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Meet Jenna Baird - The 2022 Fantastic Farmer!

On a hillside in Chittenden, Vermont, a 104 year-old family farm surrounded by a forest of maples has earned the second annual ‘Fantastic Farmer’ title and a significant award of $5000 from the A.Pizzagalli Family Farm Fund.  Jenna Baird of Baird Farm Maple was chosen to receive this special award for her commitment to sustainable agriculture, land-use diversity, and environmental stewardship.  Jenna and her partner Jacob Powsner also raise Christmas trees and cut flowers, as well as a hosting a local beef cattle operation.

"This award lifts up the work of farmers in our rural Vermont economy. Oftentimes that work goes unseen, so we feel this award is so important because it celebrates that real food comes from real farms,” said Jenna Baird.  “This award will be put to good use so that on our farm we can continue to make and share our food and products with Vermonters and tourists alike!"

Find out more below about Jenna, her family and their farm operation

Q: Please describe your role on the farm (worker, manager, owner, co-owner, etc.), your key responsibilities, and how many years you have been involved.

A: My partner Jacob and I came back to my family farm 7 years ago after working out west on organic farms through the WOOFing program. Today Jacob and I (the fourth generation), own and run the retail end of the maple business at Baird Farm and are working alongside my parents (the third generation) with help from the Vermont Farm Viability program to formulate and execute a transition plan of the maple production side of the business (scheduled to be signed in July 2022). Some of our roles include: helping manage production, overseeing logistics and operations for packaging and shipping of retail products, developing and executing a robust marketing plan, ensuring top-notch customer experience, leading customer and bus tours to provide a fun and educational experience. We also manage, plan, organize, and execute community events here on the farm that range from Maple Open House Weekend, Burger Nights and Pasture Walks, to historical sugarbush tours. When we are not sugaring, we spend a lot of time running a growing agritourism business. In recent years, we’ve diversified further by starting a cut-your-own Christmas Tree yard as well as a small-scale cut flowers endeavor.

Q: Please provide a brief description of the farming operation including its main products, markets and resources (acreage, facilities, labor force, partnerships with others).

A: Previously a dairy farm, I like to say our farm today is ‘mostly maple’, at a little over 14,000 taps in 2022. Since being back on my family farm, Jacob and I have worked with the 3rd generation to double the size of the operation, renovate the sugarhouse, modernize production, as well as become certified organic. Additionally, we’ve worked to buy out and now manage the farm's retail maple sales and have built a thriving agrotourism and eCommerce business. We sell a variety of different value-added maple products (including maple ketchup, maple sugar, mint-infused maple syrup, birch bark-infused maple, and spruce tip-infused maple) through our store that we built off the sugarhouse in 2017. Almost 70% of our crop is sold direct retail now with some restaurants and a few small local wholesale accounts.

The remaining crop is sold in bulk to Butternut Mountain Farm. Jacob and I spend about half our time managing the land with Bonnie and Bob and the other half managing the growth of retailing maple. The retail business has more than quintupled in size since we have been back on the farm working to grow the business. We welcome visitors year round and have been able to share the educational and cultural impact of maple through tours, tastings, events, and much more. Currently, our retail business hires one part-time employee from September (the start of our busy fall foliage foot traffic) through the end of December (to finish out our holiday mail order season). The production end of the business hires one full-time employee during the maple season (Jan-April).

Our 560 acre farm is about 20% open land and 80% wooded. About 230 acres of that are used for maple production. We also lease around 50 acres of sugarbush from a neighboring property. To tie in with our maple holiday retail season Jacob and I have started to build out a cut-your-own Christmas tree yard which is just shy of 3 acres directly behind our sugarhouse.  In addition to maple syrup, there has always been a grazing component to the farm. Today we collaborate with another young farmer, Jamie Hamilton of Hamilton Cattle Co. to use our open land for grazing and hay production. Jamie grazes about 60-70 head of Angus and Red Devons on our property and cuts about 40 acres for hay. In turn, Jacob and I market and sell his beef at our farmstore. 

