BIRCH HILL FARM
Has the farm become a relic, or can it become something new? An old saying offers, “You don’t know where you are going until you know where you have come from.” For 225 years, the South Woodstock farm known in the present day as Birch Hill Farm has always been a place where small levels of agrarian production have been in practice. Today the farm is not cultivated as it was in past centuries; it is now a modern example of a diversified, certified-organic farm whose owners treasure the delicacies and appreciation of nature. But the story of Birch Hill Farm is not necessarily about its owners: it is about the people who care for or visit the farm and the inspiration and thinking the farm provides them. It is also an example of a growing number of farms that demonstrate what can be done in respecting history, place, and nature and how a farm can be given a future in a changing world.
To move forward, Birch Hill Farm defined its own clear values: make close connections among the appreciation of nature, its resources, and what can be made of those resources; celebrate the special treasures the land holds and invite friends and the community to experience them; introduce visitors to new possibilities in understanding the land; and give pleasure and find enjoyment in the small part of the world called Vermont.
At Birch Hill Farm, farming is not done for financial gain but instead follows the centuries-old tradition of producing enough provisions to supply those families and individuals who live and work there. It also thrives as a diversified farm for raising livestock, harvesting wood, making compost, and producing Vermont’s best-known product, maple syrup. It offers luxurious homes for rent and state-of-the-art facilities for riding and boarding horses. For the local community, the farm hosts on-site programs and demonstrations on topics such as alternative energy use, forestry practices, and maple sugaring.
As a clear, convincing model designed to shift thinking and to cultivate a respect for nature, Birch Hill Farm offers a fresh example of the inherent treasures of the natural environment and the choices that can be made in maintaining and utilizing land responsibly and beautifully.
Birch Hill Farm maintains an extensive organic sugar bush—acres of well-tended maple trees located on a northeast-facing slope. No synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides have been used on the trees, and no quaint old sap buckets and metal taps are used here. Instead, the trees are tapped each winter in less harmful and more efficient ways: clean pipelines are hung and connected in an extraordinary network to allow gravity to direct the liquid sap to a large holding tank outside the sugarhouse at the bottom of the hill. Inside the sugarhouse, an intensive process of boiling, evaporating, and concentrating the sap produces pure maple syrup. Following strict Vermont state regulations, the syrup is graded according to color and flavor.
As the snow begins to melt in late winter, lambing begins. Lambs are born in quiet, safe barn stalls, and the tiny creatures are able to stand and nurse right away. Soon thereafter, ewes and their lambs are led outside, where they will live among a large flock in the fresh, cool air and generous pastures.
Katahdin sheep are a hardy breed that is ideal for tolerating the long, cold winters of Vermont. At Birch Hill Farm, the sheep are not administered any hormones; they feed on grass in an intensive rotational grazing plan—a system that benefits both animal and pasture—and are led from pasture to sunny pasture during the warmer months. The sheep are bred and raised to strengthen the vitality of their stock and for the fine quality of their meat.
Vermont’s four seasons are distinct and punctual. At Birch Hill Farm, the changing seasons are often gauged best by the gardens. Throughout the warmer seasons, gardens and grounds are meticulously planned and maintained to unfold layer upon layer in formal flower beds and natural areas. For the enjoyment of all who live at or visit the farm, cultivars are carefully chosen to inhabit the formal gardens and beds around the houses. In the meadows, fields, woodlands, and roadsides, native wildflowers abound. The colorful effect is joyful, and even the most disheartened of souls could not help but be inspired by nature’s ever-changing and prodigious offerings. Practical vegetable gardens, raspberry patches, and fruit trees complement the symphonic flower displays.
In addition to cultivating its own yearly provisions, Birch Hill Farm sells hay, firewood, and compost as part of its land-management program. Here, managing the land for local products is as important as managing it for beauty. The farm offers accommodations to anyone wishing a quintessential—albeit luxurious—North Country experience during any season of the year. Three well-furnished rental houses allow tenants unlimited access to experience the splendor of hundreds of acres of pasture, woodlands, meadows, and gardens, as well as opportunities for sport: in-season tennis, swimming, and horseback riding, or snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
South Woodstock has long been known for its focus on equestrian activities, due in great part to the Green Mountain Horse Association, a leading competition and equestrian facility. To further enhance that focus, Birch Hill Farm imparts its own concentration on horse riding and driving, and horse facilities at the farm provide a unique opportunity for tenants and competitors, such as Olympic-team members, to stay at the farm and to focus on their work and skills in a beautiful environment. During the warmer months, riders train in an oversized outdoor dressage ring; the indoor arena allows training during the colder months. Miles of carriage trails provide drivers a diversity of terrain through meadows, hills, and woodlands year-round. The connections made through the experience and enjoyment of equestrian sports in an extraordinary setting and town celebrate many of the genuine treasures that Vermont offers.
