By Lindsay Arbuckle
As with any profession, farming has its ups and downs. The lows come with bad weather, pests, and equipment problems. But more often than not, there is a lot to be excited about: happy market customers, the first ripe tomato, and the magical transformation from seed to harvest. One particularly inspirational aspect this season was our collaboration with Stafford Technical Center’s Culinary Arts students.
The students in this program travel from area high schools to Stafford Technical Center in Rutland where they study culinary science, measurement arithmetic, cooking techniques, French terminology and more. With their chef instructors, they also run The Dollhouse Restaurant, which is on-site and open to the general public.
My partner Scott and I own Alchemy Gardens, a vegetable farm business on leased land in West Rutland. We have always wanted our farm to include an educational aspect. Scott considers himself extraordinarily fortunate to have been a student in Stafford’s Music program ten years ago, and his experience was truly transformative. He learned how powerful and exciting education can be when you get to study something you are passionate about. We wanted to make a connection to Stafford as farmers, and the Culinary Arts program was a perfect fit.
In 2011, we began NOFA-VT’s Farmer Correspondence Program with Stafford’s Culinary students. This program connects farmer pen pals with local classrooms, helping students learn about the working landscape and the origins of food.
We wrote the Stafford students a letter, telling them about our vegetable farm business. When we received their reply letters, we were amazed by the students’ maturity and interest in our farm. There were questions about our growing practices and comments about their favorite vegetables and ways to prepare them. Many students had dreams of owning their own bakeries or restaurants. One student wrote that he wanted to be a butcher. They seemed excited by their studies, and passionate about their dreams.
The letters made the prospect of a field trip even more exciting. The students first visited the farm in June. We gave them a tour and the students gleaned lettuce mix from our unheated greenhouse to take back to their kitchen. It was the beginning of an inspiring relationship. We enjoyed the energy they brought to the farm.
The start to the 2012 school year prompted another field trip in September, an exciting time on a Vermont vegetable farm. The fields were full of fall crops like Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, and parsnips. We toured the farm, harvesting leeks and talking about the proper way to clean, prep, and cook them. One brave student popped hot peppers into her mouth. Students smelled the fresh herbs and shrieked at the surprise of a snake slithering nearby. Our greenhouse from which they had harvested lettuce mix in June was now filled to the brim with over twenty varieties of tomatoes. We selected a rainbow of tomatoes to taste test. Some of the self-proclaimed tomato haters in the group actually liked them, especially the sweet yellow ones.
Throughout the field trip, we had excellent conversations. One student just beginning the culinary program mentioned that he’d never heard of a lot of the vegetables we were growing. Another talked about the garden that her family had at home. Another said it seemed like we were really happy and truly loved our work, which is true.
It may just be that the way to keep Rutland kids in Rutland is to encourage them to pursue work in food and agriculture. With a stellar year-round farmers’ market, thriving farms, and restaurants utilizing local ingredients, Rutland’s food scene is exciting and full of opportunities. Often, the work is fulfilling and rewarding. With programs like Stafford’s Culinary Arts, students are getting a leg-up on their peers across the country, and are likely to be culinary stars. Many young people want to explore the world, but we can all hope that some of these future chefs will return to Rutland to start the next hot Vermont restaurant, bakery or butcher shop.
When the bus pulled away from the farm that September day, Scott and I were filled with gratitude—for our bountiful harvests, the generosity of others, the excellent programs at Stafford Technical Center, the community and agricultural renaissance around Rutland, and most of all, for young people following their dreams.
A Swedish proverb says it best: All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.
Lindsay Arbuckle & Scott Courcelle own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables and herbs in West Rutland. The Dollhouse Restaurant is open for lunch Tues-Thurs during the school year. Call 770-1041 to make a reservation.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.