The farm complex has a variety of farm buildings - a tool shed, hay barn, old cow barn, and free stall which all reside next to the main farmhouse where Bonnie and Bob live. The sugarhouse sits below the farmhouse which allows us a separate space to invite visitors to the farm. Jacob and I live on the farm right next to the sugarhouse in a house that we purchased from Bob and Bonnie in 2019.

Q: Briefly describe the farm’s land stewardship goals and how you assess progress toward them.

When we talk about land stewardship here on the farm we begin by recognizing that we are working on unceded land that is the traditional home of the Mahican and Abenaki people. We are guests on this land and our work with the history of the land is ongoing. Our farm is conserved with the Vermont Land Trust and much of our guiding principles on stewardship are reflected in the easement. We believe in public access and educating folks on the working landscapes of Vermont. Talking about the wild and working landscapes in Vermont is a fun portion of the free farm tours we offer. Beyond these goals of public engagement, both generations on the farm share goals that align with the organic standards. When we came back to the farm 7 years ago, I knew that becoming certified organic was a primary goal. The maple operation has certainly become more viable since going organic and overall enhances our land stewardship and increases the protection of natural resources on our land. Organic standards remain a guiding structure for all the components of the farm now, from the cut-your-own Christmas tree yard to the cattle grazing. Admittedly, it's difficult to assess the progress of the goals here as many of them don’t have measurable outcomes. That said, we have more farm visitors every year, as well as public engagement. Our forest management plans have been revised to align with organic sugarbush guidelines and fertility on the pastures has improved in recent years. As we say on our syrup jug labels: “We believe that when you eat good food you connect to the land. Our mission is to help you do that.”

Q: What are the key soil conservation/soil health practices used on the farm?

A: Much of the sugarbush and maple work we do is pretty hands-off when it comes to soil health practices. That said, a lot of this farm grows grass. In recent years, we’ve moved many of the hay meadows on the farm to rotational pasture grazing.

Q: What steps are taken on the farm to manage water quality, nutrients and/or prevent soil loss?

A: Our biggest efforts in managing water quality, nutrients, and soil loss has been in our work with Jamie Hamilton who grazes his cattle on our farm. The farm currently has around 60-70 head of black Angus and Red Devon beef cattle grazing up to around 80 acres of land. The grazing component has certainly raised the fertility of the land and it has been rewarding to witness the regenerative impact on the former hay meadows. The cattle have helped abate the creeping in of invasives such as multiflora rose. Additionally, the forage and regeneration rate has greatly improved. Our pastures store more carbon than ever before and the farm has worked together with Jamie to set up a system that reduces soil compaction and erosion.

Q: Are there other sustainable or innovative practices you would like us to know about? (These could include practices related to climate change; supporting diverse animals, plants, fungi, or insects; or managing pests and diseases.)

A: In our business plan, one of our expressly stated sustainability goals on this farm is to move away from fossil fuels. We’ve taken the first step towards investing in that goal. We invested in the Bristol Vermont Community Solar Project as well as a net metered rooftop array that generates enough power to cover nearly all our electrical usage. We are also currently pursuing an electrical service upgrade. This larger electrical service was sparked by our purchase of a new more efficient reverse osmosis machine which will decrease our fuel consumption and labor in the sugarhouse. A portion of the service expansion project costs are part of a Vermont Working Lands Grant. A new, larger RO will greatly increase efficiency as we’ve continued to expand production. The 400 amp upgrade (with capacity for more) is designed so that we’ll have the infrastructure  in place to ideally be able to convert from oil burners to an electrical evaporator. A new generation of evaporators are scheduled to come to market in the next few years and the dream is to continue moving towards a lighter carbon footprint. This is especially important to us as maple is on the forefront of climate change impact and we spend time engaging in climate work off farm as well.

Q: Have you worked with any conservation programs?

