Cows, serendipity and magical dances

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BRATTLEBORO — The arrival of Ashlyn Bristle and Abraham McClurg to Brattleboro should very well be considered the result of a series of serendipitous events.

The pair met while attending dances, either in Boston or Amherst, Mass., or both, depending on who's recalling the details.

McClurg was living out of his car in Massachusetts when he met Bristle at a dance in one, or both, of those cities.

"I was living out of my car on a fact-finding and self-finding trip," he said. "I don't think it was a crisis. It was like, what's next? Where do I want to be? I was looking for a change and was mostly interested in New England, primarily Vermont and the Pioneer Valley because of the folk music and the dance community."

Bristle, a teacher by training, found her way to Brattleboro via Farm & Wilderness in Plymouth. She grew up in North Carolina, where she went to college to be a teacher, but she graduated right before the 2008 stock market crash, and teaching jobs disappeared.

"I had started working in non-traditional education," she said. "I learned I loved farming more than teaching. I started milking for people in North Carolina on smaller farms and then I went to Farm & Wilderness, initially for the education."

At that time, she said, "I had never gone north of the Mason/Dixon Line."

Bristle started at Farm & Wilderness as a counselor, and ended up co-running the teenage summer arts program before she got a job as the director of its year-round farm crew.

"It's a beautiful and really wonderful place to get a sample of farming," she said.

Eventually, she made her way to Brattleboro, where she bought a cow with her now ex. When they split up, he got the cow.

"I found I can't live without cows," she said on a sunny Friday at Rebop, the farm she owns with McClurg, on top of a hill on Sunset Lake Road.

Bristle and McClurg recently received a matching $25,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's Working Lands Grant Initiative. They plan to expand their farmstand from their 6-by-4 foot porch to a freestanding 20-by-32 building where they can sell their raw milk and host small events, such as community potlucks, workshops, concerts and, naturally, dances.

"We are at a point in our business where we are breaking even and about to start making money," said Bristle. "But we needed to make an investment in our infrastructure to get beyond that point where we are breaking even and actually pay ourselves to farm."

'It was magical'

McClurg grew up on a farm in Washington state until he was 8 years old, when his family moved to Seattle. Along the way to the East Coast he cooked professionally, was a photographer and had a real estate brokerage in Champaign-Urbana in Illinois for a decade.

"I just came here to dance," said McClurg, about his landing in New England.

"It was magical," said Bristle, about the serendipity that brought them together at that dance. Whether it was in Boston or Amherst really doesn't matter, because Brattleboro is where they planted roots and grew their farm.

"When we had moments that we had to decide what our next thing was going to be, we were always drawn back here," said Bristle. "We felt a magnetic pull to Brattleboro."

"There's nothing really that beats this part of the state," said McClurg.

With the help of Julie Lowe, of Lowe's Real Estate in Jamaica, they cast about for just the right place.

"She's a great real estate agent," said McClurg.

"She has a farming background, coming from a farming family, so she knew exactly what we would need," said Bristle.

Settling in, building a farm

They found their house on a hill, which was built by Nate Paine, who now lives in Westmoreland, N.H., about 14 years ago.

"Julie said the view is amazing," said McClurg. "But we were like, a house to live in and land to farm."

The pair bought their first cow, Regina, from Farm & Wilderness, but renamed it Rebop, thus the name for the farm.

"Her mother's name was Rhubarb," said Bristle.

For those wondering, the names Rhubarb and Rebop, are an obscure reference to a 2000 Prairie Home Companion skit called "Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie."

In addition to the 32 acres, they rent another 16 acres to graze their cows, pigs, ducks, turkeys, chickens, sheep and rabbits.

Their dairy herd is Jerseys and Jersey crosses. During the winter, the animals stay in the barn, but in the summer, they can be found somewhere on the farmstead.

"We use intensive rotational grazing," said Bristle. "That means the animals are concentrated on a small footprint and moved around frequently."

They sell raw milk out of their farmstand.

"Raw milk is so much more profitable for small farms," said Bristle. "As long as it's grown well and produced in a safe way."

She considers the sale of raw milk a form of "economic justice" for farmers.

"I joke that with our four cows we are making more than those with 50 cows," she said. "It's absurd, but that's the reality and it's not fair."

A successful small business model

Bristle and McClurg are currently milking seven cows, with another on the way. They produce about 87 gallons a week. Bristle said that's a relatively small amount of milk, "But it's also a viable business if you can sell that much."

And they do.

"We don't have a huge operation, but it's successful," said Bristle. "We have 50 to 60 customers coming to get milk every week."

Rebop Farm also hosts a meat CSA and in the summer, supplies meat to customers in Boston.

"It's not a huge customer base, but it makes it worth it to go," said Bristle.

She said by finding a market in Boston they're not taking customers from other local small farms.

"Accessing a more urban area helps our business grow without having to yank customers away from other farms," she said.

They also sell meat to local purveyors, such as Artisan Restaurant & Tavern at the Four Columns Inn in Newfane, and T.J. Buckley's and the New England House in Brattleboro.

They send their meat to Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse in New York for processing.

"They are committed to excellence and making sure they track the product all the way through the line," said Bristle, "which has been a problem in the past. Not getting back your own meat is heartbreaking when you're small and niche like we are."

"We want the specific cow back because we know what it ate and how it was raised," said McClurg.

"Our pigs are raised rotationally," said Bristle "They are moved every two or three days, eating incredible things and even extra milk from the dairy. We like to make sure we get that back for our customers."

A supportive community

Bristle and McClurg also appreciate the community of CSAs and farms in the region.

"We are very quick to refer people to other farms and we are very often referred when other farms," said McClurg. "It's a give and take. It feels like a continuation of the tradition of haying together or putting up a barn or getting a crop in before it rains."

"It's in that same spirit," agreed Bristle.

"We respect the work each of us does," said McClurg. "We know how hard it is to be in this business."

Bristle and McClurg added they couldn't have gotten to where they are without the help of people in the state and the local office of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"The state has been awesome," said Bristle. "I cannot say enough about its farm viability program."

The Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program is offered by the the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

"We have had top-notch support across the board," said Bristle. "Without that program, our farm would not be in place."

McClurg credited Jen Miller, Farmer Services Director with the Northeast Farming Association of Vermont, who assisted them during their participation in the farm viability program.

Through the NCRS, Rebop Farm received assistance to purchase farming and install irrigation to bring water to each of the farm's separate pastures.

"They pay us to support rotational grazing because it improves our soil and reduces runoff," said Bristle.

While half of their farmstead is pasture, the other half is sugar bush. The sap collected at Rebop Farm is sent to Northwoods Farm and Forestry in Newfane for processing, sold under the Northwoods label at area co-ops and under the Rebop label at the farmstand on Sunset Lake Road.

"We are in a constant practice of scaling up at an appropriate pace to what our market is," said McClurg. "Our numbers continue to increase but only at a rate we can actually sustain and that the market will currently bear."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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