A Vermont Picnic

By Melissa Pasanen, "A Vermont Picnic," July/August 2008

A Meal to Celebrate Local Bounty.

The heirloom varieties of beans, tomatoes, potatoes and corn that would have been on the table are among the foods RAFT has deemed worth reinvigorating for their unique contributions to both our culinary and broader cultural heritage. “We, as humans, have not been given roots as obvious as those of plants,” says RAFT founder Gary Paul Nabhan. “The surest way we have to lodge ourselves within this blessed earth is to know where our food comes from.”

Anyone can play a role by searching out RAFT foods to grow or eat. Soon after Tom Stearns, 33, first started saving and growing heirloom seeds as a hobby in 1995, he was given some flint corn, which he named Roy’s Calais after the man and town from which it came. The next year his passion became his profession when Stearns established High Mowing Organic Seeds in northern Vermont, now a national mail-order organic seed company with over $1 million in annual sales. “Preservation is not just keeping something in a seed bank somewhere,” Stearns says. “Having someone actively farming it is the best way to preserve it.”

Farther south in Rutland, Vermont, Donald Heleba, 69, still works the land his family has farmed since 1926, growing about 35 different potatoes on eight acres without herbicides or mechanical harvesting. “I handsort 10,000 potatoes by myself,” Heleba says with quiet pride. “I’m not bragging, but I’m very particular.” His stock changes each year, but includes varieties like Green Mountain and Makah Ozette. Some don’t sell too well, but “I keep growing them just so I don’t lose the seed,” he says. Back when his father grew potatoes, Heleba recalls, “People bought them by the bushel. Now they buy them by the pound.” But other things are different too. “When I was in school, people used to make fun of you if you were a farmer,” he says. “It’s changed. Now they treat you like you’re special.”

—Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning freelance writer with a focus on food and farming. She co-authored Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont (Viking, 2007), a New York Times “notable cookbook.”

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