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
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
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 [http://www.vermontfresh.net/index.php]
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
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
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,