Inventiveness, variety, and hard work keep this farm growing
by Heleigh Bostwick and Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Since 1986, Eugenie Doyle and Sam Burr have evolved the 280-acre Monkton property they call The Last Resort Farm from a dairy operation to growing organic produce that includes pick-your-own berries of all kinds, vegetables, garlic, and even ginger.
It’s possible to get exhausted just reading about the exploits of Sam Burr and Eugenie Doyle, the owners of The Last Resort Farm in Monkton. Since 1980, they have farmed together, raised three children, created inventive sustainable operations, and worked outside the farm in law and publishing, all the while caring for the land and the culture it supports.
Burr and Doyle were at Harvard at the same time, he studying anthropology and she an English major at Radcliffe (then the women’s college at Harvard). But they didn’t meet until 1979, after Burr moved to Vermont to live with his sister, a goat farmer in Brookfield.
After receiving his bachelor of arts in 1973, Burr decided he wanted to farm, and left for California’s San Joaquin Valley for two years. “I was one of the few Anglos on the crew and it was very hard work,” he recalls. “We worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. except Saturdays, when we got off at 5 p.m.”
Missing the seasons, he moved to east Tennessee and briefly worked on a dairy farm before returning to his native Massachusetts to study at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts for a year.
He then moved to Vermont, living with his sister and worked on neighboring dairy farms until 1978, when he bought some cows and rented a farm in East Randolph.
A native of New York City, Doyle came to Vermont in 1974 to teach environmental education at the Union Elementary School in Montpelier. She became an intern at the goat farm to learn more about farming and carpentry, she says, “and they were building a milk house. Sam and I met at the goat farm.”
They decided to look for a place together and, in 1980, bought a small dairy farm in Brookfield, which they now refer to as the “first Last Resort Farm.”
“It was the antithesis of a resort — the small barn and the house were falling down” says Doyle with a laugh. “It was a small farm with 28 cows and only six acres of tillable land. There wasn’t even enough land to raise the feed for the cows, so we had to rent hay land.”
At the time there wasn’t a market for organic milk, adds Burr, and it became clear that 28 cows weren’t enough to make a living. When the development rights to the rented hay land were sold, they didn’t have enough acreage for it, so they looked for another place.
They found the “second Last Resort Farm” in Monkton — a 280-acre dairy operation owned by Bill and Florence Shattuck, whose family had farmed the land for five generations — and bought it in 1986.
Not only was there 100 acres of tillable land, there was a barn large enough for 60 cows, trees that were ready to be logged, and a large sugarbush — “a lot more potential for a successful business,” says Doyle.
They started growing berries and a few vegetables. In 1992, they sold the farm’s development rights and the property was put into a conservation easement with the Addison County Community Trust and Vermont Land Trust.
“It was a business decision that would enable us to pay off the mortgage and preserve the farm for future generations of farmers,” says Doyle, adding that the land will remain in agricultural use in perpetuity and can only be sold to another farmer or private landowner.
“We sold the development rights so we could keep farming,” says Burr.
After selling the Jersey milk cows in 1994, they expanded the berry and vegetable operation. “The dairy cows provided a year-round income, but we weren’t making enough money,” Burr explains, adding that the two of them had a hard time envisioning farming life without cows.
Doyle went back to school in 1993 and earned her master of fine arts in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 1995. When she was finished, Burr attended the Northeastern School of Law in Boston and was awarded his J.D. in 1998.
For the next 10 years he was employed by the Vermont Legislative Council, working with various senate and house committees, one of which was the committee on agriculture and forest products.
“Sam was instrumental in doing the legal work — pro bono — for NOFA [the Northeastern Organic Farming Association] to become an accredited organic certifying organization when the national organic program was implemented in 2002,” says Enid Wonnacott, executive director of NOFA Vermont. She has known Doyle and Burr professionally and personally for 25 years.
“Both Sam and Eugenie have contributed to Vermont having a strong organic farm community, from farmers’ markets to community-supported agriculture,” she says.
