Sowing the Seeds of Knowledge at Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center
In 2000, the Azadoutioun Foundation of Cambridge, Massachusetts, purchased the Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in Vermont. Over the next three years, Cedar Circle Farm became certified organic and now serves as a community-supported example of sustainability. It is located in East Thetford on 40 acres of conserved land, which overlooks the Connecticut River.
The owners hired Will Allen and Kate Duesterberg as the farm’s principle managers. The two are responsible for the daily workings of the farm’s business and the development and implementation of its innovative educational programming. They strive to offer a variety of farm-centered educational opportunities to area schools, visitors and the community.
The farm grows an array of vegetables, small fruits, legumes, oil seed and grain crops, as well as annual and perennial flowers. These products are sold at their farm stand, farmers markets, wholesale accounts and through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program. The goal is to have the agricultural center be a model of the best organic farming practices.
Every growing season people are hired to work in the fields, six greenhouses, five hoop houses, farm stand, bakery and kitchen. Crewmembers are part of the educational program, helping out with school tours and activities, as well as at festivals and “Dinners in the Field.” These hardworking people believe that good food should not be for a select few, but accessible to all.
Cedar Circle Farm is home to a licensed commercial kitchen, which is run by chef and manager Alison Baker. For her, food is something we all connect to—and good food is something we all deserve. It shouldn’t be a luxury. The chef often has the feeling that she is returning to people something vital and good that’s always been theirs, and so kindling in them a desire for more.
Baker prides herself on using great ingredients that need very little preparation. “Excellence is a few balanced, perfect flavors in combination with one another to bring out a single ingredient’s essence,” she says. For her, sometimes it’s finding those ingredients in an unexpected place, like a dessert, that makes you appreciate them while at the same time you feel like you’re meeting an old friend.
She also aims to keep nutrition in mind, never sacrificing the healthsupportive properties of a food through how she prepares it but instead trying to enhance them.
As a chef, she values diversity of flavor and appreciates that farms are bringing back the older varieties of heritage breeds, such as spelt. Baker approaches cooking respectful of the wisdom of tradition, but is also open to inspiration and reinvention. The kitchen uses the farm’s products whenever possible to create pickles, preserves and baked goods for their cozy Hello Café. They also use their events to bring local producers and chefs together.
Cedar Circle Farm’s field dinners and tastings feature fresh, seasonal fare inspired by the farm’s harvest and other local producers. Baker uses her culinary expertise to offer guests a variety of locally grown delights, which are served outdoors, on the banks of the beautiful Connecticut River. Tables are elegantly set with linens, china and silverware. If the weather is rainy, the festivities are celebrated under a protective tent. This is a very popular event and usually sells out well in advance.
Twice a year the farm hosts large community festivals, a strawberry feast on the last Sunday in June and a pumpkin festival on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend. The festivals are green events: If visitors arrive on foot or by bicycle, admission is free.
The farm’s annual Tomato Tasting by the River showcases beautiful heirloom tomatoes. Guests are able to sample a colorful rainbow of freshly picked tomatoes in the raw while the farm kitchen creatively prepares an assortment of tomato dishes. Each year the menu varies. The farm’s educational component offers tours of Cedar Circle’s buildings and fields to students from all over the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. Students have the opportunity to participate in many activities, including an Insect Safari, visiting the greenhouses and fields to see plants in all stages of development, or planting a seed and learning how to care for it before taking their seedling home.
At the local Thetford Elementary School, the students and staff are involved with a farm-to-school program organized by Cat Buxton, Cedar Circle’s education program director. Classrooms are matched with farmers by grade level and interest. The students and farmers become pen pals and correspond during the winter and spring, which offers the children a realistic picture of the life and work on the farm.
With help from the crew at Cedar Circle, the elementary school has started a community garden. In 2011, seven additional raised beds were added and maintained by members of the school. Some of the produce that is harvested from the garden is incorporated into the school’s healthy menu offerings. During the summer students, parents and volunteers from the community work side by side to keep the garden productive. The Thetford School’s farm friends have also helped them with an onsite composting facility, which gives the students hands-on involvement in the food cycle: seed to lunch to soil. These educational initiatives are offered to other community schools as well.
Education is the focal point of Cedar Circle Farm. Therefore, it is no surprise that they offer classes in cooking and gardening as well as bread baking. There is also a course in gluten-free baking, for those who so choose. Staff is available to teach interested participants how to turn fresh fruits and veggies into jams and sauces as well as pesto and pickles. The farm’s mission is to provide high-quality educational programming that raises public awareness about the important benefits of local organic agriculture, while educating nextgeneration farmers about sustainable organic growing methods. These collaborative efforts will help to increase access to high-quality organic food for everyone.
Those who are interested in being part of Cedar Circle’s CSA program can split a share with a friend or neighbor. There are also subsidized CSA shares for Vermonters who meet the financial eligibility guidelines. These shares are sold at half the cost for those who qualify. The farm also offers a fall CSA because its root-storage area allows for keeping crops in marketable condition throughout January. Cedar Circle Farm values its CSA program because it supports local farmers, strengthens the health of the community, allows children to explore new foods and encourages healthy eating habits while enabling participants to get to know the person who grows their food.
Cedar Circle Farm also offers “Bouquet Shares,” where its members can go to the farm once a week, for eight weeks, and cut their own bouquets from the cut-flower garden. The participants are able to choose from a lovely selection of flowers all summer long.
Currently, the farm is exploring alternative energy models with a focus on both energy production and conservation. They have 24 solar panels and are experimenting with a clean-burn furnace in one of the main vegetable greenhouses. This furnace burns vegetable oil for fuel. Crew members may be seen at local restaurants picking up used vegetable oil, which has been donated by the eatery.
The farm uses horsepower (the animal kind) to prepare the soil and plant seed. Whenever possible, horse-drawn wagon rides are used for farm tours and the farm employs smaller tractors that conserve on fuel.
Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center is open from May thru October. During the winter, the staff members attend workshops and conferences. They visit other farms around the country and world to learn more about finding alternatives to fossil fuels, as well as new ways of improving farming techniques. The dedicated crew knows that when spring arrives they will again embark on another agricultural voyage of discovery, which is making organic farming, sustainability and the value of eating healthy, nutritious food their daily practice.