Cultivating the Unexpected
There’s nothing like farm chasing at the height of the growing season in Vermont. Cruising with the windows down, past farm and field, the roadsides donning a sash of goldenrod that seems go on to infinity. Thanks to Open Farm Week anyone can take the opportunity to meet some Vermont farmers on their own turf and dig more deeply into the agricultural landscape that surrounds us. As a destination, Ardelia was top of our list, allured as we were by the floral bouquets and sumptuous sweets we’d seen at the Burlington Farmers’ Market and on our Instagram feeds. We couldn’t pass up a chance to look behind the scenes, and our screens, into Farmers Bailey Hale and Thomas McCurdy’s unique world of blooms and baked goods. Especially on such a gorgeous day in August.
As we turned our car into the dirt driveway of the Irasburg farm, I expected to enter a scene straight out of the pages of Home and Garden. Not surprisingly, the couple has already graced the pages of notable publications with images of their exceptionally good-looking products. (The gents are both well-spoken and photogenic, to boot.) But our expectations of aesthetic perfection met with something delightfully more nuanced: real life. The fact is, Ardelia is a working farm, with all the signs of earthy, task-driven living which had paused only momentarily between chores and projects to welcome guests of Open Farm Week in to take a peak.
We drove passed a paint-chipped farmhouse, overgrown weeds, a pen of pigs, and lopsided barn, on down to the opening of a large meadow. There we parked in the makeshift lot beside two impressive hoop houses that held inside a lovely contradiction—delicate, frilly, sweet peas. It’s a curious thing to see these early-spring flowers thriving in August. Really, it’s unheard of. But there they were in pale hues of pink, purple, yellow, and white, towering two stories above us.
Ardelia is not your typical Vermont farm. It’s flowers, it’s food, it’s community, and for Hale and McCurdy it’s a culmination of their personal and professional lives that, with every year, keeps evolving. Broadly speaking, these men represent a new generation of Vermont farmers who are using their land and their expertise in innovative, relevant ways to make their living.
Their story began in Philadelphia’s Center City in 2011. Hale, who was juggling two careers, one as a floral designer and another as an opera singer, drew quiet enjoyment from growing vegetables, keeping bees, and raising chickens in the vacant lot adjacent to his apartment. McCurdy had a successful career as a trained pastry chef and after meeting Hale, also took to these hobbies. With their shared passion for food and an awareness around food politics, cultivating and growing what they ate became increasingly important. When city officials came knocking to confiscate their illegal chickens, it was Hale who posed the idea of ditching the city for a life of farming.
“I thought he was crazy,” McCurdy admits. “Growing up in North Dakota the only farms I’d ever seen were 10,000-acre soybean farms, where anyone who is a farmer is one only because their dad and grandad were farmers. The idea of someone deciding to become one? I had never even heard of that before.”
It took very little convincing before McCurdy fell in love with the idea but it was only a matter of months before the two found themselves on a rented plot of land in central New York raising goats, pigs, and chickens. With no savings to speak of, the couple worked multiple jobs, spending every extra penny at the feed store. “We were losing our shirts,” recalls Hale. They soon realized it made more sense to own a farm. Around that same time, Hale’s grandmother, Ardelia, passed away at the age of ninety-eight, leaving an inheritance to all of her grandchildren. This gift afforded the young farmers an opportunity to buy the farm they’d been dreaming of. But finding affordable acreage—that was the challenge.
The now-married couple started searching for farmland around central New York, inevitably broadening their scope until they reached the far northeast corner of rural Vermont, also known as the Northeast Kingdom. They first looked at the farmhouse in Irasburg under a thick covering of snow and ice. The fifty-acre property had once been a vibrant dairy farm, but along with many other such farms in Vermont, it fell into disrepair with the decline of the industry. Hale and McCurdy made their bid and in March of 2014 loaded up two trailers worth of belongings and livestock to head north.
Naming the farm after Grandmother Ardelia made perfect sense for more than one reason. In Hebrew, Ardelia means blooming meadow and while there are only ninety frost-free days in that region of Vermont, on our visit in August, the farm was indeed very much in bloom. Despite the odds and the short growing season, the couple has found their rhythm with the swing of seasons and over the last five years, they have fine-tuned their vision by responding to the market in order to develop multiple revenue streams. This flexibility and creativity has proven key to making their farm not just function but thrive.
There is the baked-goods operation, which McCurdy helms, producing high-quality desserts from made-to-order wedding cakes to their signature assortments of sweets such as brownies, cookies, scones, and more. All are made from scratch with choice local ingredients, and they typically sell out daily at the Burlington Farmers’ Market from early spring to late October. The bakery continues at full speed through the holidays with their mail-order business and then slows down for a period until the market cycle picks up in the spring.
On the flower side, Hale is busy in the summer months with floral design for events, and farming blooms that thrive best in the crisper temps of the Northeast Kingdom—peonies, anemones, ranunculus. The one flower that claims more and more of the farm’s real estate each year (three hoop houses and counting) are those beguiling sweet peas. The fact is, you cannot find a sweet pea blooming in August anywhere else , except for in Japan. That’s given Ardelia a corner on the market. Reps from the New York City flower district made a recent visit to Irasburg to see their sweet pea operation firsthand and committed to buying all of Ardelia’s high-quality, long-stem sweet peas. The demand has prompted the couple to ratchet up production considerably.
When the frost hits, Bailey switches gears from farming to another niche: flower brokering. This latest business venture all started from his own difficulty both in getting certain unique varieties to grow for his cut-flower operation and in getting them in quantities that made sense for his business. Bailey saw the disconnect between the small-volume needs of cut-flower farmers like himself and the high-volume needs of the plug growers (in horticulture, plugs are the seedlings of plants that are later transplanted). He now bridges the gap between the two by communicating directly with a large network of professionals in the floral-design industry. He organizes and bundles orders of plugs from cut-flower farmers that he then sends to a plug grower. It’s a win-win-win for all parties. While Hale brokers a number of plug varieties, Lisianthus represent the bulk of his business. These rose-like blooms are notorious for being finicky and take a long time to grow, therefore farmers are particularly keen on getting strong, established plugs rather than starting from seed. Along with the brokering biz, winter is also prime time for Hale and McCurdy to fulfill seed orders coming in for their coveted sweet peas.
Between baked goods, floral design, farming, and plug brokering, you might think Hale and McCurdy have enough on their plates. But no, the two continue to explore ways they can turn their passions into new projects and their latest literally requires even more plates. McCurdy has started Fifty-Two Dinners, his 2019 endeavor of hosting fifty-two dinner parties in one year, that he muses might transpire into something bigger down the line. A book, perhaps? For now it’s another creative outlet motivated by simple enjoyment. You can find real-time documentation of the project on the Instagram feed by the same name (@fifty.two.dinners). In his launch post, McCurdy writes, “I’ve realized in recent years that few things bring me more joy than planning and hosting special meals for friends.” With two freezers full of their own pasture-raised meat and a pantry stocked with ingredients from their land and local farms, they have set themselves up nicely for the challenge. As for ourselves, we hope to attend one of the fifty-two dinners. Maybe next time, we’ll visit Ardelia under a covering of snow and ice to sit at a table adorned with improbable blooms, really good food, and a fine dessert.