A rumbling front-loader dutifully turns a dark, rich row of compost on a chilly April morning down in the Intervale. Clouds of white steam billow from the decomposing earth, momentarily scattering the gulls that warm themselves on the fecund mounds. From the muddy road nearby, the squawking flock looks like it's enjoying a leisurely steam bath.
Even here no energy is wasted. The scene typifies what makes this island of country in Vermont's largest city so quintessentially organic: The byproducts of one endeavor feed another in a perpetual loop of mutual beneficience. Whether it's plant life or human ingenuity, something new is always germinating just below the surface, taking root and preparing to bear fruit.
Winter died hard this year, but things are heating up in the Intervale. There's a buzz in the air at the Intervale Foundation, the $1.6 million nonprofit established in 1988 to reclaim and restore the 700-acre agricultural floodplain in the heart of Burlington. Greenhouse doors are opening, flowers are blooming and planting is underway. Just as importantly, several major projects are taking shape as part of the foundation's ongoing mission: to feed the minds and bellies of Burlingtonians on healthy, sustainable and profitable foods. If the Intervale has always been nothing more to you than a smelly sinkhole, this is a good time to check out what else is ripening on Burlington's own family farm.
1. Back to the Garden
Both geographically and historically, the modern Intervale begins at Gardener's Supply Company. In 1985 Will Raap moved his home gardening business to this spot and three years later launched the Intervale Foundation as a community model for sustainable land use. Today, the store is where the Volvo-and-pesto crowd comes to go to get their knees dirty and their thumbs green -- without wading into the toxic haze of pesticides and petrochemicals that envelop many garden centers. Looking for peat moss or pine mulch? Begonias or biodynamic beets? If it's organic, practical or shaped like a lily pad, it's probably on their shelves somewhere.
From March through October, the store's free seminars draw gardeners like flies to, well, compost. You can pick up handy pointers on pruning, landscaping, growing fruit trees, even scarecrow-making and pumpkin-carving. This weekend you can tiptoe through the tulips as some 10,000 Dutch bulbs come into bloom. Gardeners can peruse the petals they prefer and order bulbs directly from Holland for next year's planting season. Then on June 7, Gardener's Supply celebrates its 20th anniversary with more seminars on growing veggies and roses, controlling crawling critters and making twig trellises. The celebration also features food carts, garden tours, horse-drawn wagon rides, an afternoon butterfly release and other activities to tire out the tykes.
2. History Repeats Itself
Like rings on a tree, trash also tells a story, and the Intervale has plenty to say. The archeological record of the area reveals that for centuries the Abenaki Indians used this fertile floodplain for hunting, farming and tool-making. By the 18th century, however, the native folk had been pushed out by Ethan Allen and other European settlers. As the rise of the automobile disconnected modern Americans from the land, and particularly their food production, the Intervale degenerated into a homeless camp, municipal dump and, fittingly, a burial ground for 600 to 800 abandoned automobiles, some of which still litter the banks of the Winooski River.
Today, as you pass Gardener's Supply, you come to a cluster of buildings that have clearly seen better days -- the remains of the old Calkins Farmstead. Burlington's last operating dairy farm closed in the 1970s, and the old brick farmhouse on the right now serves as the headquarters for the Intervale Foundation. (Signage is in the works.) On the left is the Calkins' barn, which is up on jacks and about to be hauled across the road to become part of the new Intervale Community Center.
Though still in the planning phase, the center will include a farm demonstration project, education facility, farm stand, museum, even an organic restaurant. This month, visitors might also notice a dozen or so test plots being dug by archeologists from the University of Vermont. Before any construction begins, they're surveying the site for pottery chards, projectile points and other archeological doodads of historical value.
3. You Are What You Eat
The Intervale Foundation is recycling the old proverb, "Waste not, want not," using 21st-century technologies. Across the road from the old dairy farm, groundbreaking is expected shortly on the new Intervale Food Enterprise Center, a $1 million state-of-the-art greenhouse and food-processing plant. Like wetlands, ponds and other gooey ecosystems, the "Eco-Park" will reuse nearly all its waste in a virtual closed loop. Steam from the adjacent McNeil Generating Facility will be piped underground to heat a 21,000 square-foot greenhouse and comparably-sized food processing center.
Spent grain and hops from the Wind Harvest Brewery will grow oyster mushrooms. Waste from the mushroom operation will feed red worms, which in turn will produce compost for growing flowers and vegetables. For their toils, the worms will be used to feed fish and shrimp being raised for market. (Life is rough when you're low on the food chain.) Another project will collect spent cooking oils from Burlington restaurants and hotel kitchens and convert it to bio-diesel for fueling tractors, generators and other Intervale farm equipment.
Meanwhile, across the road a natural aquatic restorer system is under construction. This demonstration project will suck water from the Winooski River into a purification pond, where a series of floating islands will clean it using plants and other natural aquatic processes, then return the water to the river.
