New American Businesses Thrive in Colchester: The Evolution of Pine Island Community Farm
Driving up to Pine Island Community Farm in early December, the community gardens lie stripped and dormant. But once in the farmyard, there’s a racket.
Outside the large hoop barn, 100-plus goats bleat and mill impatiently, waiting to be fed. In the neighboring chicken pens, 200 or so birds cluck and scratch, the air occasionally pierced by a crowing rooster.
Farmers Chuda and Gita Dhaurali are inside the hoop barn, lugging bales of hay alongside a trough that runs the length of the building. The Dhauralis work together efficiently, their mostly silent work punctuated by occasional exchanges in Nepali. “There’s a satisfaction to working with animals,” says Chuda. They raise goats for on-farm slaughter, starting with unwanted young males from Vermont’s goat dairies.
Pine Island is a 230-acre mix of riverfront, wetland, pasture, woods, and tillable acreage along the Winooski River in Colchester. Purchased by VLT in 2012, the former dairy farm was in need of TLC. But, “it was a large property on the edge of Burlington, the most populated place in Vermont,” explained VLT’s Siobhan Smith. “We felt strongly that this farm might serve some important purpose for the greater community.”
All four of Pine Island’s enterprises—seven acres of community garden plots used by 60 families, commercial plots growing specialty vegetables, pasture-raised chickens for on-farm slaughter, and the goat business—serve Vermont’s refugee communities. Here you can choose and slaughter a goat for Dussehra or Eid, for a wedding, birthday, or graduation; buy a bird that’s pecked and scratched long enough to be flavorful; grow vegetables like Bhutanese peppers, bitter melon, and daikon radish that conjure up the taste of home.
“African people, for example, when they go to buy a chicken, they like to choose,” says Pine Island’s chicken farmer, Theogene Mahoro. “It’s the same as when you go to the market and see some bananas or tomatoes and you say, ‘I choose this one,’ and you put that one back.”
The Dhauralis, originally from Bhutan, spent close to 20 years in a Nepalese refugee camp before being resettled to Vermont. Theogene and Hyacinthe Mahoro fled the Rwandan genocide. The Dhauralis began raising goats at Pine Island in 2013. The Mahoros came to the farm in 2014, first working with the goat business. In 2015, Theogene began raising chickens and Hyacinthe started growing vegetables in the community garden.
“I’m happy for my garden,” says Hyacinthe, describing how her large vegetable plot allows her to sell commercially, feed her family, and give food away to friends and neighbors. From her bins of African dent corn to a freezer full of lenga lenga (amaranth greens), okra, and other vegetables, her kitchen is stocked with African foods grown in Vermont.
“Everybody in the New American community who comes to the farm to buy a goat or a chicken or just go for a walk—there’s a deep connection,” says Siobhan, “an opportunity to have a place where you can feel like you belong and you are comfortable.”
In the seven years since buying the land, VLT has invested deeply in the development of the farm enterprises and community uses that exist today, and has partnered with many local organizations, including the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Intervale Center.
Pioneering project lead Karen Freudenberger originally envisioned Pine Island as the home of a nonprofit goat collaborative. After Karen’s unexpected death in 2016, the land trust thought long and hard about what was needed, and decided to focus on community engagement—building grassroots leadership and strengthening the farm’s resident businesses.
“Pine Island can only be successful if the enterprises are successful,” Siobhan explained, “so we’ve been focused on building capacity: leadership capacity, business capacity.”
In early 2017, VLT enrolled Pine Island in the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program and brought in the Intervale Center to help assess the farm enterprises, through extensive discussions with Pine Island’s farmers that focused on the goals, strengths, and weaknesses of each business.
Chuda needed better hay, better goat housing, and a year-round slaughter facility. The hay was less than optimal nutritionally, and housing in the retrofitted old barn was dark, damp, and had poor air circulation. Both were impacting the goats’ growth rates. The goat slaughter facility, in the same barn, could only function in temperate months.
Theogene wanted to expand, but because he slaughtered birds outdoors, regulations capped his production at 1,000 birds a year. The farmstead area and the community garden were supplied by just one well. Both businesses procured grain in 50-pound bags, which meant higher feed costs and lower efficiency.
After assessing these needs, VLT spent many months raising money for infrastructure improvements. Individuals, businesses, private foundations, and state and federal entities contributed over $320,000.
The new goat hoop barn was completed in January 2018. In February, year-round water was extended to the barns and hoop houses. In July, a separate well was drilled for the community garden. A 7.5-ton grain bin was installed for the goats, a 4-ton bin for the chickens. In October, a new year-round goat slaughter facility was completed, and soon thereafter the slaughter facility in the old dairy barn was converted to one for chickens. Chuda took steps towards doing his own haying, including purchasing a larger tractor and a round bale grabber.
VLT also focused on human strengths. Gita, who worked in microfinance in Nepal, got more training in computer and bookkeeping skills. Hyacinthe worked with UVM’s Ben Waterman to expand vegetable sales to restaurants, institutions, and organic markets. Community gardeners developed a grassroots decision-making structure.
Pine Island’s enterprises continue to move forward. In 2013, the Dhauralis raised 80 goats; in 2018, they raised over 350. Theogene doubled chicken production in 2018 to 2,000 birds. In September, Pine Island hosted its first harvest festival, inviting people to come to the farm, eat traditional dishes, walk along the river, and celebrate.
Central to Pine Island’s success, notes Theogene, is its wide network of customers, visitors, volunteers, donors, supporting organizations, and consultants. “We’ve got a lot of friends,” he says.
This article appeared in our Spring 2019 membership newsletter. Story written by Gaen Murphree. Photo of Theogene Mahoro and photo of goats by Paul E. Richardson. Learn more about the farm’s history here.