Schattman can rely on is the plant whose likeness graces her leg. “Me and basil, we’re like this,” she says, twisting a middle and pointer finger together. “Me and other plants, we’re still getting to know each other — we’re still in the dating stage — but we’re going steady with basil.”