Shelburne Farms: From Experimental Farm to Non-Profit Educational Corporation

Founded as an experimental farm in the 1890s, the family that owned Shelburne Farms coped with the pressures driving it out of business in the early 1970s by turning it into an educational farm and non-profit corporation.

067 shelburne farms

One of the main Shelburne Farms buildings as it appeared in 1981.


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Shelburne Farms—which occupies some 1,700 rolling acres on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain—is hardly a typical family farm operation even though it has been owned by the same family for nearly 100 years. Shelburne began, you see, as a rich man's agricultural estate — an experimental farm put together by a person with enough time, money, and drive to seek agricultural perfection.

The land-use design for the property was done by Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York's Central Park. Owner William Seward Webb planted forests, raised livestock, grew field crops, and installed orchards. The enterprise flourished. By 1890, Shelburne Farms harvested rye, oats, and wheat; sold butter, milk, eggs, and apples to the New York markets; and had under construction greenhouses, dairy barns, and sheep and poultry pens.

Over the course of the next 70 years, Shelburne Farms always paid its own way. The small profit turned in during some years served to cancel out the minor losses incurred in others. By the 1960's, however, the agricultural estate began to look like a "white elephant" property. Taxes had risen and were continuing to rise, and the expansion of the nearby city of Burlington was rapidly driving up the price of land, which added to the tax burden.


When Shelburne's annual tax bill climbed to $50,000, Derick Webb—the farm's present owner—called a family meeting. He explained the economics of the situation, and then asked his children what they wanted to do with their inheritance. Unanimously, they chose to resist the easy money that could be had by developing the property for home sites. The family members all felt that their historic homestead was too valuable an agricultural, historic, and environmental resource to sell off piecemeal.

So in 1972—with money provided by the sale of an adjacent piece of land to the Nature Conservancy— ''Shelburne Farms Resources" was organized as a non-profit educational corporation. The goal of SFR is to develop an integrated use of the farm's assets ... employing the property to teach land management techniques, to experiment with new crops for the Northeast, and to apply primarily wholistic methods to relatively large-scale farming. The Webb family believed that Shelburne Farms could function as a magnet, attracting attention—because of its history, its architectural excellence, and its beauty—to innovative farm ideas.

The development of creative forms of crop marketing has also been important to Shelburne Farms. Several members of the Webb family helped to organize Vermont's first modern farmers' market so that growers would have a local outlet for their goods. And, in an even more innovative move, the owners leased space in the huge central structure known to everyone as the Farm Barn—to small enterprises that would use Shelburne products. These include a bakery (getting its flour from farm-grown wheat), a weaving shop (obtaining wool from the farm's sheep), and a cabinetmaker (working with wood from the estate's forest).

In a sense, Shelburne is reinventing the village for the post-hydrocarbon society that may well be a part of our future. There are even plans afoot to create a small group of homes on the farm, for folks who draw their living from the acreage!

Shelburne Farms hasn't overlooked agricultural innovation, either. The SFR has established a test plot of some 1,500 black walnut trees. representing 60 different varieties. The farm's organization—in cooperation with the University of Vermont—is examining the potential of this dual-purpose silviculture, in which an annual cash crop of nuts helps to pay costs while the trees grow to marketable timber size.

Fields of barley have been planted in an attempt to discover whether that grain can be grown for feed in New England as an alternative to corn. (Barley produces a lower yield than corn, but requires much less energy to grow.) And, for fertilizer, Shelburne—again, with the cooperation of the University of Vermont—is testing the use of sewage sludge. Furthermore, the farm boasts the state's only raw-milk dairy ... and will soon begin to generate methane from the cow manure produced by that operation.

Shelburne Farms is, then, an experiment in "re-regionalizing" ... in developing appropriate methods of responding to some of the problems facing America's family farms. By shifting their focus from a national market to a regional and local one, the Webbs have been able to revive some locally neglected techniques (such as the farmers' market) and to introduce new crops to what had become Vermont's milk monoculture. As teaching and example-setting operations like Shelburne Farms spring up across the country—and MOTHER EARTH NEWS firmly hopes and believes that they will—the family farm may find a new lease on life in America!