On the Side | The joys of Vermont on an honor system

Posted: August 16, 2007

WEST GLOVER, Vt. - At the potlucks that midsummer uncorks along Lake Parker here and in the surrounding hills and as far off as Tamarack Gallery, the big art barn in East Craftsbury, it is unremarkable to encounter in a casual dip for the cucumbers, Bayley Hazen Blue, the suddenly chic raw-milk cheese from Jasper Hill Farm.

It comes from a rejuvenated farmstead in this slice of Vermont's rustic Northeast Kingdom that just 10 years ago was another near-ruin, a sad souvenir in a year that five dairy farms in Greensboro alone, its home turf, went belly up.

As painful as that winnowing has been, the survivors were facing a startlingly rosier scenario this August: Milk prices were robust for the second season in a row. Growth, not retrenchment, was in the air, scenting the fields along Parker Road with a bouquet of freshly applied manure.

Not everyone, of course, was going the artisanal route. At the mouth of Stevens Road across from the country store, footings were being poured to extend the Young family's long, blue dairy barn. Up to 50 more head were being contemplated (pushing the herd to nearly 300), their bulk milk destined for the co-op in St. Albans and thence - at least a portion of it - your pints of Ben & Jerry's Homemade.

The barn is state-of-a-certain-kind-of-art, its side-windows carefully shaded, fresh air sucked in the back and sent up out roof vents, providing, even on the hottest days of August, temperatures more reminiscent of late spring.

In their youth, the heifers still graze the slopes above the lake. But come the milking years, they rarely venture out of doors in the manner portrayed, say, on a Ben & Jerry's carton.

So two roads diverge, Vermont's endangered herds consolidating on one family's modernized farm; Jasper Hill making its curd the old-fashioned way from a handful of fresh-pastured, registered Ayrshires.

There is always the low-hanging fruit, too, that decorates the season. Up Borland Hill, raspberry pickers were having a field day. And one morning, at the lake's edge, a beekeeper was spotted on a ladder sawing a limb off a hardwood tree, the better to corral a swarm of Russian honey bees that were hanging there into the hive box he had waiting on the ground.

Jumbo brown eggs were being offered at one house for $1.50 a dozen having traveled a total of 50 feet from their chicken coop near Maple Manor, a local bed and breakfast. Waltzing Bear Farm was harvesting its basil crop hand-over-fist just to keep up with demand from Parker Pie, the pizza place going gangbusters behind the country store.

But other specialities - Deep Mountain Maple's dark amber syrup, and juicy heirloom pork chops and ribs from the Yorkshire pigs Michael Beatty raises near Wheelock - head straight (six hours south) for the big-city prices at Union Square Green Market in Manhattan.

So for a potluck host it pays to know someone who knows someone who can divert the export bounty before it leaves town and get it promptly (in the case of the pork, at least) on the grill.

That, and someone else who knows the way to a dirt lane called New Dublin Road where - with no sign in evidence - you will find a freezer behind the second door down in the barn that's stocked with grass-fed steaks and roasts and a calculator to figure how much to leave on the counter.

And someone who knows how to negotiate the back way, detours included, to Pete's Greens, the unstaffed organic farmstand down the hill from Craftsbury Village.

Of course, it is wise after loading up on the gleaming white onions, polished as old door knobs, and sleek zucchini, and eggplants of various stripes and tangy golden cherry tomatoes for the ratatouille, and sweet, gorgeous corn for supper, and scallions and garlic and braided bulbs of fennel, to knock on the door of the farmhouse and hand Pete Johnson the money directly.

Better times and upbeat dairy prices notwithstanding, the honor-system till on the farmstand table has been coming up a little short lately.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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