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Growing to Give in Vermont

Jericho, Vermont farmers grow organic produce to supply local food banks and families in need

by Amy Overstreet, September 2021

Up a steep, winding driveway in Jericho, Vermont, sits the Barber Farm. Founded in 1774, it was the third settled property in the town. The family website highlights the rich history of the farm. In 1868, Civil War Colonel Edgar Barber began farming with his wife at the Jericho property. Wounded in the war, Barber’s ability to farm was limited, and a cousin suggested that he capitalize on his beautiful rural setting by inviting city folk to stay at his pristine farm to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. By the late 1800s, the Barbers were successful early pioneers of agri-tourism, hosting guests from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Fast forward to today, where the farm is now a non-profit owned and operated by Vermont natives and husband-and-wife team Charlie and Jean Siegchrist.

On their website, their mission states, “We grow and give away tons of organic produce to help feed hungry Vermonters.” Their efforts are done without salaries or benefits and they “rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to get the produce to its needful recipients.” Jean’s family has managed the farm since 1942 when her father, a former employee at the farm, purchased the acreage and operated it as a dairy.

In addition to serving their community with fresh food donations, Charlie and Jean are dedicated to protecting and improving the natural resources on and around their small farm. Their crops are organically grown, with no synthetic fertilizer, weed or pest control. “Healthy crops come from healthy soil, which gives sustainability to our farm,” says the couple. They worked with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Vermont to stabilize eroding log roads and stream crossings in their forest and discussed alternatives for combating invasive species. They also established cover crops in their gardens to improve soil health. NRCS Soil Conservationist Danny Peet says he’s worked with the family primarily to offer technical assistance which Charlie indicates was extremely valuable. “Charlie wanted to plant trees and shrubs to help combat erosion, and he implemented the cover crops on his own.” Danny also noted that there were cows previously wintering on the property via a leasing arrangement that Charlie had with another farmer. “Now, with the animals gone in the winter, the land has healed on its own and is growing great grasses. The rest is used for cropland to cultivate the vegetables.” With fine, sandy soils, their conservation efforts are helping protect and improve the water quality in nearby Mill Brook to the Winooski River.

Charlie and Jean wed in 1973, and were living in Charlie’s hometown of Randolph, Vermont. Jean says it was there that her husband began cultivating the land by growing strawberries on 14 acres. “Once the house was built, he cared for the land, and started putting in strawberries--lots of them!” she remarked. She noted that he hand-planted 5,000 berries! Then in 1979, they returned to Jean’s hometown of Jericho to live at Barber Farm where the couple planted 70,000 berries in one year. After 10 years growing produce, Charlie then shifted his energy to landscape design which he did for 25 years.

In 2009, the couple made the decision to use their farm to serve their local community. They made their first large donation—9,000 pounds of potatoes—to the Vermont Food Bank. For over a decade, the couple has dedicated themselves and the resources on  their farm to growing several acres of organic vegetables for distribution to food banks. They have cultivated and donated peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, winter and summer squash, green and yellow beans, pumpkins, and more. They previously grew potatoes but are taking a break “because of the beetles that decimated them,” explains Charlie. Their work is done alongside a devoted band of volunteers, including young adults from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps who pitch in to help harvest and donate a vegetable share to 425 client families designated by hospitals across the state. They also have worked with Salvation Farms, a gleaning organization.

“The pandemic has made people more interested in local foods,” notes Charlie. When asked about his motivation, he says, “I love it. Can’t wait to get going each day. Wake at dawn, walk the crops, come in at noon and nap and then work until supper.” And Jean shares a similar sentiment about their devotion to stewardship. “The families here before us weren’t just using the land, they were caring for it.” The Siegchrists’ stewardship also led them to sell development rights to ensure their acreage remains farmland forever through a permanent conservation easement. Charlie concludes, “There are a lot of mouths to feed in this world.”

Charlie and Jean are dedicated to protecting and improving the natural resources on and around their small farm and ensuring that hungry Vermonters are fed.