Full Plate Farm settles into their new spot in Dummerston

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DUMMERSTON >> Full Plate Farm founders Laura Hecht and Matthew Crowley recently moved their operation from Brattleboro to Dummerston.

They were busy planting kale last week.

"We've been pretty distracted by trying to pull everything together and building all the infrastructure to get things going," Hecht said with regard to recent weather patterns. "We're a vegetable farm so we just expect we have to wait to plant until a frost-free time. So far this year, we haven't had any issues with the water."

Hecht and Crowley have noticed weather happening in blocks.

"There's a four-week period of drought then a four-week period of really wet weather," said Hecht. "We installed irrigation to help with that."

This will mark the third year of Full Plate's existence. Hecht and Crowley moved to the area about 10 years ago but have farmed together since they met in Oregon in 2001. They previously farmed on leased land in Brattleboro.

In 2011, Judy and Carl Ferenbach donated a conservation easement on 151.69 acres at 440 Miller Road in Dummerston to the Vermont Land Trust. Crowley and Hecht became aware of it through a program which seeks to connect new farmers with land in transition.

"Conserved land in and of itself doesn't mean it's affordable to farmers," said Jon Ramsay, director of the land trust's Farmland Access Program.

He said Full Plate was selected as the buyer based on Crowley and Hecht's overall plan and vision for the property, and their experience. He estimates between 10 and 12 new-farm operations are aided through this program each year.

"I think there's been a lot of documentation recently, like the farm-to-plate initiative and other places, that demonstrates there's an aging farm population in Vermont that owns a tremendous amount of agricultural land in the state and have not identified successors," said Ramsay.

Vermont Land Trust Southeast Regional Director Joan Weir worked with the Ferenbachs on the easement through their Townshend-based High Meadows Associates. The nonprofit is focused on land conservation and management.

"They didn't live there," Weir said. "There was no house there but they ended up building a work shed and a barn, and made some improvements on the property after it was conserved. Over a period of time, they decided they didn't want to keep the property. That's when they contacted us to see if we were able to find a farmer to take over there."

The easement was made more restrictive but the price tag was set at a cost farmers could afford, Ramsay said, referring to the addition of an option to purchase at agricultural value or OPAV. And the land trust went through a formal request-for-proposals process in which business plans were submitted.

"It was very competitive," said Ramsay. "Any time farmland becomes available in Southeastern Vermont at an affordable price, the program has always had a tremendous amount of interest from the farm community."

Other farms in the program had to fundraise before a sale was made final. But that was not the case for Full Plate. The property was purchased at approximately $200,000. The sale was facilitated by the land trust, which also pointed out resources for Hecht and Crowley as they got the farm up and running.

Full Plate enlisted the help of the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program. Intervale System Farm Business Specialist Sam Smith has also been lending a hand.

Full Plate employs a free-choice, community-supported agriculture model or CSA. Customers sign up and get to pick out whatever vegetables they want from a display. The farm has a lot left over that's then sold to Folly, a restaurant in Wilmington.

"They're amazing. They pretty much just love to use whatever produce we're growing," Hecht said of Folly. "So it's excellent quality produce and they get it. We don't have to compost it."

Starting May 10, Full Plate will be at the Brattleboro Farmers Market held on Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. on Flat Street.

Last year, Full Plate had a deal with Food Connects where Food Connects' land was used for farming in exchange for allowing the Windham County nonprofit to use their equipment. Food Connects' mission is to create healthy food and farm relationships between classrooms, cafeterias and communities, according to its website.

Full Plate also hires at-risk youth in the summer through the Department of Labor.

The farm hopes to expand and sell produce to more local restaurants, Hecht said, noting that it had worked with other restaurants in the past.

"It's our first year so our focus is on getting established on our new property and making sure the CSA keeps going," she added. "In the future, we hope to do more farm-education stuff."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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