Growing in Another Direction

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

Vt. Couple to Launch Training Farm Devoted to Organics

HIGHGATE, Vt. — Eric Noel is leaving the farm again, and he’s taking a big piece of it with him.

Eric and his wife, Hannah, both 37, own Maplewood Organics, a 300-acre organic farm in Highgate, Vt., that produces grass-fed beef and 3 acres of vegetables sold to families through community-supported agriculture.

Eric grew up on this farm. His parents, Richard and Maggie, bought it on Gore Road in 1972; their name still graces a silo on the property. The farmhouse is dated 1836. Eric and Hannah live there with their children: Calvin, 5, and Madeleine, 8.

The elder Noels milked 75 to 80 cows on their traditional 200-acre dairy farm until Richard, 65, retired in 1999. A decade later, after living outside Vermont, Eric and Hannah were successfully operating Maplewood Organics on the Noel farm, as Richard and Maggie retained ownership; they still do.

Eric and Hannah will be on a different Vermont farm next year, but instead of selling products, they will educate and train others about organics.

They seek a 30- to 100-acre homestead, which they will buy with a retired Maryland couple who wants to move to Vermont for simplicity and invest in a small farm, but let a young couple run it.

The farm would produce food for the home, the Noels explained, but it would also be a hands-on teaching farm with internships — which Maplewood Organics already offers — classes held in a communal kitchen and workshops.

A farm manager would handle daily duties, so that the Noels could work toward becoming key figures and resources in organics. They are quickly earning attention in the arena.

Hannah recently launched Organic Life Magazine, an online publication for iPad users. She and Eric also host a local public access TV show, with an aim on national syndication, and they will spend this winter writing a book about organics. Eric also started hitting the lecture circuit in 2010.

“We’re trying to create a model,” he said, while seated with Hannah in their kitchen. “We’re basically going to present ourselves as authorities on this.”

The Vermont farmer’s need to diversify under economic stress and a strong movement toward eating healthier have caused an organic boom in the Green Mountain State in recent years.

Resources abound there for someone that wants to be an organic farmer, especially through the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA), the University of Vermont Extension Service and the USDA.

However, the Noels said via email, “For the everyday person or homesteader, there’s not so much. There’s a spectrum of under-served people from the general public needing information about what organic means.”

When it comes to reading labels, knowing about seeds and soils, and the intricacies of caring for animals on an organic farm, “You’re basically on your own, learning through trial and error,” the Noels said. “Which is a great way to learn, but we have a better, quicker, more cost-efficient solution with our learning farm and homestead.”

Their move isn’t economical. Maplewood Organics is a strong business. The Noels wanted to stay in Franklin County, but the area is too rich in traditional dairy farming to produce a solid market for their teaching farm, they said.

Hannah is also from Highgate. She and Eric were childhood friends. She moved away in 1987, returned in 1998 and reconnected with Eric, who was working on his parents’ farm after spending two years in the automotive industry. (He has a degree in the field.)

Hannah had survived thyroid cancer by the time she and Eric wed on the Noel farm in 2000. A year later, they moved to Indiana, where Eric worked on an Indy car pit crew. They also switched to an organic diet, in the wake of Heather’s health issues. She got an internship on an organic vegetable farm.

“We really wanted to know what we were eating, and we started to think about this farm (in Highgate),” she said.

The Noels created a business plan for Maplewood Organics while in Indiana and started the years-long process of converting the Noel farm for organic use after they returned in 2003.

“It’s like somebody on drugs,” Eric said. “You pull them away, and everything crashes. It’s the same thing with organics. It’s not overnight. You can’t just take a traditional farm animal, stick them on grass and magically get an excellent grass-fed steak.”

The Noel farm was certified organic in 2007. Eric and Hannah took their “Maplewood Organics” name from an old creamery on the Noel farm.

About 200 of the 230 acres of fenced-in grassland at Maplewood Organics are used for crops. Richard will lease the farm to nearby organic dairy farmers after Eric and Hannah go, Eric said.

Leaving the farm is emotional for them, but they believe they found a niche market at the right time.

“We want to take this pretty big — mainstream,” Eric said. “I’d rather rely on this than the old model.”

The Noels said it would not sit well with their Gen-X psyches to stay in one place forever, just because it pays the bills. “That’s not living your life,” Eric said. “That’s stagnation — death. And then you just get miserable. I want to break that cycle.”

Hannah added, “It’s a little sad to move the kids, but it’s more important to show them that, to grow as people and a family, you sometimes have to make big changes. Don’t stop and settle.”<\c> Photos by Jennifer Williams

 

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Eric and Hannah Noel own Maplewood Organics in Highgate, Vt. The 30-something organic farmers are looking for a new farm, where they will refocus their work on training and educating others about organic farming, instead of selling their own products.

 

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In 1972, Eric Noel’s father, Richard, bought the Gore Road farm that now contains Maplewood Organics and ran it as a traditional dairy farm until he retired in 1999. Richard still owns the 300-acre farm property, which has 230 acres of fenced-in grassland for Maplewood Organics’ grass-fed beef.

 

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Fresh carrots picked at Maplewood Organics.


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