By Melissa Pasanen, "Farm-Fresh Picnic,"July/August 2010
Traffic across the railroad tracks in Burlington, Vermont is brisk on summer Thursday afternoons as cyclists, walkers and cars head to the Intervale. Many come with baskets filled with picnic-ready dishes like our Grilled Shrimp Skewers over White Bean Salad. A band plays by the historic farmhouse and barn, picnic blankets patchwork the grass as farmers walk from their fields to set up heirloom-tomato tastings and women in colorful African clothing sell food made with vegetables they grew nearby. Children zigzag between friends and a local beekeeper explains the importance of protecting our pollinators.
Twenty-five years ago, Burlington’s city dwellers crossing the tracks would have seen derelict farms, illegal junkyards and a city dump choking the once fertile Winooski River floodplain. In 1986, a massive clean-up project initiated by local businessman and environmentalist Will Raap and his Gardener’s Supply Company removed hundreds of abandoned cars and almost 1,000 tires. “We had moved the company to the site of an abandoned slaughterhouse and next to a struggling dairy farm, remnants of the Intervale’s centuries-long proud history as Burlington’s farming and food hub,” Raap explains. “We vowed to rebuild it into ‘Burlington’s Farm’ and create a catalyst to bring food production back closer to kitchen tables.”
Raap went on to create a nonprofit that guided the transformation of 350 acres into an award-winning model of sustainability with a dozen farms and 150 community garden plots; a conservation nursery and gleaning project; incubator and business programs that have supported over 100 Vermont farms; and a Food Hub, a CSA of sorts, which coordinates year-round weekly deliveries between two dozen farms and customers at more than 20 area workplaces. Starting this fall, for about $20 a week students at the University of Vermont can get deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables from the Food Hub too.
The rich soil now produces 1 million pounds of fresh produce annually, many bushels of which make their way into local schools and to Burlington’s emergency food shelf. The Intervale’s success has inspired similar projects from North Carolina to Montana. “Many older cities on or near rivers have these fertile floodplains where you’re not allowed to build,” says Raap, “and they could be used to grow food.”
Today, people cross the tracks to forage for wild foods, pick organic blueberries, collect community-supported-agriculture shares and meet people like Abbey Duke, who offers samples of salads from Sugarsnap, her farm-based takeout restaurant perched at the Intervale’s entrance. The green beans and bronze fennel, cherry tomatoes and purple basil are all grown on Sugarsnap’s own farm just a five-minute bike ride away. “The Intervale was really why I wanted to start a business like this,” says Duke. “It’s an incredible resource right in the city.”
Or they might meet Asha Abdille—a gardener in the New Farms for New Americans project run by a local refugee organization with Intervale Center support—sharing samosas made in the style of her native Somalia, filled with homegrown onions, peppers and carrots. Abdille grows vegetables mostly for her family, she says, but also welcomes any income made selling extras at Intervale Thursdays and the farmers’ market. “When my children eat the food I bring home from the garden, I feel comfortable because I grew it and I know where it comes from,” Abdille explains. “The food is fresh and the kids are happy.”