Ask a Burlington resident what the “Intervale” is and you could get a number of responses. A thriving compost business. A concert venue. A place to ride a bike or walk a dog. Most likely, you’ll hear about food.The Intervale produces a ton — more accurately, about 300 tons — of food every year, on 120 acres of farmland within walking distance of downtown Burlington.
The Intervale has a long history of agricultural productivity. “It has been a draw for people and wildlife for thousands of years,” explains Kit Perkins, Executive Director of the Intervale Center. “Ethan Allen had his pick of any piece of land and chose here.”
During the 1980s, however, the Intervale was better known as an illegal dumping ground. A major clean-up effort began in 1986 with composting, which helped revitalize the damaged soil.To attract farmers, the newly formed Intervale Center started an incubator program, through which it leases land and equipment and shares 20 percent of the costs. Incubator farmers are paired with mentors and required to prepare business plans. “One of the most valuable things the Intervale made me do was to think about farming in a business way,” recalls Spencer Blackwell, who started a bean and grain farm through the incubator program.
Spencer grew up surrounded by farms in East Montpelier. “It always killed me that by the time October rolled around we were back to buying everything from the grocery store,” he says. “I wanted to grow something that would last.” In 2001, he came to work on the Intervale.
The Intervale Center encouraged Spencer’s innovation. “It was really the only place I could have done this,” he says. “It’s a minor investment of a couple thousand bucks to try out your idea versus a couple hundred thousand bucks to try it on your own land with your own equipment.”
Spencer met his wife Jennifer, a St. Albans native, at the Intervale. She and Spencer recently 'graduated' from the incubator program and relocated to the Elmer Farm, a conserved property in Middlebury that they found through VLT’s Farmland Access Program.
“The Elmer Farm was the best farm I’d seen on the market,” says Spencer. “We went down there and stuck our hands in the soil and we knew we needed to get this place.”
The Blackwells will begin selling vegetables at local farmers’ markets next year. Meanwhile, they plan to build a business around the beans and grains they learned how to grow on the Intervale. “I feel really proud that we’re part of this program that’s helping to save farmland in Vermont and to keep it viable,” says Jennifer.
Back at the Intervale, the land once farmed by the Blackwells will be available to other young farmers for generations to come. In 2007, the Intervale Center was able to purchase 179 acres from the Burlington Electric Company and conserve 232 acres with the help of the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the City of Burlington and private donations. Fifty-three acres of the conserved land was donated by the Calkins family, dairy farmers at the Intervale until 1995.The conserved land will be used for farming, recreation, and community gardening. It also hosts unique floodplain forest, wetlands, and other natural areas.
“We’re going to need a secure local food source in Vermont,” explains Kit. “The Vermont Land Trust realizes that we can conserve all the farmland in the world, but if we don’t have business-savvy farmers who are also making a living, then there’s no sense in it.”