Years ago, while sitting in a waiting room on a trip across the country, Molly Porter inadvertently saw a painting featured in a magazine advertisement for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and unequivocally determined to become a painter. The image of that artwork held more potency than dreams, and Porter has since pursued painting with alacrity and an uncommon, personal prescience.
Making her way east, Porter returned to her Vermont family homestead and, from the cupola of the big barn there, learned to paint on her own and prepared a portfolio of work to submit with her application to the Academy. Within the year, she was accepted. She spent two years at the Academy before making a change and entering the New York Studio School in Manhattan—a demanding program based on the tenet “ambition for the work, not ambition for the career.”
At the Studio School, Porter studied under painter Graham Nickson and painter and founder of the school Mercedes Matter (1913–2001), an important mentor whom Porter holds in great esteem: “Matter was an amazing teacher and an amazing human being.”
Beyond the experience at the Studio School, Porter lived and painted under very difficult circumstances and conditions in New York: “I lived in a place with no heat, and with very little light, but I painted like mad.” Porter later spent several weeks in Europe looking at paintings in many of the great museum collections before moving to Mississippi, where she spent close to two years painting.
In Mississippi, she held no job and lived frugally, but she painted intensely. The work she accomplished there is direct and confident. The Mississippi topography and soft light offered Porter a new perspective in depicting the landscape that strongly affected her work from this period and continues in it today. Porter left the South to pursue advanced education and was admitted to the graduate program at Boston University. Now, however, she explains that time is somehow elastic, and after having studied painting at that level, she has returned to painting in much the same way as she did in her earlier work. The marks she applies now in her paintings are the same kinds of marks she was employing years ago in her work in Mississippi and even earlier.
Having returned to live and work in Vermont, Porter is now trying to understand the elusive Vermont landscape—one that is filled with so many trees and so many different greens—and how to paint it and edit it. She responds intuitively and directly in her use of color: “when I see a green, I mix a green—that very green I see.” Similarly, when she looks at the landscape or still life before her, with brush in hand she makes a mark with paint on the canvas to articulate what she sees. The gestures are often broad and simplified. The process of looking and painting become one.
In Porter’s paintings, the act of painting is joyfully evident, and her work becomes a different kind of language about place and subject—not a narrative language, as writing about a place would be, but one that is somehow more specific and incisive. It is a language that unfastens instead of defines. Her paintings, equally representative and suggestive, are thoughtful and personal depictions—her visual language—that render emotional responses to the light, sounds, and scents of particular places and moments in time. As Porter states, “painting is about location, about place; you look at a painting and you can smell the room in which it was painted.”
Ruth Porter was born in New York and grew up in Ohio. She and her husband, Bill, moved to Vermont over thirty years ago to establish a subsistence farm, grow their own food, and raise their children. Porter, a reader and writer, wanted to write a story about Vermont, the old-timers who have lived here, and the new people wanting to live here, “two groups of people coming together like two streams of water moving into one,” she says. She wanted to write a story about they way things are today in Vermont. Porter fabricated a story from little pieces she took from real life—a mixture of the people she has known, met, or seen at a distance. She wrote The Simple Life, the story of a old family farm going out and new people wanting to move in.
Porter also wanted to write and publish a book her way; she was unwilling to share it with a traditional fiction publisher and its editors. Typical of the can-do attitudes of some of the characters that she portrays in her story, Porter and her husband worked to create their own small publishing company, Bar Nothing Books, in Montpelier, and The Simple Life, published in 2006, was the first book they released.
Porter began to write The Simple Life at a time when her children were living at home and the house was often filled with family and friends. She needed solitude to write, and her son built her a simple cabin at the edge of the woods and far enough away from the house so as to not be visible. For Porter, no distractions are allowed in the cabin; it used is for writing only. No books are allowed in it because she might start to read them instead of write them. The cabin’s large windows provide the single source of light, a bed and writing table are the only furnishings, and a wood stove is the sole source of heat. Porter writes best when she writes alone in the cabin. It is a peaceful place to work, and it is important for her to know she has such a place, away from everyday household distractions and ordinary responsibilities.
Set in Vermont, Porter’s new novel, titled Ordinary Magic, is about the intersection of townpeople and country people. Close to completion, it is schedule for publication in 2009.
Porter and her husband have fostered a spirit of independence and self-reliance that allows the potential for creativity in their own work. That same confidence flourishes in their daughter, Molly (see previous pages), who lives and works from her own home and studio nearby. Ruth and Molly Porter have each created for themselves a quiet, uncomplicated place where they are able to work for the generous gift of the work itself.
— Glenn Suokko, 2008