By Phyl Newbeck
A Pennsylvania native with a degree from Hampshire College in writing and environmental studies, Diana McCargo first moved to Vermont when she was hired by the state to work as a naturalist at various state parks. She lived in Franklin and then Addison County, but having two brothers at the University of Vermont brought her to Chittenden County on a regular basis. “I just fell in love with the Champlain Valley,” she said.
Serendipity led McCargo and her husband, Peter Swift, to purchase their house from a cousin of the Foote Family who owned the farm next door. “Geneva Foote found out that I was interested in gardening and history,” McCargo said “and that began our connection with the farm.” The story of McCargo and Swift’s 2012 purchase of what is now called Philo Ridge Farm is well known, but less well known is how McCargo’s love of organic farming and history have shaped their new endeavor.
“One of the great pleasures and joys I’ve had in Charlotte is living on Philo Ridge, which is the geological name for the area,” McCargo said. “I had a beautiful organic garden for 35 years and enjoyed working the soil, but part of my pleasure has been cooking for friends and family. When the farm came up for sale, we looked at it as an opportunity to figure out what was going on agriculturally in this region and seeing if we could have a positive impact.”
McCargo believes the change to organic farming at Philo Ridge Farm has resulted in a 200 percent improvement in soil health. “It’s all about building the soil without chemicals,” she said “and you need patience, time and energy. We’re working in conjunction with UVM, and it’s been very exciting to see the positive impact.”
“It gives me great pleasure to have people walking the gardens, eating the food, and enjoying the baby lambs. It’s almost like opening my home to the community.”
McCargo’s neighbors have noticed the difference as well. “They say the pollinators have come back,” she said. “We are nurturing a landscape that is friendlier to them.” McCargo knows quite a bit about pollinators. She cared for a hive for several years as a teenager, and, after leaving her naturalist job with the state, she worked as a commercial beekeeper in Franklin County, tending to 200 hives. She continues to raise bees as a hobby, but, unfortunately, all three of her hives died last winter. For the first time in years she is taking a break, but she intends to build up her apiary again next year.
McCargo still enjoys spending time in her extensive garden, growing vegetables, herbs and edible flowers as well as fruit trees and berry bushes. She forages for mushrooms and other wild edibles and enjoys cooking and sharing the fruits of her labors with others. “My husband likes to play music for friends and family,” she said “and I tell him that working in the garden is my music.” The couple leads an active lifestyle with Nordic and alpine skiing, hiking, kayaking, sailing, cycling and horseback riding.
“The vision and how and what we do at the farm comes a lot from me,” McCargo said “but I use the skill sets of other people. We have a huge amount of young talent both growing and cooking the food.” In addition to her role in the kitchen, McCargo plays an active part in the layout and design of the property. “Part of the goal of Philo Ridge Farm is to enhance the beauty of this agricultural area,” she said. “I’m very much the person driving the planting, the design of the inside and outside of the building, the look of the plates, and the food on the plates.”
The onset of COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of how Philo Ridge Farm does business, and McCargo is looking forward to the day when that will change again. “One of the things that really pleases all of us is the incredible warm and positive reaction from the local community,” she said. “It gives me great pleasure to have people walking the gardens, eating the food, and enjoying the baby lambs. It’s almost like opening my home to the community.”
For McCargo, the shared experience reminds her of when her children were young and she and her husband bonded with other parents at their school. In June, she is hoping to be able to serve food for outdoor diners at the farm. “I look forward to that,” she said. “We want it to be a community resource for everyone, and we’re working hard to make everything safe for our staff and our visitors.”