- Daria Bishop
- (Left to right): Mara and Spencer Welton, Emily and Sean Mitchell
Farmers and plants alike reveled in the sunshine at Half Pint Farm last Thursday afternoon. This spring has delivered a cool, soggy start to Emily and Sean Mitchell's first year as owners of the small vegetable operation in Burlington's Intervale, but the weather hasn't dampened their excitement.
It helps that before the couple bought the farm, Emily worked three seasons for Mara and Spencer Welton, who established Half Pint in 2003. She knows firsthand the rewards and challenges of making a living off the land — specifically, off those particular few acres. The Weltons and Mitchells count themselves lucky to have arrived simultaneously at a point when one was looking to exit the business and the other felt ready to take it on.
Over the past 16 years, the Weltons have carved out a niche in the locavore scene by meticulously nurturing a diversity of vegetables and investing equal energy in customer relationships. They expanded from their original half acre of production fields to 2.5 acres while staying small and true to their farm name. Today, Half Pint produce appears on the menus of many local restaurants. The farm is known for its eye-catching Burlington Farmers Market stand piled high with pink and white radishes, jewel-toned tomatoes, spiky cardoons, and golden squash blossoms. It was Instagrammable before there was Instagram.
Yet the Weltons were ready to move on. "We had met all of our goals," Mara said. After a few years of farming while exploring options beyond Half Pint, the couple concluded that they couldn't figure out their future while absorbed in the day-to-day business. They approached Emily about managing the farm. She responded, "How would you feel about us buying it?"
"We had been trying to figure out how to do something similar without being Half Pint," Emily, 28, recalled.
"We talk about it like it's Willy Wonka," said Sean, 31. His wife elaborated: "We got the golden ticket. We got the chocolate factory."
The Weltons are equally pleased to entrust their cherished business to a star employee and her spouse. "We wanted to give Sean and Emily a chance to not start from scratch," said Spencer, 43.
"They're the same age we were when we started," said Mara, 44. "We became who we are here. It's so awesome that we can hand over our baby to such confident, competent people."
Walking last Thursday through rows of curlicued pea tendrils, swooping garlic greens and feathery fennel fronds, the Mitchells showed the Weltons what they've accomplished so far. Questions, comments and advice volleyed among the four. Emily knelt to cradle a mini head of maroon-freckled heirloom lettuce in her soil-stained hands. "This one's almost ready," she said.
"Please harvest it and eat it yourselves," Mara urged. "Our first year, we didn't eat anything we grew," she added ruefully. "We'd look at it and say, 'That's $3.'"
During Half Pint's infancy, farm-to-table restaurant sourcing in Vermont was in its early years, and "organic vegetables were mostly utilitarian," Spencer said. "Golden beets were a novelty. No one had seen purple carrots." The Weltons had to explain repeatedly that microgreens were tiny, tender salad shoots.
Steve Atkins, chef and co-owner of the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, began buying from Half Pint in 2004. "They were doing microgreens when, essentially, nobody else was," he recalled.
Half Pint's treasure chest of tomato varieties inspired the restaurant's annual summer dinner event, now in its 13th year. Mara even worked in the bistro's kitchen for six weeks one winter.
Chefs like Atkins make up about 50 percent of Half Pint's income. Atkins attributes the enduring relationship to "their attention to the small details and our natural connection on the interpersonal side."
The farm's sale is the first Atkins has experienced with a longtime producer partner, he said, but he knows Emily through her tenure there and trusts the transition will be smooth. "Without a doubt, it will be different in some ways; they are different people," he said. "A farm is the farmer."
The couples came to farming on different paths. Mara and Spencer met in their hometown of Denver, Colo., at a high school pep rally. After college and Peace Corps service in the Solomon Islands, they moved to Pennsylvania for Spencer to attend graduate school in sustainable systems, including agriculture.
In 2002, the couple visited Burlington for a workshop. Exploring the city, Mara found the Intervale and learned about its farm incubator program. The pair had worked on a farm in Colorado and done some agriculture projects in the Peace Corps. When Spencer emerged from his workshop, she told him, "We're moving here."
- Daria Bishop
- Emily Mitchell holding a head of Tom Thumb lettuce at Half Pint Farm
Spencer wanted to prove that a small-scale farm could provide a living "in the era of get big or get out," he said. Mara's motivation was access to good food for herself and others: "We had a vision to provide high-quality vegetables for people who appreciate good things."