A: Our farm has had an ongoing relationship with the Vermont Land Trust since 1996. In 1996 340 acres of our farm was conserved by the Vermont Land Trust and in 2006 we purchased 200 acres of already conserved Land to add to the farm’s property. Additionally, my father, Robert Baird, worked for the Vermont Land Trust for 11 years conserving farms around the state of Vermont.

Q: How have you helped others develop their farming skills and/or dreams? Or, how have you supported the success of other farmers?

A: Jamie Hamilton of Hamilton Cattle Co. is the first one that comes to mind when I think about how we have helped and supported other farmers. Jamie grew up working on a dairy farm that was located on the same road as ours. After college and some traveling (to a ranch in Montana) Jamie, age 24, decided to go all in and start his own beef operation. Working with another farmer in the town of Pittsford Jamie was able to buy out a herd of 200 beef cattle.

Jacob and I along with both of my parents have really helped support Jamie in this endeavor. From late spring to early fall we allow him the use of equipment and our open pastures for about 60-70 head of his cattle. Both my parents who farmed livestock for many years are huge mentors to Jamie. Not knowing a lot about cattle and livestock Jacob and I have been able to help Jamie on the marketing end of his business. I volunteered many hours designing and implementing a website for Jamie - along with the creation of brochures and business cards for him all of which have had a large impact on getting his name out there as a new business.

Additionally, we've provided Jamie with assistance in social media marketing.

In January of 2020, we started retailing Jamie's beef through our farm store, and in August of 2021, we hosted our first ever burger night on the farm to help promote Jamie's business and bring the community together.. We’ve also opened our bottling room for local beekeeper Matt Orchard to use for honey extraction. Jacob and I are always looking to deepen our collaborations with other farmers and food makers, many of whom we carry in our shop.

Aside from our work with Jamie, Jacob and I volunteer our time on several panels and in workshops including the NOFA Conference, 350 VT Composting Workshops,  Vermont Sugarmakers Association Annual Maple School, and Maple Open House Planning Sessions, etc. Overall we really enjoy helping to educate other farmers on social media, agritourism, marketing, and e-commerce. I recently became a board member for the Vermont Sugarmakers Association and have been working on the marketing committee as well as the membership committee within the organization to help promote maple within the state as well as promote individual sugarmakers. Over the course of 50+ years, both of my parents have had diverse experiences in the farming world and have been open ears and mentors to many other local farmers. Bob served on the Vermont Farm Viability Board for several years, worked at the Vermont Land Trust for

11 years, and currently still serves on the board of Shelburne Farms. His passion for promoting agriculture and working lands has proven to be a shared value on this farm.

Q: How does the farm interact with and connect to the community? Are there other ways you and the farm give back to the local or regional community?

A: One of our favorite parts of the business is being able to engage with and give back to the community both to local folks and individuals visiting our state.Since we have been back on the farm we have hosted many events including the annual Vermont Maple Open House Weekend. We started this event off on a small scale but have now grown it into a much larger community gathering.  This event is particularly special because it brings both locals and out-of-staters together to celebrate and learn about all things maple. This year we estimated 900 visitors in two days. Folks were able to partake in our free rosemary waffles, educational tours, maple tastings, a maple beer-themed tent with Outer Limits Brewing of Proctorsville, VT,  planting of maple seeds with local nonprofit Come Alive Outside, and a maple tree tapping with both Miss Vermont and Bigfoot from Come Alive Outside. It was a blast!

Not only do we host regularly scheduled tours of our farm to tourists, but we also have a few different school groups visit every year. These range from high school students from Stafford Technical Center, to summer camps, to students from the Rutland Middle School/Highschool Allen Street Campus (a therapeutic experiential learning program through the Rutland City Schools).

As previously mentioned, last year we hosted our first ever Burger Night and Pasture Walk on the farm. We had about 120 folks from the community join us for a beautiful evening full of local food and good company. We have another scheduled for this summer along with a Maple Pie Event that will be a part of Vermont Open Farm Week. Pie throwing, pie judging, and pie eating! Proceeds from this event will be going to The Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland.

