Mara and Spencer Welton know
how to focus. This farming couple grows a wide variety of
lettuces and other greens, baby vegetables, herbs and cut
flowers on less than an acre of Intervale land, selling at
three Burlington farmers' markets and to local restaurants.
They have no employees and use almost no heavy equipment.
From the beginning, Mara explains, their farm business strategy
has been "to stay small and work it ourselves."
Even so, after two years at the Intervale, Half Pint Farm
has expanded dramatically in terms of turnover and profitability,
Mara and Spencer report. With a few small shelters in the
field in addition to Intervale farm program greenhouse space,
the couple stretch their growing season from the last week
of March to the last week of October. In the off season, Mara
takes on temp work and Spencer teaches part-time at the local
community college. Overall, they're making a living doing
work they love.
High-school sweethearts from Denver, Mara and Spencer attended
the University of Colorado in Boulder together, worked on
an organic farm in Colorado and then joined the Peace Corps,
serving two years in the Solomon Islands. "That was a
very powerful experience, being part of a community like that,"
says Spencer of their time in the Peace Corps. It convinced
them that they wanted to grow food and to be connected to
a place and a community in their future careers.
Back in the States, they relocated to western Pennsylvania,
where Spencer completed a master's degree in agroecology at
Slippery Rock University. Spencer first came to Burlington
for a wastewater treatment workshop, and was so impressed
with the area and with the opportunity presented by the Intervale
Farms Program that they decided to move here to start their
Half Pint Farm is a true partnership, with Spencer and Mara
working side by side in the greenhouse, in the field and at
the farmers' markets. Mara handles most of the restaurant
sales, making calls twice a week to take orders and schedule
She says they've had good experiences selling to restaurants,
and she credits the Vermont
Fresh Network with helping to strengthen those relationships.
"Chefs [in the network] make a pledge" to use local
products, she explains. "That is pivotal. It makes it
not like a cold call" even when you're approaching a
restaurant for the first time.
Mara and Spencer say that farming at the Intervale has also
given them a leg up on accessing new markets. "People
know the Intervale because of the [Intervale] Foundation and
because of the CSA," says Spencer. (The non-profit Intervale
Community Farm, with 400 CSA members, has been in operation
since 1989.) "You get a certain amount of respect from
potential buyers because of that association." That familiarity
helped Half Pint establish contacts with chefs in the spring
of 2003, before they even had any veggies to sell.
Today, one of Half Pint's signature crops, an ultra-microgreens
mix of fennel, red-leaf amaranth and other leafy greens, is
grown with those chefs in mind. "Chefs love it,"
says Mara. "It looks stunning as a garnish, but it also
packs a lot of flavor." The delicate, colorful crop takes
just two weeks from seeding to harvest and sells for $24 a
pound. This year, it was also the earliest marketable product
to come out of an Intervale farm.
As the farm's name implies, most of the rest of Half Pint's
crops also emphasize concentrated value—big flavors
in small packages. They sell new potatoes, baby eggplant,
tender zucchini, diminutive brassicas, cherry tomatoes, and
more. The baby vegetable theme really works well at farmers'
markets, Mara and Spencer say: people are initially attracted
by the novelty factor, but keep coming back because the veggies
are so young and fresh many of them can be eaten raw. In addition,
the Weltons put a lot of thought and effort into making their
farmers' market display distinctive and engaging, which is
essential in competitive markets like Burlington's. "We
must have had 30 people per market take pictures of our stand
this year," says Spencer. And when people are done snapping
photos, they buy.