Buying Vermont

Pony rides are part of the fun at the Adams Farm in southern Vermont, where traditional farming can no longer pay the bills. Credit: Jim Motavalli
Pony rides are part of the fun at the Adams Farm in southern Vermont, where traditional farming can no longer pay the bills. Credit: Jim Motavalli

Bill Adams’ tractor goes putt, putt, putt. It’s a 1957 John Deere, the last of the two-cylinder models, and just one of the many venerable pieces of agricultural equipment around the Adams Farm in southern Vermont, which has been under one family’s ownership since 1865. Adams’ tractor has been used for maple sugaring, for sheep farming, for haying, and for a multitude of other activities over the years, but these days one of its prime purposes is to take visitors on tours. There’s the bear cave, the maple grove, the antique sawmill. There’s the cottage used as a way station for wintertime sleigh rides, and the petting zoo, with baby goats, calves, llamas and an alpaca.

Bill Adams, who’s in his early 60s and drives a tractor-trailer on runs to Canada when times are slow on the farm, makes it plain that Vermont farmers have to be resourceful. “No Adams has been able to make a living doing what his father did,” he says. The only constant has been maple sugaring: A stump on display shows the scars from taps that go back to the first Adams. From a hilltop, Bill Adams points to the next ridge, which is now heavily wooded. “When I was a kid, that was all cleared land,” he says. “But it’s not being farmed anymore.” One of the main “crops” for farms in southern Vermont today is artificial snow for the nearby ski resorts.

The wide-ranging tourist operation is partly the vision of Bill Adams’ hard-working son-in-law, Carl Mancivalano, who handles day-to-day operations with Adams’ daughter, Jill. One of Mancivalano’s inspirations is a small theater, where “shows” feature hands-on goat milking for kids. Stop by the farm store and you can come away with a Vermont-made quilt, hand-sewn children’s clothes, maple products of all sorts, goat cheese or a jar of preserves. “If you just pet the animals and don’t buy anything, I don’t make any money,” says Mancivalano, who also points out that if he tried to sell farm-grown corn to the stand across the street at cost, the owner would turn him down because he can get it cheaper from outside Vermont.

Within a short drive of the Adams Farm, on busy Route 100, are such attractions as Flaming Stables, which offers wagon and sleigh rides by reservation ($10 for 45 minutes), and Shearer Hill Farm, a 200-year-old dairy now operated as a bed and breakfast. Guests of Shearer Hill visit the Hereford cows and assist in the maple sugaring.

The Organic Alternative

Some Vermont farms have added another element to their attractions. Nearly a quarter of Vermont’s farmland was dedicated to organic production in 1997, partly due to a hard work of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic farmers receive dramatically higher prices for their produce, sometimes double that of conventional crops. Kirsten Bower, NOFA-VT’s financial manager, says Vermont has 202 organic farms, many of them with bed and breakfasts attached. “Come visit and see where your food comes from,” she suggests.

The Freeman Farm in Northfield is also a third-generation family operation, and its 191 acres are certified organic. Freeman Farm calls itself an “educational resource” and is open to school groups and the public for visits. Co-owner Stuart Osha, a sixth-generation Vermont dairyman, is available to show off his farm’s rare old breeds that range from Plymouth Barred Rock chickens and Horned Dorset sheep to Brown Swiss and Lineback cows. He will also, if asked, arrange readings from his volume of poems and stories, Loving a Dying Way of Life.

Much larger at 1,400 acres, Shelburne Farm in the Lake Champlain Valley is both a national historic site and a nonprofit environmental education center. Also an organic farm, Shelburne produces cheddar cheese from its own chemical-free milk, and makes sourdough bread from organically grown grain, leavened with natural sourdough. There’s a welcome center, a farm store, scenic hiking trails, a children’s farmyard, catalog operations, and even a seasonal inn (mid-May to mid-October) that offers 24 bedrooms and two small cottages with views of Lake Champlain. Most of the food served at the inn is locally produced (including, of course, the maple syrup).

Adams Farm was crowded on a recent holiday weekend, and there were lines for the pony ride. But Mancivalano cautions that the SUV-driving weekenders who make up the bulk of his trade go elsewhere when the weather is bad. And so he and Jill are experimenting with everything from farm-raised trout to “haunted” hay rides, which come complete with hot mulled cider and an authentic ghost tale. Even if you’re not scared, you’ll certainly feel steeped in history.