The Intervale program "made it less scary" to be a novice farmer, Mara recalled, by offering an affordable lease on land in Vermont's largest city in an established community of farmers, already equipped with infrastructure.
The couple joined the Vermont Fresh Network, which gave them valuable connections to chef customers, and they focused on producing what excited them. "Our nerdiness about food served us very well," Mara said. "Burlington really respected us."
Half Pint's new owners grew up four miles apart in Bennington County, but they didn't meet until a mutual friend brought Sean to Emily's 22nd birthday party. She was a nursing assistant, while he had worked his way up from dishwasher to restaurant cook in Vermont and New York State. In 2015, the couple moved to Burlington, where Sean landed a coveted spot cooking at Hen of the Wood; Emily, seeking a new career, started at Half Pint. She immediately "fell in love with it," she said.
Last year, after a decade in the culinary profession, Sean decided he was "ready for a change of pace and culture." The pair started dreaming of their own farm.
Once it became clear that Half Pint could be the Mitchells' dream farm, both couples got to work. After comparing notes with other farmers, the Weltons decided to value their operation at a year of gross revenue. Then they worked with an agricultural-business consultant who ran all their numbers through a complex model that spat out close to the same value, they noted with satisfaction.
The Mitchells worked separately with Kevin Channell, a farm-business specialist with the Intervale Center's agricultural services team, which offers farm-business planning and coaching statewide. Paired with Vermont Land Link, an online land access tool, the program has essentially replaced the original Burlington incubator that drew the Weltons there and has extended the nonprofit's support to many more farmers.
The center continues to lease about 113 acres in the Intervale to eight farms. But its ways of supporting new and transitioning farms have shifted in response to a changing agricultural landscape and the realization that farms "are not like tech startups," explained Mandy Fischer, the nonprofit's development director. Although some incubated businesses did graduate out of the Intervale as the program's founders intended, she said, "it's hard to make a farm business move." The statewide efforts will assist nearly 100 farms this year, Fischer noted.
In addition to affordable leased land, the incubator gave farmers access to shared infrastructure and equipment such as greenhouses, wash stations and coolers. The downside is that, after 16 years, Half Pint has few of the hard assets traditionally used to value a business. "It is a thriving, profitable business in the backyard of Burlington's culinary market," said Channell, "but the question is: What are you actually buying?"
On the plus side, he detailed "soft assets" such as Half Pint's brand and reputation, deep customer relationships, proven production systems, excellent record keeping, and a strong advising team, including the Weltons themselves. Underlying all of that, he said, are trust and goodwill among the four, Emily's familiarity with the operation and Sean's restaurant expertise. "Without all that, it'd be hard to get behind this kind of business transfer," Channell acknowledged.
Channell believes the valuation of the business is fair to both parties. But the Mitchells and Weltons are frustrated that four lenders have declined to provide the new owners a loan for one-fourth of the total price as a down payment. That amount is roughly the value of Half Pint's few hard assets, including its delivery van, hoop houses, shed, mower and other tools.
The Mitchells are awaiting word from another lender on an even smaller loan — but, in the meantime, all four have plowed ahead. The Weltons are financing the sale themselves with a no-interest five-year loan and a payment schedule that "respects the rhythm of the seasons," Spencer said. "We want them to succeed." He added, "We're not looking to retire and live off the largesse."
The Weltons are still determining "how we remain effective humans," as Spencer put it. They are taking what they jokingly call a sabbatical year to focus on what lies ahead for them. After a recent trip to Colorado to help her sister, who just had twins, Mara was inspired to start postpartum doula training. "I like nurturing," she said.
Meanwhile, the Mitchells have been busy transplanting tomatoes and selling vegetable plants at the Burlington Farmers Market and through both Gardener's Supply stores. At the farm, chive blossoms are about to burst into purple pom-poms, and radishes are nearly ready.
The Mitchells have added some varieties to the 400 or so that Half Pint already grows, including a tomato called Reisetomate, which resembles a fused bunch of grapes. "It's eye-catching and a conversation starter," Emily said.
Her husband is looking forward to the Apocalypse Scorpion pepper, which is reputed to exceed the potency of the super-spicy Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion. "I'm excited, and I'm scared," he said.
Beyond that handful of new offerings, the Mitchells don't plan to change much. "We have this leg up because we ended up buying this brand," Sean said. "Why would we mess with that?"