Have You Met South Hero’s Newest Farmers?

The Landon Farm has a new vibe these days, and we are so excited about it! Farmers Phelan O’Connor and Kelsey Chandler have just moved to South Hero and are buying the Landon Farm. We hope that you’ll enjoy getting to know them as much as we have, and give them a big welcome to our community.

After being introduced to farming at Warren Wilson College, and several years of farming with Fairfield farmers Tyler & Melanie Webb at Stony Pond Farm, an organic dairy and beef operation, Kelsey and Phelan are bringing their operation, Pigasus Meats to South Hero.

Phelan, Kelsey, and their dog Jenny will be living full time at the farm, and look forward to being South Hero community members.

Phelan, Kelsey, and their dog Jenny will be living full time at the farm, and look forward to being South Hero community members.

"We fell in love with farming during our time together at the Warren Wilson College Farm.
Through our experiences there and working since then with other farms... we became committed to farming as our life's work."

~Phelan O'Connor

A Unique Farm Product

Kelsey and Phelan began Pigasus Meats in 2013, on leased land in Fairfield. Right away, they wanted to distinguish their product and introduce customers to it in a fun way. So Phelan got busy in the kitchen, developing signature recipes for their beer bratwurst and lemon and herb sausage. Their breakfast sausage, developed by Vermont Artisan Meats, became a star product at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. Each Saturday they would load up with pork, fresh bread, eggs, and a grill, and sell breakfast sausage sandwiches at the market.

They also sold packaged retail cuts for customers to take home. By the second year they were selling out every market, and they needed room to grow. By 2015, Kelsey and Phelan were ready to purchase their own land.

 

It Couldn’t Have Happened Without…

While looking for land for their farm, Kelsey enrolled in an accelerated nursing program in Massachusetts, and began working as a nurse at the UVM Medical Center in April. They also began working with Sam Smith, a farm business planner at the Intervale Center, who helped them assess and improve their business skills and farm plan. As soon as Kelsey got her nursing certification the couple came back to northern Vermont and began to search in earnest for a permanent home for Pigasus Meats. This is where Vermont Land Trust, the current owner of the farm, and South Hero Land Trust got involved.

"We see farming as a way to be proactive stewards of the land, provide humane animal husbandry, produce high-quality food products through a pastured system, and engage actively in our community. We are very excited and honored to make our home in South Hero and become members of its agricultural community."

~Kelsey Chandler

At the Last Minute

This past winter the most recent tenants of the Landon Farm, East Shore Vineyard, made the difficult decision not to purchase the property. VLT and SHLT wanted to provide any new farmers of the land the opportunity to take advantage of the summer growing season, so we initiated a search for new farmers right away. VLT staff Jon Ramsay approached several farmers enrolled in VLT’s Farmland Access Program whose farm plans were a good match for the land base, and invited them to visit the farm and submit proposals for buying it. After a careful process, VLT and SHLT staff selected Pigasus Meats to buy the farm.

 

"It is exciting to have Kelsey and Phelan as stewards and owners of the Landon Farm. We have confidence that they will bring a vibrancy to both the Landon Farm and to South Hero."
~Bob Chutter, SHLT Board President

Piglets, Chicks, and a Dog Named Jenny

The Landon Farm provides Pigasus Meats with a great opportunity to invest in their own land and grow their business. With acres of pasture and woodlands, the Landon Farm is well suited for a diversified grazing operation, and Phelan and Kelsey plan to raise pastured pork and laying hens on the property. Pigasus Meats' goal is to build soil fertility while raising high quality pork and eggs, which they hope to sell through local farmers’ markets, retail outlets, and eventually a new farm-stand. 

Kelsey, Phelan, and their dog Jenny moved to the farm in early May. Their first pigs arrived soon after, and are happily grazing in pasture near the farmstead. We are lucky to have Kelsey and Phelan joining our special Island community!

Emily Alger
Apples, Cider Donuts, and Local Agriculture: Celebrating 50 Years with Hackett’s Orchard

The Places that Make South Hero Home

Springtime bloom at Hackett’s Orchard fi lls the air with the sweet small ofapple blossoms and the hum of bees.

Springtime bloom at Hackett’s Orchard fi lls the air with the sweet small ofapple blossoms and the hum of bees.

South Hero’s apple orchards hold a special place in the hearts of many Islanders, young and old. As children growing up in the Islands, fall trips to Hackett’s Orchard and Allenholm Farm to pick apples were sacred- the orchards seemed to sit outside of time, trees heavily loaded with crisp sweet-tart apples and the smell of cider donuts. From picking apples in the fall and seeing young calves in the fields in spring, to swimming lessons at White’s Beach and skating at the Sandbar, there are special places that make South Hero home for us.

Ron and Celia Hackett, who’ve owned Hackett’s Orchard since 1967, have introduced generations of children to apple picking. Hearing their stories over the years, from when they first arrived at the orchard, and “didn’t know one apple from another,” to the day they sold their first pie, was very special for us, and we hope you will enjoy reading some of their story here.

