Thinking small
After two seasons at the Intervale, Spencer and Mara Welton of Half Pint Farm are showing how much can be done in a little space

By Laura Sayre
December 9, 2004, Burlington, VT

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 farm business.

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 deliveries.
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.