Every year Jacob and I like to donate to different local charities, organizations, and nonprofits in our community. Some of these organizations

include: Chittenden Community Association, Pittsford Village Farm, Rutland Community Cupboard, BROC Community Food Shelf, The Salvation Army, and NAACP of Rutland. In addition to donations we also like to support local community organizations in alternative ways. As a local business owner in 2019 I was asked to participate and dance in Dancing with the Rutland Stars, a fundraiser for the VNA Kids on the Move Program which raised a total of $46,000. In 2019 we started a team for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Rutland Walk over the course of 3 years our team alone has raised over $30,000. Jacob and I both volunteer through the Real Rutland Program as "Concierges" where we connect with and answer any questions folks that are interested in moving to the Rutland County area might have.  Additionally, we volunteered to be a part of their video series promoting the local area:

Q: Briefly describe any changes you’ve made to the operation to increase farm efficiency or production (for example, new farm products, new processing methods, new markets) and the outcome of those efforts.

A: In 2017, we moved the farmstore from a room off the back porch of the farm house to a more inviting storefront attached to our sugarhouse. This change allowed us to welcome more and more visitors and gave us an easy opportunity to invite visitors behind the doors to see the production area and educate them about all it takes to make maple syrup.

Our new products (our line of wild infused syrups, maple ketchup and maple

sugar) have given us alternative and creative routes to retail more of our maple syrup through value added products. Additionally, one of the fist things Jacob and I did upon owning the retail business was reach out and cold call restaurants across the United States to get our organic maple syrup on their menus. This was huge for us as we have developed long lasting relationships with many of these restaurants over the course of the last 7 years that have been continuous supporters  of our farm.

As aforementioned, we are in the midst of a project to install a larger electrical service to our sugarhouse that will allow us to increase our efficiency within the production business. This larger electrical service will support a new more efficient and updated reverse osmosis machine and will give us capacity to grow our tap count as well as provide infrastructure to be able to transition our oil burner evaporator towards an all electric unit.

Q: What other innovations have taken place on the farm in the areas of business structure, energy use, efficiency, labor management and/or farm succession?

A: Since being back on the farm Jacob and I have developed a more robust marketing plan for our retail business which has really helped distinguish our farm. When we came back to the farm, the 3rd generation sold jugged syrup out of a room off of the back porch of the farmhouse — like many sugarmakers. In 2016, I designed and implemented a new website and rebranded our offerings. In 2017, we built a storefront and modern bottling room on the frontend of the sugarhouse with the intent to expand agritourism. The farm moved from direct retailing a few hundred gallons of syrup a year to nearly

5,000 gallons. Along the way, we’ve developed several innovative products such as our wild foraged infused syrups and our Farmhouse Maple Ketchup. The vast majority of the growth is from folks visiting the farm and engaging with our story of sugaring on this land. Storytelling, that connection to land, and the work of sugaring has been the key driver of success here.

Q: Please describe the work that may be supported with award money. How does/will this work support good land stewardship, benefit the community, and/or promote farm entrepreneurship?   How has the farm responded to the pandemic and related community service issues, and how do these actions exemplify the values of giving back and entrepreneurism?

A: In 2021, we had the worst sugaring year we’ve had since 2012. Those two pressures forced us to make some changes here. We experienced closing our store, reopening our store, closing tours, closing tastings, implementing best safety practices to keep folks healthy. With the short crop and lack of restaurant orders, we intentionally refocused on direct online sales.

Eventually this strategy helped us weather the challenges. Much of our returning online sales currently are from customers who have found us in the past few years.  Jacob and I helped in countless community programs on pandemic aid. We purchased, bottled, and distributed free hand sanitizer, we helped distribute Everybody Eats meals through our local emergency management team, and ran a number of virtual events including virtual sugarhouse tours, sugar on snow on zoom, virtual community open mics, and workshops based on running agritourism events during Covid-19.