The Barber Farm has stood in the town of Jericho longer than the United States has been a country — its soil was first turned in 1774 — but were it not for a chance meeting about six years ago at a film festival, the farm might have vanished into memory.
The connection happened in Burlington at the Vermont International Film Festival, a rights-and-causes event that had booked a low-budget documentary called “The Barber Farm” (locals often use “the” when describing the place). The movie had been made by Gretchen Siegchrist, 33, then a film student whose family had deep ties to the land going back to the 1940s. Part homage, part cry for help, Siegchrist’s film outlined the rich history of the farm as well as its current dilemma: It was an exceptional piece of Vermont farmland, but for almost two decades it had lain fallow. With no one willing to farm it commercially, time was running out.
In the festival audience, as it happened, was Mark Fasching of Jericho Settlers’ Farm, a new-school diversified farm operating less than two miles from Barber Farm. Fasching and his wife, Christa Alexander, had been looking to expand their operation, but had no idea there was land available nearby. “I grew up picking strawberries there,” Alexander recalls. “I knew it was there, but I didn’t know they were looking to transition.”
In the spring of 2007, Alexander and Fasching began farming a trial plot on the Barber property. At the time, the filmmaker’s grandmother, Doris Marshall, was still alive, and as the matriarch of the clan, she was presiding over the fate of the farm. It was ultimately her decision, but there were her five adult children to consider, and naturally, they had their own lives, their own priorities, and could well imagine the income generated by selling at the full appraised value rather than the lesser revenue from a conservation deal. Located within easy commuting distance to Burlington and Essex Junction, the land was worth more to grow subdivisions than food. “My mother wanted two things that didn’t match up,” explains Jean Siegchrist, Marshall’s daughter and mother of Gretchen, the filmmaker. “She wanted to give as much as she could to her children, and she wanted to keep the farm open,” Jean says. “At a certain time there was so much friction, we couldn’t even sit down to discuss it.”
By the winter of 2008, Marshall had decided to dig in and make a last push to restore the farm to active agricultural operation. Despite financial uncertainty, and the wishes of some family members, she sold the 148-acre property to Jean and her husband, Charlie, who had been living in the main farmhouse since the early 1980s.
“We had worked the land ourselves,” Jean says. “We had come to appreciate and love it. We had a glimmer but no guarantee of a land trust deal. We just had to take the chance.”
The effort to save Barber Farm, as it turns out, was not as quixotic as it might seem, and soon many strands of Vermont life began to intertwine: land trust organizations, voters at town meeting, area residents, and out-of-staters who had spent summers on the farm over the years.
As a critical first step, Jericho Settlers’ Farm signed a 10-year lease with the Siegchrists, giving Barber Farm a link to Vermont’s
thriving new-school farm movement.
With the assurance of a committed farming tenant, the Vermont Land Trust purchased a conservation easement for $240,000, a little less than half the property’s appraised development value. The land can be sold but never developed, and if the potential buyer is not a farmer, the land trust can buy the farm at its agricultural value.
The purchase and associated costs were funded by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, supplemented by $34,200 raised jointly by the Vermont Land Trust and the Jericho Underhill Land Trust — including $13,000 voted by town residents from Jericho’s Open Space fund, as well as almost 100 donations ranging from as large as $2,700 to as small as $10.
Barber Farm also received help from its many far-flung friends. Generations of families had vacationed there since the early 1900s, when it was owned by summer resident Charles Ezra Scribner, a pioneering telephone switchboard engineer from Chicago. Two summer cottages on the property are still owned by Scribner’s descendants. “People called from all over — from California, from Canada,” says Livy Strong, board president of the Jericho Underhill Land Trust.
“The farm means so much to so many people who had spent summers there; it had been such a part of their lives.”
Doris Marshall died three summers ago, at age 95, but she lived to see the farm enter a new chapter in its 238-year history. “It’s like anything else, it doesn’t stay the same. Nothing stays the same,” she told granddaughter Gretchen, who is filming a sequel about the farm’s recent passage. But, she added, “The land has stayed the same.”
On what would be her mother’s last Mother’s Day, Jean Siegchrist took her on a ride around the farm and recalls how happy Marshall was to see the land active again, the fields lush with vegetables, dotted with cattle, sheep and hundreds of free-ranging chickens. “She saw all these animals making the fields beautiful again. She loved that,” Jean says.
Gil Livingston, president of the Vermont Land Trust, describes the Barber Farm effort as a “cutting edge” example of 21st-century conservation, an empowering model involving grass-roots support of the working landscape. “We’re increasingly helping young farmers to establish themselves,” he says. “Access to land is among the highest barriers, particularly good soil in proximity to Burlington, with its markets and people.”
The land seems as promising now as it did in Colonial times. On a hot August afternoon, Mark Fasching strides across the fields explaining how Barber Farm’s fine, rock-free soil and slightly longer growing season complements Jericho Settlers’ home farm. The summer squashes are winding down, the hayloft is piled high with garlic bulbs drying and the crew is about to transplant fall and early winter head lettuce and scallions. Working this farm, Fasching says, “has propelled us to the next level.” A