Raising the Steaks

First-time farmers met the challenge

by Phyl Newbeck

maple_wind0717Beth Whiting and Bruce Hennessey run Maple Wind Farm, a diversified, pasture-based livestock, poultry, organic vegetable, and maple products farm on two conserved properties in Huntington and Richmond. Captain is their border collie.

It all started because Beth Whiting and Bruce Hennessey didn’t want a lot of new neighbors. The husband-wife team was living in Huntington when they learned the defunct 136-acre dairy farm at the end of their road was for sale. Since the area was zoned for 10-acre lots, that meant the potential for a lot of houses. “That’s not why we moved to Huntington,” Whiting recalls. “We made some life choices and we purchased the farm in 1999.”

By her own account, Whiting knew “a smidge” about farming and Hennessey had done some haying and had some experience with horses, but their lack of knowledge about livestock didn’t dissuade them. Today, their Maple Wind Farm includes buildings and acreage in both Huntington and Richmond, supplying meat and vegetables across the state and beyond.

The turkeys and produce raised at the farm are certified organic. “It’s a challenge to educate consumers about why we are different: why our meat tastes better and why the way we raise our animals costs more,” Whiting says. Hennessey spent several years as a vegetarian, but these days he is happy to eat the meat produced on the farm since it is raised in an ecological and humane manner.

Stephanie Choate of Pie Empire has been using Maple Wind Farm chicken and beef since she began her business selling “savory handheld pies” four years ago. “It’s important to me that all the meat in our pies is local and humanely raised,” she says. “Their chicken and beef is high quality and pasture-raised. It tastes much better and I know exactly where it comes from.”

Choate also praises Whiting and Hennessey for their customer service. “They’re great people,” she says. “They’re able to accommodate my schedule, which is perfect for someone who is growing her business.”

Whiting, who lost her parents at a young age, grew up in Cincinnati and showed an entrepreneurial spirit early on. At the age of 12 she started a hand-painted clothing business. She and other young business people were guests on the Phil Donahue Show when the dean of the University of Southern California Business School came on and surprised them by promising that if they kept their grades up, they could attend the university free of charge.

After earning that free business degree, Whiting took a job with Wilderness Ventures, which provides outdoor adventures for teenagers. “I was interested in the experiential education path,” she says. She spent six years in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she met and fell in love with Hennessey.

Hennessey had grown up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York with a school psychologist father and a mother who worked in early childhood education. After graduating from SUNY Potsdam with a major in anthropology and a minor in math, he taught students from kindergarten to high school and even a few college courses in Vermont, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and West Virginia. At the last stop he started and directed the Linsly Outdoor Center.

He then moved to Jackson Hole to teach skiing and guide backcountry skiers while also working as a chemist, marketing a wildlife cinematographer, and doing some retail work. An accomplished mountaineer, Hennessey has summited Denali twice and climbed in Tibet, Nepal, Mexico, and South America. Whiting flew out to Nepal at the conclusion of one of his expeditions in 1995, and the three weeks they trekked together solidified their relationship.

Eventually, they headed to New England for graduate studies in education — Hennessey at Antioch College and Whiting at Lesley College. Although they left Jackson Hole, the mountains of Wyoming still call to them, and every February, they take their kids skiing, both on- and off-piste. David, a incoming sophomore at Mount Mansfield Union, and Bryn, soon to be an eighth grader at Camels Hump Middle School, have already been taught avalanche safety skills to keep them safe in the backcountry.

The couple married in 1998, and when Hennessey was offered a job as one of the first faculty members at Vermont Commons School, they landed in Burlington. They soon left the city for Huntington, a move that would change their lives.

When they bought the old dairy farm, the land had sat idle for many years and they needed to bring the overgrown pastures back into shape. Through a combination of books, mentors, and conferences, Whiting and Hennessey taught themselves the basics of farm life. They try to repay that debt by helping new farmers with the expertise they have gained over the years.

They started with beef cattle but soon realized the benefits of a diversified livestock system and added chickens and pigs as they read up on sustainable meat production. “There have been huge amounts of learning, expanding, developing efficiencies, and great losses,” Whiting says.

There wasn’t enough grazing acreage in Huntington so the couple began to lease land in Richmond from the Andrews family. They rented for eight years before the Andrewses decided to sell the property. Whiting and Hennessey couldn’t afford the purchase so they sold the development rights on their Huntington land to the Vermont Land Trust. The net result is the permanent conservation of two properties totaling roughly 330 acres of farmland. The Huntington farm will be part of the Vermont Land Trust’s 40th anniversary celebration on July 27, when the couple will hire a chef and host a dinner for land trust supporters.

Bob Heiser, Vermont Land Trust’s regional director for the Champlain Valley, was happy the nonprofit could be helpful in conserving the two properties. “Bruce and Beth have become vital components of each of the two communities and a very valued source of local food,” Heiser says. “The conservation of the two farms protected some really good agricultural soils, so when they are ready to retire, the land will still be available for farming and still be a part of those two communities.”

One of the great losses Whiting refers to took place only months after they had purchased their Richmond land when a 16,000-square-foot barn burned down. “By the goodwill of donations, Vermont grant funding, and people’s belief in us, we were able to build a new facility, which would take us forward,” Whiting says.

In the early 2000s the couple started growing vegetables on the Richmond property. They have reduced the acreage in production from 18 to six to preserve prime grazing land; they currently concentrate on hot and sweet peppers, parsley, winter squash, and Romanesco cauliflower.

They have increased poultry production by 200 percent over the last three years and have recently begun selling value-added products like sausage. Many of their 15 employees have been with the farm for several years. “We don’t have a vegetable-only or poultry-only crew,” says Hennessey. “Everyone is excited to see all aspects of the farm.”

For several years before the arrival of their children, Whiting and Hennessey complemented their farming with an adventure travel company. They took clients trekking in Nepal, skiing in Wyoming, and sea kayaking in Baja. “We loved being with people and sharing adventures,” Whiting says.

They built two yurts to act as the starting point for taking people on Vermont adventures. “Some friends in Wyoming had lived in them and we thought they would be nice for agritours,” says Whiting.

The yurts can still be rented out for winter camping. The Huntington property was also the site for a summer program called On the Loose Farm Adventure Summer Camp, which they ran in the late 1990s.

In her spare time Whiting, a master gardener, tries to relax and spend time with her kids. She has cut down on backcountry skiing but she enjoys cooking and hopes to be able to spend time doing yoga and returning to her roots in the art world.

Hennessey continues to spend as much time as possible on skis. He is an examiner for the Professional Ski Instructors of America’s Nordic downhill division and teaches a six-day backcountry accreditation program.

“Our background in teaching is important in being able to educate and manage people,” Whiting says. She refers to Hennessy as the “big picture” guy and a dynamic speaker, while she spends more time on details. “I try to have a pad and pen handy,” she says “but there are times when I write notes on the back of my hand.” Her role is marketing, communications, billing, outreach, deliveries, and being the face of the business at the Burlington farmers’ market.

“Every day is a challenge,” says Whiting “but we’re keeping the Vermont agricultural landscape working and I’m doing it with my life partner. We have a common goal to raise the best food possible, and we’ve created this amazing community of people who work hard and are passionate about raising good food, which is important to us.”

Hennessey finds farming comparable to the long expeditions he used to lead. “It’s something you have to fully commit to,” he says. “There’s a lot of daily problem-solving and a level of risk with big animals and big machines. There are constant challenges that you have no control over. It’s something that can be pretty exciting and scary but also super rewarding.” •