Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Westminster, Vermont: Paul Harlow, Westminster Organics

The last farm we stopped at before leaving Vermont was Paul Harlow's in Westminster, near Putney in southern Vermont. May 7th was a beautiful sunny day and we were greeted by Paul's little mutt Speckles (or Especkles as we fondly dubbed her, being from Puerto Rico and all). He was meeting with his crew, largely made up of Jamaicans who have been returning seasonally for many years. He took an hour off to talk with us before heading out to transplant broccoli into his fields. Paul's farm is a large produce and vegetable operation with chickens (about 1000), beef, Tamworth pigs, and eggs for sale as well. It is one of the largest veggie operations in Vermont. He is 59.
Many thousands of baby kale plants:

The farm has been in the family for 3 generations (his grandfather purchased it in 1917) and Paul's son works with him as does his young daughter (she sells the eggs to the farm stand just down the road, run by Paul's brother and family). His sister lives nearby as well and is an agriculture writer. Paul decided to transition his farm to organic in 1976 after he noticed that he didn't see many worms anymore, and his weeds were getting resistant to herbicides. It was rough for a couple of years during the transition because he admittedly didn't know how to do it...and there weren't many models of any scale in the area at the time.

Contributing to the community is important to Paul; last year he gave 150,000 pounds of food to food pantries, and he donates his time, equipment, and expertise to a garden the size of a soccer field at his daughter's elementary school. Aesthetics are also important to Paul and the community- when talking about why he plants bright colored produce in the front of his farm closest to the road he said "I do it for the people driving up and down route 5...I figure they could use pretty colors and appreciate straight rows." He is a town selectman and has been involved with local functions and politics for longer than he'd like to admit. He battles with common misinterpretations of organic produce (like expense) and the school lunchlady (who doesn't use or want the produce that he offers for free to the school).

Micromanagement from the government is something Paul struggles with as a large produce farmer- in the upcoming organic standards updates there are regulations about not drinking coffee in your fields and not having cats in your barn etc; it seems invasive and impractical. Paul talked about the frustration it brings when someone who has possibly never set foot in a field is making up rules that the organic farmer must abide by to keep the organic certification, rules that may have no realistic value except on paper. In Paul's words, "I just want to grow stuff... f*** regulations and marketing."

He would like to see all of his produce sold locally, but as it is there isn't enough demand. He sells to wholesalers, Whole Foods Market, etc., but imagines an ideal world where he can be a farmer who provides for his regional community. His produce can be found down the road at the Putney Food Co-op, where his portrait hangs above the produce section, along with other suppliers to the store.

Down the road at Paul's brother's farmstand:


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