A Growing Family

Sprouting from Vermont Roots

by Phyl Newbeck

settlers0519Biologist Christa Alexander and Mark Fasching, a conservation steward, launched Jericho Settlers Farm in 2002 as a side business. Today, the full-time farmers serve a wide wholesale and retail market for organic vegetables, flowers, and herbs; eggs; meats; and a year-round CSA program. Gem is their border collie.

When Christa Alexander and Mark Fasching moved to Jericho in 1998, the plan was to spend the winter at her childhood home and then return to the Pacific Northwest. Things didn’t work out quite as they planned. Alexander remembered why she had loved her hometown, and Fasching, while initially missing the big vistas of Washington, soon felt comfortable there.

The pair found full-time jobs in their fields: Alexander as an aquatic habitat biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Fasching as a conservation steward with the Vermont Land Trust. The jobs were fulfilling, but they yearned for something a bit more, and in 2002 they started Jericho Settlers Farm as a side business. Today, they have six full-time employees, six to eight seasonal assistants, a year-round CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, and a presence in stores across Chittenden and Washington counties.

Alexander grew up at the farm’s main site on Barber Farm Road. The land had been a dairy farm before her parents purchased it, but aside from a vegetable garden and backyard horses, the family didn’t make full use of the premises. Her father was a physician, and her mother volunteered at the local schools while raising Alexander and her three siblings.

After graduating from Mount Mansfield Union High School, Alexander headed to Williams College where she majored in biology with a concentration in environmental studies. “I was fascinated with living things and how life works,” she says, “but I had no idea where I wanted to go with it.” She moved to Washington where she worked as a private consultant doing fish and wildlife surveys.

Fasching grew up in Port Angeles, Washington, but his parents divorced when he was young and he moved with his father to the eastern part of the state. The family had a subsistence farm with vegetables, hay, chickens, pigs, steers, and a milking cow.

“I had to pick up rocks from the field all the time,” he recalls, “and I hated it. The day after high school graduation I moved back to Port Angeles.” He spent two years at Peninsula Community College before earning a degree in liberal arts from Evergreen College. For three seasons, he banded spotted owls at Olympic National Park. He joined a consulting firm in Seattle, where he met Alexander while studying the marbled murrelet. They spent a year in Portland, Oregon, but when Alexander suggested moving back to Vermont, Fasching was willing to give it a try.

The more time they spent farming, the more they enjoyed it. “We realized we had to either hire someone or essentially hire ourselves,” says Alexander. In 2005, when their first child, Asa, was born, she left her job to devote full time to farming. Two years later, Fasching left his job, as well.

“By then the farm could support us and the market for local product was growing exponentially,” Alexander says. “We couldn’t grow enough to meet demand.”

They express thanks for what they deem an extensive Vermont network of assistance for farmers. “We knew how to grow things,” Alexander says, “but not how to make it a viable business.” She credits the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s Farm Viability Program, plus the Vermont Farm Fund established by Peter Johnson of Pete’s Greens, which provided mentoring and low-interest loans.

Richard Wiswall of the Cate Farm in East Montpelier mentored Alexander and Fasching through the Farm Viability Program. “I met them in the kitchen of her parents’ house,” he recalls. “At the time they had an acre of production and full-time off-farm jobs, but they wanted to do more.”

Wiswall says he is impressed by how quickly the couple grew their business. “I’m a big fan,” he says, “because they really launched their business and took it to a high level very quickly. People can aspire to their model of success, and they are living proof you can make a good living farming.”

Alexander and Fasching started their first CSA in 2005 with a winter share that ran from October to January. That was followed by a summer share, which started in late May or early June. In 2009, they closed the gap with a spring CSA.

“We tried to keep it diverse and interesting but simple enough to manage,” Alexander says. “The CSA has always been a core part of our business, and one of the most enjoyable parts for me, because it’s direct interaction with the community. It’s important that people have access to the farm and can ask questions.”

Jericho Settlers Farm initially sold vegetables from a table at the side of the road, but in 2003, Alexander’s mother renovated an 1860s English sheep barn on the property to create an art gallery, and the couple took advantage of the renovation to build a year-round farm stand. In 2017, they started a farm stand in Richmond, which is open from May through October. In the early years, they attended farmers’ markets, but they stepped away from that four years ago as they transitioned to increasing wholesale.

“We found a few categories where we could be labor-efficient,” Alexander says. “We’d always done a certain amount of wholesale, but now it is up to 70 percent of our business, with CSA sales staying roughly the same.” Their vegetables are certified organic and their environmental ethic is evident in the solar panel array that helps power the farm.

Alexander is thankful they had a head start in their farming. “We were fortunate in being able to start here on my parents’ land,” she says. “That was a great advantage.” Subsequently, they leased or purchased other parcels, and currently use land on Barber Farm Road and at the bottom of Schillhammer Road in Jericho, plus the Peet Farm in Richmond.

Alexander describes the business as “plateauing.” Although they keep crops on 25 acres, they have an additional 80 acres for forage and grazing, rotating every four or five years.

“We’ve found a nice balance of wholesale/retail,” she says. “The margin on retail is nicer but it’s more work, although I do enjoy the community interaction. I think we’re finding a good balance for our skill set and enjoyment.”

Although they are not interested in adding more land, they have been adding hoop houses and other buildings on the property they own, including a huge barn for cold storage of thousands of pounds of produce over the winter. They credit Dan Noyes at Richmond Home Supply for his assistance with those projects. They have 14 hoop houses and are building five more, which will give them roughly an acre and a half under plastic.

They live a short distance from Alexander’s childhood home. In addition to Asa, now 14, they have a 9-year-old daughter named Hazel.

In his spare time, Fasching enjoys mountain biking and making Windsor chairs. For the past 14 years, Alexander has coached the adult members of the Mansfield Nordic team at the Ethan Allen Firing Range. “It’s my winter therapy,” she says. Coaching is another way for her to interact with the community. The community apparently appreciates that, because when some of the farm’s land was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene, a wide variety of people stepped in to help.

“A lot of them weren’t customers,” Alexander says, “but this is a tight-knit community and people were really supportive. There’s a lot of appreciation and support for agriculture in Vermont.”

Chuck Lacy of Jericho was just launching his company, Hardwick Beef, when Alexander and Fasching were starting their farm. “Mark and Christa marketed the beef I produced,” he says. “What I find interesting is they don’t have formal training in agriculture. They’re really smart and they figure things out on both the growth side and the marketing side.”

Lacy says he’s also impressed by the couple’s willingness to share their equipment and expertise with others. “They are real contributors to this generation’s network of farmers,” he says.

“I love what I do,” says Alexander. “Every day when I get up, I want to go to work. I love working hard and love being tired because I did something worthwhile.” She notes that sometimes it’s hard to separate her personal life from her work, but she doesn’t mind. “I love the mental challenge of balancing everything.”

Fasching admits it was scary when they initially left full-time jobs with benefits, but neither one regrets the decision. “It would be hard for me to work for someone else,” he says. “Farming is a lot of moving materials around and problem-solving. My office changes every day.”

He credits the farm’s customers for their support. “This is a great community to be in,” he says. “That’s what kept us going. Some days I’m surprised we made it this far, but we must be doing something right.”

Alexander says she’s happy to have a job that has tangible consequences for others. “I wanted to do something where my actions every day were producing something worthwhile that people needed. I was fed up with excess consumerism. This is my way of trying to produce something that everybody needs in a way that keeps the land in good shape for generations to come.” •