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

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
One of the main Shelburne Farms buildings as it appeared in 1981.

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!