Vermont Beginnings

Ron and Celia both grew up in the Northeast Kingdom. Ron’s father owned a dairy farm, a small sugar bush, and a potato farm in Albany, VT. At one time Ron anticipated taking over the potato farm, but life took him in a different direction. He married Celia and began a career with Bell Telephone Company, where he worked on the dial conversion of Vermont towns (allowing phone users to dial a number directly, rather than through an operator). They lived on a “postage stamp” lot with their two young daughters, Deb and Jill, in Essex Junction. As the girls grew, the home felt smaller and smaller; they wanted to get out of the suburbs. When they learned that the Larrow orchard in South Hero was for sale, they decided to make a change. They bought the property in March of 1967 and got to work.

The Hacketts now sell all of their apples and cider at their on-farm store on South Street, and host thousands of children on school field trips each fall.

The Hacketts now sell all of their apples and cider at their on-farm store on South Street, and host thousands of children on school field trips each fall.

The first year was hard. Ron had helped in the orchard a few days the previous fall, but they were otherwise untrained. They had a heavy bloom in the spring, which would usually be thinned with a chemical spray so that the trees produce big red apples. But as Ron says, their first spray salesman didn’t have faith in Ron’s ability to do anything properly. So he recommended not spraying and Ron didn’t know any better. As a result, they had a tremendous crop of small green apples, not a one as big as three inches, and few turned red.

Learning As They Went

They kept working and learning. A new spray salesman came along and took Ron under his wing. He helped with the spray schedule and taught them to monitor for scab and insects. He and the UVM Extension’s tree fruit specialists were important mentors. Ron worked for the phone company for the first 19 years, spending weekends and evenings in the orchard. He took all of his vacation time during picking season. They picked the apples into bushel boxes scatted throughout the orchard. Ron would come home and take the tractor to collect the boxes, often working until dark. They hand graded one bushel at a time on a table in the shop. Ron gives Celia credit for keeping things together; driving tractors, caring for the pickers, grading the apples, raising their kids, looking after the house- she did it all.

Wholesale to Retail

In the 1960s, most apples at that time were sold by route; orchardists like Ray Allen and Alan Kinney would go door-to-door selling apples all day. Ron and Celia sold most of their apples wholesale at general stores. They also sold apples to Carpenter’s Apple Cider in Colchester, at 25 cents a bushel, and would buy cider back. They later bought cider from Ray Allen, and then in the early seventies Ron bought a press and began making cider at the orchard. When they did sell apples by retail, it was all by the bushel- folks buying storage apples or fruit for making pies and applesauce. Ron and Celia would set up a long line of pallets, separated into fancy and utility apples of each variety. Customers would go down the line asking for what they wanted, and Ron and Celia would load up bushel baskets.

Apples for sale at Hackett's Orchard, the family grows about 50 varieties that ripen August through October.

Apples for sale at Hackett's Orchard, the family grows about 50 varieties that ripen August through October.

In 1990 they built the kitchen and began making pies. Ron and Celia built their farm store up and worked to start Applefest, and many people discovered the South Street orchards. They were still only picking a couple thousand bushels a year, so in 1984 they planted 4 more acres. They bought some land from Ray Allen to expand the orchard, and suddenly their sales were all retail. When they sold their first pie, Celia couldn’t believe it. “No one buys pies! I don’t buy pies, my mother never bought a pie,” she thought. But they had the pie out on the table and a man came in and said, “I’ll buy it.” She was floored, she said, that “someone bought a pie!” They went on to sell 60,000 pies by 2008. It still bothers some people that they gave up making pies. But Celia says that the apple crisps they sell now have gone over very well.

They began doing Pick-Your-Own in the 1980s. It’s a lot of work to manage, but an important part of their customers’ experience. Ron says that when he goes down to the orchard on a weekend afternoon in the fall, all he hears is talking and laughing. Celia remembers a customer who pick apples at the orchard, wrote a song about it, and came back to play it for them. And now they have second, third, even fourth generation pickers coming to the orchard.

Looking to the Future

They do have concerns for the future. They think about what the changing environment will mean for the orchard. New diseases and pests keep them on their feet. Climate change, and increasing variability of temperature and rainfall are hard on the trees, which need steady warming and sun for good bloom and pollination. Violent summer storms, which often bring hail, damage the trees and fruit. They can’t irrigate easily, which will be a challenge for the dwarf trees they are planting.

To Ron and Celia, it never seemed like they were making major changes, but over 50 years the small changes added up. National pressures such as changes in food safety regulations have led to many small shifts. They’ve shifted from mostly selling wholesale to all retail. The farm store has brought visitors from across the country, as well as generations of school children to the farm- where they learn about farming, and leave with a special connection to the orchard and South Hero.

Celebrating 50 Years of Growing Apples and Feeding a CommunityRon and Celia’s stories of their years at Hackett’s Orchard made me realize that even the places and things that I think of a constant, are changing and adapting all the time. Ron and Celia have embraced change, while remaining true to a few core values at the heart of their business. They believe in working hard, providing the community with the very highest quality product, safety for their workers and customers, in generosity, kindness, family, educating the next generation. Because of their hard work and that of farmers like them throughout the community- the orchards of South Street have come to feel like part of the very bedrock of South Hero.

Many thanks to Ron and Celia Hackett for sharing these stories with us, and for their hard work over the last 50 years. And many thanks to all of the hard-working farmers that feed us, teach us, and make South Hero home.

Dan Kirk