Thriving in a challenging climate
by Sally Colby
Rosemary Croizet enjoyed growing up on a farm, and farming is how she met her husband Gerard. This year, the couple are marking their 30th year in farming on Berry Creek Farm, the Westfield, VT, farm they purchased from Rosemary’s mother.
“It was originally a dairy farm,” said Rosemary, describing the organic farm located in the Missisquoi River Valley. “We started with pick-your-own strawberries and added from there.” After erecting a greenhouse, the family started growing more vegetables for a CSA, then added plants. The farm includes 50 open acres, 100 wooded acres and some pasture for beef cattle and chickens. About six acres are dedicated to intensive vegetable production.
“We’re certified organic and are active in land stewardship,” said Rosemary. “There’s a lot of caring for the soil, whether it’s amendments or cover crops. We also maintain various habitat for biodiversity.” She noted that it takes a long time to build soil, and that when the fields were used as pastures, the soil quality was poor. To ensure crop success and continue building soil, the Croizets test the soil in fields and greenhouses annually.
Growing produce in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is challenging, and Rosemary jokes about wrapping the farm in plastic. It’s currently home to five greenhouses, two of which are covered with double plastic to help extend the season in both spring and autumn.
“The first greenhouse has double plastic and was heated,” said Rosemary. “Then we added a couple of hoop houses and another double-layer heated greenhouse.” One greenhouse is heated with oil, and the other runs on a wood pellet stove that also heats their home. Rosemary said the heated greenhouses facilitate a more viable operation, allowing them to grow greens through most of winter as well as providing an early start for crops such as tomatoes.
The greens that will sustain Berry Creek Farm through winter are planted between late summer and early autumn. “Depending on the weather, crops sometimes stall and we have to take advantage of good weather to harvest,” said Rosemary. “We try to go with what Mother Nature gives us.”
Seeds for flowers are started under grow lights in January. Plants in the greenhouse are started in late February/early March, depending on the weather. “We spend a lot of time planning the season and doing maintenance so we can hit the ground running in March,” said Rosemary.
When the Croizets started growing strawberries, they grew several varieties, but now stick with Jewel and Annapolis because those varieties work well in the climate. Frost protection sprinklers for strawberries double as irrigation for some field-grown crops. Other small fruits on the farm include blueberries, currants, gooseberries, melons and everbearing fall strawberries grown in a hoop house.
“In spring, we sell organic seeds, garden soil, spring plants, hanging baskets and other items,” said Rosemary. “Later in the season we have herbs, perennials, vegetables and annuals.” She’s experimented with a variety of selections for the 200 hanging baskets she starts each year and has found it’s best to offer baskets that feature geraniums with petunias for a splash of color. She’ll also use begonias, trailing snapdragons and climbing Thunbergia.
Crop rotation is a critical aspect of successful organic farming, helping with both disease and weed management. Most crops are rotated annually, and strawberries are rotated every two years. Some crops are started in the heated greenhouses; others are direct seeded. Rosemary said they can usually direct seed the first field-grown crops in early May. To avoid the risk of disease or insects coming in on plant products, the Croizets start everything from seed.
When possible and depending on the last harvest date, the Croizets establish cover crops on all fields. Most fields are planted in winter rye. In spring, the crop is tilled under to enrich the soil. In summer, cover crops such as buckwheat or clover are planted after early harvest.
“We let the buckwheat flower for pollinators,” said Rosemary. “Then we mow it and plow it. We also raise cut flowers which helps feed pollinators.” Flowers are grown throughout the farm to provide pollinator food as well as a cut flower crop. Gerard keeps honeybees for both pollination and honey, and the farm also attracts bumblebees and wild pollinators.
Rosemary said cut flowers sell well directly from the farm. “Flowers are a luxury item but more people are buying them,” she said. “We’ve had a trying year or two, and people are rejoicing in the smaller things.” The farm’s proximity to a main route draws customers who enjoy shopping locally.
The regular season for the Berry Creek Farm CSA is May through October. CSA customers can pick up at the farm or at a local natural food store. Rosemary described the regular CSA as discount shopping at the farm stand. “People can set their own tab and spend it down,” she said. “Their demands vary, so that gives them a lot more flexibility if they’re away for a week or have company coming. When we built the farm stand we moved to that model instead of having just a set box. There’s also a menu box selection that’s delivered.” She added that more people are coming to the farm stand to select what they want each week, which saves time and makes the process smoother.
The winter CSA includes six boxes, two each month in November, December and January. Winter shares include a diverse selection of cold-tolerant vegetables including spinach, salad mix, kale, chard, leeks, parsley, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, scallions, lettuce, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, beets, Tokyo Bekana, Japanese turnips, potatoes and kohlrabi.
Berry Creek Farm serves as a hub for other local producers who aren’t set up for retail sales on their own farm. Customers appreciate the selection of locally produced items such as cheeses, kefir, switchel and kombucha available in the on-farm store.
The Croizets have found that each aspect of operating the farm comes with challenges, from weather to labor to administration. “We try to adapt to changing weather patterns,” said Rosemary. “This past season we didn’t have much water in northern Vermont. We put in a second spring to help with washing. Moving irrigation pipes became part of the regular routine. That’s something we don’t usually have to invest time and labor so that was challenging.” Depending on seasonal precipitation and water availability, the Croizets sometimes must decide which crops to save.
While some farms struggle with maintaining a labor force, the Croizets have been fortunate to have repeat workers most seasons. “That can be a challenge because the learning curve is severe,” said Rosemary. “But it’s also a joy when we discover new people in the area.”
Visit Berry Creek Farm online at berrycreekfarmvt.com.