by Tom Slayton
Isham Family Farm in Williston has been quietly transformed over the past two decades.
In the early 1990s, it was a dairy farm, producing milk and, in the spring, maple syrup. Today, though the farm looks substantially the same, it has been economically reconfigured.
Located in fast-developing Chittenden County, the farm reaches out to folks interested in experiencing and learning about local agriculture—and enjoying the harvest. Though its cows are gone, the farm still produces maple syrup. These days there are also Christmas trees, berries, wagon rides, sweet corn, school tours, pumpkins, community gardens, a greenhouse, and weddings.
Isham Family Farm continues to be a successful part of Vermont’s growing diversified farm economy, adapting to new local markets and finding ways to bring the community to the land.
Driving that transformation is Mike Isham, the fifth generation of the Isham family to work the same 108 acres located on either side of Oak Hill Road. He’s worked hard for a decade to make the farm economically viable.
“Times change,” he says, “and you have to change with the times.”
Fortunately, there are some things that have not changed. The broad fields surrounding the handsome barns and farmhouse still reach toward Mount Mansfield’s hulking summit. To the west, beyond the berry bushes and sugarhouse, the land rises toward a graceful ridgetop sugarbush. The farm has quality soils, which are being used to their full agricultural potential. It’s about as pretty a spot as can be found in Chittenden County.
“It’s super-important to keep an iconic farm like this one operating here in Chittenden County,” says Cara Montgomery, Regional Stewardship Manager for the Vermont Land Trust. “This could easily have been a bunch of houses.”
It was David Isham, Mike’s father, who began the changes when he sold the dairying business in 1994. He and his wife, Ginger, continued to make maple syrup and ran a bed and breakfast in their spacious, 1852 farmhouse. In 2001, David decided that the farm should be conserved by the Vermont Land Trust to keep it open and productive. Mike bought the farm four years later.
Mike has worked closely with VLT while making changes to the farm. Both Mike and Cara attest to their good working relationship, and she is enthusiastic about the educational value of his farm for his neighbors in the surrounding urban and suburban areas.
He meets annually with Cara to go over plans and changes. “It’s a great time to review his plans and new projects,” she says. “Our communication has been open and productive.”
The solar collectors that now provide most of the farm’s electricity are one example.
“The siting of the panels needed some approval work,” Cara says. “But we are very supportive of what he needs to do to keep his operation viable.” Mike and VLT were able to work within the easement and find a good location for the solar panels right on the southeast perimeter of the farm buildings.
It’s important, Cara says, for VLT to be flexible and work carefully with each conserved farm, while keeping within the guidelines of the conservation easement.
“Everyone has a different piece of property, different circumstances, and we need to be aware of that,” noted Cara. “We’re in the business of supporting the working landscape, and the way to do that is to work with people on their individual farms.”
VLT has helped keep land in Chittenden County in agricultural production despite development pressure. Within the county, 27 dairies and 14 diversified farms have conserved land with VLT.
Mike, who took over the farm in 2005, continued to work as a technician at IBM for the next five years, as he began expanding on the farm’s products and activities.
Ramping up any agricultural enterprise is time-consuming.
“You’ve got to realize, it takes 7-8 years to grow a Christmas tree to saleable size,” Mike says. “For berry picking, it takes two years to prepare the soil and three years growing before you can sell a berry. Everything takes time.” His aim is to have some income from the farm each season.
In the spring, there’s sugaring; in summer, berries and vegetables; fall, a corn maze, pumpkins and wagon rides, and in the winter, Christmas trees. Weddings and community gardens also add to the farm’s bottom line.
Mike’s been building up the farm as a place for people to engage with farming, pretty much non-stop for the past 10 years. “If I stop and think about it, I might get tired,” he says with a smile.