Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It's Been a Week

Seven days and seven hours ago, I was sitting in the warm office of my friend, neighbor and former employer, Pete Johnson. I joined a group of other friends, neighbors, the Johnson family, and his farm crew. We ate cookies and muffins, drank coffee, answered the phone, talked to each other and sometimes just sat quietly...all the while watching our volunteer fire department put out the smoldering remains of what was the heart of the farm.

An early morning fire swiftly took the old dairy barn at Pete's Greens, a diversified vegetable farm in the historic village of Craftsbury, Vermont. This barn, with it's gambrel roof and yellow plank siding,  was much more than a barn. Its three floors housed the processing facility, two tractors, supplies, coolers, freezers, equipment, tools, storage crops and meat. On the north side, a 4,000 square foot addition was being closed in where more storage, offices and employee space was to be added. Over $750,000 of property, food and construction - not to mention years of work - was lost in a matter of an hour...maybe two.

Although it's been a few years since I worked for the farm, my visits are frequent and familiar, and my memories are recent. The smell of wet cardboard and fresh dirt in the washhouse; mounds of bright greens heaped up on tables, the sound of  lighthearted "trash talk" while the crew raced to bag vegetables with dead-on accuracy; the feel of cold on my cheeks every time I tugged open the cooler doors; the roar of the tractor being pulled out by Pete, wearing his bright yellow protective ear phones with the embedded radio. My memories of the barn are visceral; tightly linked to the farm itself, the people who work there and the place that launched my own journey into small agriculture, community and food.

Now, as I walk up the road from my old, drafty farmhouse and round the corner to Pete's old, drafty farmhouse, scratching the ears of Squirt (the farm dog) who wiggles with joy in anticipation of a walk or car ride,  I am met with nothing but open sky where there once stood a big, old, yellow barn. 

But there is opportunity within the ashes. A new and better facility will be built in time. The equipment will be found and purchased. The fields will yield their fruit and the hands of the crew will once again be busy. The time to reflect on the past is short, as the present is relentless in its demand for attention, and the future is urgent in its need.

But today, just today, I'll indulge myself and wish that it had never happened. Today, I'll miss the smells, sights and sounds of an energetic, progressive farm. Today, I'll feel a little sad for what was lost.

-Elena Gustavson
Program Director, Education and Outreach for CAE

2008- Before the barn was yellow

CAE Staff Note:

Our region has had four devastating farm fires in the less than 24 months. The Betzs of High Ledge Farm in Woodbury lost their house and barn in April of 2009; The McAllisters of Hardwick lost their herd and barn in November 2009; The Michauds of Walden also lost their entire herd when their barn burned in May 2010; Pete's Greens barn fire last week.

Like many small businesses, the profits in farming, if there are any, are pinched and scratched from the margins, often resulting in forgoing anything that isn't presently necessary new equipment, health insurance, even enough coverage  for the farm. Pete's Greens, for all its success in farming, was no different.

Employing 11 people full time (20 during the growing season that starts in April), running a thriving and innovative CSA that helps support other local producers, and supplying grocers and restaurants across New England, Boston and New York, the loss that Pete's Greens suffers is a loss that both our immediate community and our agricultural community suffers as well. Fundraising and financing efforts are in full force to get the farm up and running in time for spring.
Jan. 12, 2011-Pete's Greens

Pete's Greens- For updates to the rebuild effort and to contribute to the farm's rebuild fund, you may make a donation directly to the farm at their website.

NOFA-VT- Since 1997, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont makes available emergency funds for farmers who incur financially devastating losses. To contribute a tax-deductible donation to their Farmer Emergency Fund, please visit them at

Center for an Agricultural Economy- Our newly formed Farmer Emergency Fund is specific to Hardwick and the towns that touch its borders. To make a tax deductible donation, please specifiy Farmer Emergency Fund and donate here:

Thank you,

The Staff at CAE

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