4. From Half Pint to Full Moon
Meander farther down the road and you'll spot four new greenhouses on your right. Inside a number of farming activities are taking place, including the nurturing of new sprouts for the Beginner Farmer Program. This incubator project leases out about 560 acres of land to 13 different organic farms. Growers get to share tools and resources as well as other financial, marketing and technical expertise. Each farm is evaluated on an annual basis, always with an eye toward self-sufficiency and commercial viability. "What we don't want to do is subsidize them," explains Lindsey Ketchel, director of agricultural programs at the Intervale Foundation. "Our goal is that all our farmers make a living."
For example, last week Spencer and Mara Welton of Half Pint Farm began planting their first crops on a one-acre plot. The Weltons, new transplants from Denver, are looking to fill a niche in the Burlington area by growing baby vegetables, micro-greens, cut flowers and dwarf ornamentals. "Small acreage, small name, small vegetables. You've got to have a theme," says Mara Welton. As beginner farmers, the Weltons will be able to benefit from the expertise of their more experienced neighbors -- like Rachel Nevitt and David Zuckerman of Full Moon Farm, who have been farming the Intervale for five years. "Farming can be very isolating," says Nevitt. "This place provides farmers with easy access to information in a community of like-minded people."
Intervale farms may appear small, but looks are deceiving. These farmers provide more than 300,000 pounds of organic vegetables to the Burlington community -- about 6 percent of the fresh produce consumed here annually. Ultimately, the Intervale Foundation hopes to exceed 10 percent.
5. Compost Happens
It's fitting that the Intervale Foundation began with a composting program, since the key to all organic farming is feeding the soil and keeping it healthy. The hair-curling odor that first assails your nostrils is simply earth in the making -- 20,000 tons of it a year, to be exact. Leaves, lawn clippings, food scraps and manure are all topped off with a sugary by-product from the Ben and Jerry's plant. Anyone for cow-pie swirl? Mulch Ado about Nuttin? For nine to 12 months the mixture is diced and sliced, fluffed and folded until time, temperature and tiny microbes transform it into some of the most nutrient-rich compost this side of the Mississippi flood plain. Not surprisingly, the sale of compost creates more green for the Foundation than any other project, helping to fund its other fledgling ventures.
"Composting is what people think of when they think of the Intervale," explains Ketchel. "It's a great win-win, because it gets people thinking about living sustainably, thoughtfully and at peace with the earth. And what better way than to have people applying compost to their soil, as opposed to chemicals." You can purchase the stuff -- stank-free! -- by the bag at Gardener's Supply. Or follow your nose just beyond the greenhouses to the headquarters of Intervale Composting Products and get it by the cubic yard.
6. From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate
Buying shares of Community-Supported Agriculture is a lot safer than investing in the stock market. At least you know you're going to get something back. The concept is simple: Each spring, you buy a membership from the farm of your choice -- five of the 13 Intervale farms now offer them. Then, from about mid-June through October, you pick up a weekly basket of fresh produce whose contents vary depending upon each week's harvest. You may find yourself cooking more kale than you ever imagined, but that's partly the point.
Since land-rich farmers are notoriously cash-poor, what usually plows them under isn't drought, pestilence or flood, but insurmountable debt. The CSA program lets farmers get hard cash at the start of the planting season, when they need it most. And by eliminating the middleman, farmers earn a livable wage for their labors.
Meanwhile, the consumer benefits by getting healthy, pesticide-free produce at a lower price than they'd pay for organics in the grocery store -- and the opportunity to know who's raising their food. While they're putting up their rhubarb and tossing their arugula, CSA shareholders can feel satisfied that they're supporting local farmers. Plus, they're helping fund the Inter-vale's "Room to Grow" program, which provides free, weekly farm shares to low-income folks and non-profit organizations -- 20,000 pounds of produce last year alone. A complete list of CSA farms is available in Gardener's Supply's free bro-chure, the Intervale Explorer.
7. Budding Interests
Ask your average American teen where their food comes from and you're likely to hear: The supermarket. Duh! "We're so disconnected from our food. We're so disconnected from growing anything," says Ketchel. "Far-mers are such under-valued, under-appreciated members of our community that we don't even think of food as an essential need anymore."
The Intervale Foundation's "Healthy City" program is working to change that attitude. Launched last year in cooperation with the King Street Youth Center, Healthy City employs about a dozen kids ages 11 to 14 who plant their own gardens and market their own produce at farm stands in downtown Burlington. Poke your nose into the new Intervale greenhouses and you'll notice dozens of fresh greens all chosen and planted by Queen City youths. Soon, these plants will be moved to the outdoor gardens and eventually harvested for sale. Roadside sprout stands? Only in Burlington...
8. Where the Wild Things Are
Among the off-road attractions of the Intervale is its burgeoning network of recreation paths. You can hike the Rena Calkins Nature Trail along the Winooski River, or bike the more than five miles of trails that wind through meadows, gardens and farmlands to the Ethan Allen Homestead. Along the way, you might see turtles and geese, great blue herons and the occasional fox, rabbit or woodpecker. Okay, and the occasional homeless person. One reminder: Organic farmers don't spray their crops, so don't let your dogs spray them, either.