Historic Dummerston tree farm has new owner
DUMMERSTON -- Bill and Mary Lou Schmidt didn't have to look far to find a new owner for their popular Elysian Hills Tree Farm.
Vermont Land Trust on Thursday announced that Jack and Karen Manix -- who own the historic Walker Farm, also in Dummerston -- will take ownership of Elysian Hills.
They plan to continue doing what Elysian Hills is known for -- Christmas-tree tagging and December retail sales. But Jack Manix said it was more than the farm's well-established business model that led he and his wife to buy Elysian Hills.
"The beauty of the place won us over," he said.
The Schmidts have been running a Christmas-tree business at Elysian Hills for about 35 years, and they sell about 1,000 trees annually. Many of their customers return year after year, and the Schmidts reward long-term loyalty with free wreaths.
But the couple also has been searching for successors. In a December interview, Mary Lou Schmidt said she and her husband still love the tree business and simply are "worn out."
Having worked with Vermont Land Trust previously in order to place a protective conservation easement on their 138-acre farm, the Schmidts last year turned to the organization to help find a new owner for the Knapp Road property.
Tree farming takes up a relatively small portion of Elysian Hills. The farm also features 100 acres of managed woodland -- which includes 20 acres of sugarbush and a network of recreational trails -- as well as a plot of organic rhubarb and several acres that are organically certifiable for other crops.
The property also comes with the Schmidts themselves via a "life estate" provision that will allow them to live out their years on the farm.
Through Vermont Land Trust's Farmland Access Program, the Manixes were selected as the new owners of Elysian Hills after a process that included two open houses at the tree farm.
In a statement released Thursday via the land trust, the Schmidts said Walker Farm and Elysian Hills are "partners in local agriculture."
"This sale of our farm will further strengthen the future of these historic farms and keep Elysian Hills in active agricultural and forestry uses. This has been our goal," the Schmidts said.
Those involved with the transaction noted the deep history of each property. Walker Farm, which includes a popular stand along Route 5, has been in the Manix family line since 1770.
Mary Lou Schmidt has lived at Elysian Hills for 55 years, having bought the farm from the Knapp family, which had owned it for more than 125 years.
Jack Manix said the Schmidts "have been terrific stewards of this beautiful farm, and we will continue in that tradition."
The tree farm will be managed by Aaron McFarland, who is Walker Farm's nursery foreman. And Manix noted that Christmas trees don't conflict with Walker Farm's product line.
"Our customers at the farm stand have always asked us to carry Christmas trees, but we haven't done that," Manix said.
While respecting tradition at Elysian Hills, Manix also outlined some proposed changes. That includes his goal of transitioning the farm to a certified organic producer of Christmas trees, an admittedly difficult process that will take years.
"I can't say for sure whether we can accomplish it or not. But we're going to try," he said.
The move is a combination of philosophy and market factors.
"It's a matter of principle," Manix said. "And a lot of our customers like to go green. That would be a big draw."
On a smaller scale, Manix wants to produce organic, pick-your-own strawberries at Elysian Hills. He said pick-your-own outings are increasingly popular among young families.
"This seemed like an opportunity to get more involved with the community in that type of event," he said.
Additionally, the Manixes are considering producing rare conifers, evergreens and shrubs that could be subsequently sold at Walker Farm's Garden Center.
"We try to deal in more unusual conifers and trees. We buy some of those from different states," Manix said. "Those nurseries that we buy from also sell transplants -- 1- or 2-year-old transplants. But we've never had room to get involved in that."
Given that the Walker Farm stand closes at Thanksgiving, there won't be any Elysian Hills Christmas trees sold there. But Manix said "we may be able to work something out so that customers can order them" through Walker Farm's Community Supported Agriculture programs.
He's hoping to finalize purchase of Elysian Hills by June. And Manix said he and his wife are looking forward to taking on more work.
"What we have here is not a job," he said. "It's a way of life."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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