Doyle serves on the boards of the Richmond and Bristol farmers’ markets and participated in focus groups on how to revitalize them. “Not all vendors participate, but she’s made a point to do so,” Burr says.
Everything at the farm except for the sap is certified organically grown. “When we started out, organic agriculture was just getting started,” says Doyle. People appreciate high quality food without poison in it. We felt we were in the right place at the right time, especially with our organic strawberries.
“As vegetable farms go we are very small compared to Pete’s Greens or Full Moon Farm. The secret to our success is having really high-quality produce and good relationships with stores and customers.”
Jane Dorney of Richmond is a longtime customer who picks between 20 and 30 quarts of berries a season and buys canning tomatoes from Doyle. “Strawberries are what brought us to her,” she says. “I love that the strawberries are organic, and it was nice to see her bringing vegetables to the market, too.”
During the growing season the couple hires local students. “We’re committed to educating local kids about farming,” Doyle says. “So few kids are growing up on farms. When we moved here there were 20 dairy farms; now there are three.”
Doyle started a “Farming in Monkton” writing contest at the elementary school in memory of Bill Shattuck, and is a correspondent for Farm Pen Pals, a farm-to-community mentor program run by NOFA.
All of the farm’s produce is sold locally. “About one-third is sold at Healthy Living and City Market, the farm stand and pick-your-own account for about 40 percent, and about 20 percent is sold at farmers’ markets,” says Doyle, who handles selling at farmers’ markets in Richmond and Bristol. Burr does the washing and preparation work for fruits and vegetables heading to Burlington markets.
There’s been increased competition at farmers’ markets, Doyle says. “We added what we call a farm share program to our marketing mix about five years ago.” There are two share programs: small ($100) and large ($300).
“How it works is that people prepay $100 and get $110 worth of produce,” says Burr. What’s unusual is that with Last Resort’s shares, people can buy whatever they want.
“If they want to come in June and buy $110 of strawberries they can,” Doyle says. “If they don’t like kale they don’t have to get it. They can get all berries.”
The list of produce is long and besides strawberries, includes gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, and currants plus asparagus, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.
“There’s been an evolution of technology, supplies, and equipment for small-scale vegetable and fruit growers over the years, like the hoop houses that have extended the growing season,” says Burr. One of their two hoop houses was about half full of fresh ginger last year.
All three of their children, Silas and Caleb, 26-year-old identical twins, and Nora, 29, work at the farm, but only Silas is full time. Caleb is in medical school and Nora is a journalist at the Hardwick Gazette.
Silas was awarded a Working Lands grant through the state of Vermont last year and is in the process of setting up an aquaponics system in the barn using the old silo base.
“It’s a closed system that combines trout with hydroponic plants,” says Burr. “The waste from the trout will fertilize the plants.” They hope to provide a year-round supply of greens for the farm share, “and, of course, trout,” Burr adds.
There is also a plan for raising beef. The idea, says Burr, is to use the 80 acres of pasture for grazing while providing composted fertilizer for the fields. They used to rent the pasture to nearby dairy farms, but low milk prices made that expensive for the farmers.
Whether Silas continues to be involved is a key factor, says Doyle. “Silas is going to decide in the next couple of years whether to become a partner or go on to greener pastures.”
After they sold their cows, Doyle says, she imagined spending her winters writing. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but since she began writing seriously in 1993, she’s managed to publish two novels and has a picture book coming out next year.
Doyle’s short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Rush Hour, and she won the Glimmer Train Award for New Writers for Red Flag in 1996. She also teaches students at the Champlain College Young Writers Conference and the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf.
A breast cancer survivor, Doyle paddles with a Dragonheart Vermont boat crew. “We’re national champions and are going to Italy in September for an international competition,” she says, adding that she keeps fit doing yoga and ballet — “as well as farming,” she quips.
Burr, who gave up his law license in 2010, serves on the town planning commission and an agricultural and natural areas committee and recently took up yoga himself.
“Sam is a lifelong learner,” says Doyle, joking that with all of her activities, someone needs to take care of the farm. •