The seeds of change were planted at Common Roots this winter when Fae Blackmere and Katie Rose Leonard joined the team as the first full-time farmers in the organization’s 11-year existence. The duo serves as Farmer/Value-Added Product Development and Farmer/Farmstand Communication, respectively.
“This was the year we had to evaluate, ‘does this make sense,’ because farming has risks,” Common Roots nonprofit organization Co-Founder and Director Carol McQuillen said. “We took a leap [and] we hit the jackpot.”
Last fall, the farm at Common Roots, located in the South Village, posted its first full-time farmer position. Previously, the organization operated with two seasonal farmers and some volunteers. But McQuillen said a recent switch from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to a farmstand model meant the organization needed a manager. Plus, with access to a kitchen at the Wheeler House, the Common Roots board was seeking someone to prepare food for the stand.
Common Roots received 17 applicants for the full-time position. From there, the board whittled the pool down to five candidates who were interviewed by phone.
“These two women rose to the top of the five like cream,” McQuillen said. “Katie Rose had experience managing a farm market and Fae was baptized into food, she was raised on a farm.”
With their collective skill set, they seemed like just the right people for the job. And so, one job became two and a new season for the Common Roots Farm began.
Planting the seeds
Katie Rose Leonard grew up in Pennsylvania but got her first farming experience on Long Island, New York at Amber Waves Farm. She interned there for three years in a program akin to the UVM Farmer Training Program with its lessons and curriculum.
“My interest in farming was growing so fast, and I kind of had a knack for it,” Leonard said. “My bosses let me step into management roles pretty quickly over the course of three years.”
But after completing the program, she was eager to move to Vermont where her partner lived and an agricultural community flourished.
“When I moved to Vermont, I didn’t want to just be a field crew member, I wanted to shoot for something a little higher,” she said, adding that a management position at New Leaf Organics in Bristol helped her make that jump.
But a position at Common Roots, where she could plan and manage a nonprofit farm with a steady paycheck, seemed like a good step up.
“I love the element of food design and marketing,” Leonard said. “I’m really glad that I get the opportunity to explore some of those interests a little bit more this year.”
If someone were to ask Fae Blackmere, “Were you raised on a farm?” she could honestly answer, “yes.” Blackmere grew up in Northfield on her parents’ CSA, which is now operated by her sister.
Growing up, Blackmere said she jumped into whatever needed to be done on the farm.
“It was at my doorstep my whole entire life,” she said. “For me, it’s always been like a no-brainer.”
Between her freshman and sophomore year of college, Blackmere pursued a farming job at Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg.
“I just picked it up quickly … and developed a good skill set,” she said.
Blackmere even took a semester off college to continue working on the farm and help operations transition through seasons.
Since then, she’s kept her hands in the dirt and also worked on food preparation. When the position at Common Roots opened up, she was eager to apply.
“I was looking to kind of spread my wings a bit and not work under management,” she said. “I felt like I needed to do that at this point to see if farming is going to be my career.”
Having a salary and existing infrastructure meant she could take on farm management without the overhead. Thus far she’s enjoyed the learning process it’s provided.
Germination: Two farmers put their own stamp on it
Although the ground was frozen and not conducive to farming when Blackmere and Leonard were hired last January, there was no shortage of work to be done.
The duo hit the ground running, planning out which/how many seeds to buy, when to start them, when to move them to the farm and when to cultivate them. They set a goal to increase crop yield by 30 percent from the previous year, according to Leonard.
“For Fae and I, I think there was a little bit of time where we were both new to the property and new to each other,” Leonard recalled. “Figuring out how each of us works, how we like to structure our day, how we keep organized, that took a little getting used to.”
The two learned from each other and the land quickly, with each day providing a new lesson.
One of their first challenges was learning how to farm the clay soil that dominates the farmscape.
“The biggest challenge was getting off the ground,” Blackmere said. “In March and April, you look around a farm and you’re like, ‘what is this?’ There was just cold, muddy bare ground that didn’t look like anything could grow in it.”
The rainy spring had set a challenging stage. With clay soil, the difficulty is that dampness can cause it to become compact when worked, removing oxygen and leaving little room for plant roots, Leonard explained. The duo had to delay some plantings and start others in the hoop houses/propagation house where they had a heater installed.
“When you’re working somewhere else under management, you don’t know the stuff that goes into this,” Blackmere said. “It is constantly a lesson learned.”
But with time came a routine, both women tending the farm then splitting time at their respective positions: Leonard manning the farmstand and Blackmere making harvested crops “shelf stable.”
“I feel like by the middle of July, we really hit our stride,” Leonard said. “It feels like each day is plug and play. We have a routine. We make a good team.”
Indeed, the dynamic duo has expanded crop variety from 20 to 40 different plants and has increased produce. They’ve begun planting food on land at the Underwood property, which they lease from the city. Additionally, they’ve hosted a slew of events including Thursday night taste-testing sessions, during which Blackmere and her interns can show off their food-prep prowess. The crew works several hours per week to make food “shelf-stable” by pickling, canning and otherwise transforming it.
“I’m really trying not to add too much to what we’re growing,” Blackmere said. She’d rather showcase the food itself.
According to Blackmere, it’s been a good season. “Every time I look, there’s a new car at the farmstand,” she said. “People have talked about this being the best season.”
And Leonard concurs.
“I talk to three to five people each day that are here for their first time, and then I talk to just as many people who are back every week, and they just can’t say enough nice things,” she said.
“We have a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished so far and we still have a long ways to go.”