Trina Bianchi, Contributor
Editor’s note: In an effort to support local farmers the Charlotte Grange has volunteered to feature a new farm story each month in The Charlotte News. Here is part 2 of the series. Enjoy!
What prompts a young couple to pick up stakes, leave their jobs and try a two-month apprenticeship on a farm in Vermont?
Brittany Slabaugh said, “The earth spoke to me.” She had found her happy place working in a garden. In their mid-twenties, living in Philadelphia, working at jobs that paid the bills but did not feed their souls, Brittany and Drew Slabaugh knew that this was not the life they wanted. They worked their individual plot in a community garden and discovered the joys of working the soil and working outside. They wondered what they could do for work that would allow them a different lifestyle, one that included being outdoors, spending time together and working in the dirt. They thought about gardening or even farming, but there was a major problem—neither of them knew anything about farming and they had no idea where they could learn and/or get experience.
Karma intervened and they learned that farming internships did exist. Using the NOFAVermont website, they started research. Internships were available, but most wanted singles and they were a couple, and to complicate matters, they had a dog. Most farms already had a dog or dogs, they didn’t need interns coming with yet one more. Eventually, luck prevailed and they found New Leaf Organics in Bristol. You are married, no problem, and you have a dog, also no problem. So, Drew and Brittany, along with Remy, their dog, began their quest to learn how to farm and see if this was a path they might want to pursue. Thus began the summer of 2011.
That fall, the apprenticeship over, they decided they wanted to continue on this path for a bit longer as opposed to returning to Philadelphia. As luck would have it, Dave Beckwith was looking for someone to take over the reins at ShakeyGround Farm, which at that point was a small but established homestead operation complete with vegetables, a few sheep, cows and chickens. They applied for the position and agreed to stay two years. The goal was to see if ShakeyGround Farm could grow and become a productive and sustainable farm for a family. They took on the challenge.
Fast forward to 2017. The Slabaughs are still with ShakeyGround Farm. The 22-acre farm is now a productive, thriving farm with a wide assortment of products; the family has grown from two adults and a dog to include two children and an adopted cat. From meat to vegetables, from eggs to fleece, the farm provides the Slabaugh family with food for their table along with a livable income. This year for the first time, they are offering a CSA membership to folks in addition to selling at their own farm stand and at the Shelburne Farmer’s Market, and also supplying local restaurants and the Shelburne IGA with fresh vegetables. Three new hoop houses, along with raised beds, have provided them with the necessary space for heirloom tomatoes, a wide assortment of greens, onions, garlic, winter squash, carrots and asparagus. Winter greens and kale are always in demand, and Drew is looking to add yet another hoop house. In order to utilize every inch of available space, he decided to use the land in between the hoop houses for asparagus as he needed to plow there in the winter and that wouldn’t harm the asparagus bed. Drew estimates that they have about a half-acre just in vegetable production. The next goal is to become certified as an organic vegetable farm.
They don’t do a lot with fruits, although there are strawberries, and heirloom apple and kiwi trees line the fence lines. The apples are for their own use, but the kiwis, a smaller version of the kiwi we see in the store, are being grown to sell. The size of a grape, these kiwi are totally edible, including the skin ,and if you were to cut one open, it would look like a normal green kiwi with the black seeds.
The original flock of Icelandic sheep, a heritage breed, has grown into a flock of 43. Shorn twice a year, the sheep provide fleece in colors from grays to browns to white, much of which is spun into yarn. Chosen for both meat and fleece production, the Icelandics are a hardy breed, smaller than other breeds, but like all sheep, are plagued with parasites. Using both pasture rotation and savvy breeding, Drew is continually improving the flock. The meat from the Icelandics is prized for being both tender and very mild. Llamas graze with the ewes and lambs, providing protection from predators.
Four Belted Galloway cows are also in residence. Another hardy breed, they were chosen not for milk production, but for meat. Totally grass fed, the meat produced from the two heifers is nicely marbled. Not producing any milk has the Slabaugh’s buying milk from Family Cow Farm in Hinesburg where they also leave vegetables, especially greens, to sell from that farm store.
Meat production doesn’t end with the beef and lamb, as ShakeyGround also raises 200 chickens for meat each year along with caring for 50 laying hens. Using portable houses, Slabaugh moves the chickens around the property, using them, along with the cows, as part of the parasite control process with the sheep. A few roosters roam amongst the chickens, but they do not raise any of their own chickens, relying instead of being able to purchase chicks when necessary. Meat and eggs are also among the products sold.
Nine beehives grace the property, but they are predominantly Dave’s responsibility—although Drew is learning about bee management. The bees help with the pollination of the plants and reward them with honey that they also sell.
Throughout our interview, Arlo, their son, and Remy, the dog, were close by. It was obvious that they had both chosen this path because it affords them a lifestyle they enjoy. As Brittany left for an appointment, she handed the baby monitor to Drew so that he would know when Juniper, their young daughter, woke from her nap. It was clearly apparent in talking with Drew that, although his days might be long and farming is a seven day a week, 52 week a year commitment, he wouldn’t trade it for the world. As he said, “I am here with my family all day; I eat three meals a day with them; I can help put them to bed and if necessary, come back out to finish up a job. Where else could I have this life?” In today’s frenetic world, this family and their world at ShakeyGround Farm was quiet, serene and very content.
You can buy their products at their farm stand at Converse Bay Road or see them on Saturdays at the Shelburne Farmers Market.