Cedar Circle Farm: A Portrait of Sustainability

During last October’s unusual balmy 80 degree weather in Manhattan, I walked through a muggy subway station and found myself humming the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.”

grass, farm house in distance

It had been several months, yet the idyllic trip was still on my mind.

In July, 2018 my friend Alex and I spent a weekend up in Thetford, a quaint, picturesque Vermont town in the Connecticut River Valley. We were visiting our friend, Emma, who had left New York City three months prior to live with her mother and work at Cedar Circle Organic Farm and Education Center, a place bent on engaging the community to share methods that promote a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. Though it was hard to say goodbye to a friend, I understood after one visit to Thetford why anyone would want to leave NYC behind.

To describe Vermont’s many charms would take a thesaurus, but one obvious appreciation I experienced was the opportunity to be closer to nature. It was almost midnight on Friday when Alex and I arrived at Emma’s, and the waxing moon and stars strewn across the sky were so clear that it did not take long for me to begin comparing Manhattan’s perpetual light pollution to Vermont’s natural and effortless beauty.

We had no cell service that night, just each other and a few bottles of wine. We drank and laughed by the light of a few flickering candles until our eyelids fell like curtains and we retired to Emma’s bedroom. I slept soundly in the piercing silence of Vermont’s pastoral serenity that night, a restful slumber far from any sort I had experienced back in New York.

I probably should have considered that living off Broadway, on top of a 24/7 bodega, was not the most ideal place for peace and quiet. The body needs natural darkness to produce melatonin, a chemical that activates sleep and keeps certain cancers from developing.

Come morning the sun poured through Emma’s bedroom window in honeyed hues, and outside I could hear the rising and fallings of birds chirping their morning song. I rubbed my eyes and surveyed the room. A portrait of Joni Mitchell on top of a piano served as a harbinger that the day was going to be special.

I left Alex sleeping and tiptoed to the bathroom where various biodegradable soaps and shampoos lined the shelves. Outside a window stood an old barn that used to house goats, as well as a field clad in the misty purple of morning dew that stretched the horizon.

Situated along a river, Emma and her mother live in a two-story house painted turmeric yellow, an attractive juxtaposition to the property’s wooded backdrop. Inside the home, tasteful art decorates the walls, and the crosswinds from the adjacent streams of fresh water provide a natural breeze that is only enhanced by the crickets’ rhythmic summer jig.

In the kitchen, a framed art greco poster from Chez Pannisse’s 1977 garlic festival hangs over a gas stove. Various mason jars filled with herbs, spices and grain line an adjacent countertop. Over the hardwood floor a gorgeous rug with geometric patterns and rich, naturally-dyed blues and pinks makes the kitchen more inviting.

Emma had laid out a pair ceramic mugs next to a French press on the kitchen counter. At the far end, I noticed a small receptacle with cracked egg shells, coffee grinds and onion peels. I poured myself a mug of coffee and went outside. The warm sun felt good on my face.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Emma said.

She was sitting on a lawn chair, listening to a podcast and had been up since 6AM, a habit brought on from working at Cedar Circle Farm. I asked her where she composted.

“My mom and I bring it to the farm,” she said.

When she talked about Cedar Circle Farm and its practices, her eyes widened and she spoke with fervor. Clean, organic eating and regenerative agriculture were important concepts to her and her mother, and listening to Emma discuss these methods was not only insightful but inspiring. As someone who grew up on Happy Meals, I needed people like Emma to educate me on healthy eating habits.

We sipped rich, black coffee and were soon greeted by Alex. After coffee, Emma brought out a large mason jar of homemade strawberry kombucha for us to try. Then we planned our day.

“There’s an all-vinyl dance party over in White River Junction tonight,” Emma said, reading from a text on her phone. “The flyer says, ‘dance till your clothes come off!’”

Our first stop of the day was Cedar Circle Farm, a distance not too far from where Emma and her mother lived. On one side of the road, a colorful carpet of daisies, lilacs, lilies, dahlias, and hydrangeas from the farm’s pick-your-own garden waited to be handpicked, taken home and placed in decorative vases; on the other stood a farm — organically certified in both vegetables and berries — a farmhouse, a greenhouse made for succulent-lovers, a gorgeous red barn, a market, and a coffee shop.

Inside the coffee shop, the rich aroma of Cafe Mam beans from Oregon enticed, as did the flaky danishes and croissants on display under bell jars. The pastries, baked on premises daily, Emma explained, were customer favorites, and were some of the first items to go at Cedar Circle Farm. On weekdays, muffins, cookies and savory bread pudding drew in customers.

Cedar Circle Farm grows and sells its own crops and is a staple among the Thetford community. Strawberry season in particular is especially popular, most likely because of how fleeting the season lasts.

“People lose their shit,” Emma said, laughing heartily.

For approximately five to six weeks, these organic-certified berries are plucked from the patch and brought home to make delicious treats such as shortcakes and jams. Emma uses the latter to make her specialty strawberry kombucha.

What makes Cedar Circle Farm unique is its on-premise kitchen, a proximity so close it epitomizes the term, farm-to-table. Here at the farm, the kitchen takes what is considered “unwanted” products such as days-old corn and vegetables no longer considered “A-quality,” then repurposes them to make all of the kitchen products that are sold in the market. This process not only reduces waste but also allows consumers to see the various ways of using products other than what they have grown accustomed to.

Emma pointed to the repurposed products in the refrigerated section — the white bean hummus, pickles, kraut, frozen-packed vegetables, soups, and sauces — and I couldn’t help but think about how often I threw away produce at home. I was the type who bought a bunch of cilantro to make guacamole, used maybe a quarter of it, placed the rest in the refrigerator’s crisper bin (as if I had plans to use it again) only to find the once bright green herb turn to a bag of molded mush some weeks later.

Unfortunately I am not alone. According to Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans throw out $165 billion in wasted food annually, a problem that exacerbates as some 160 billion pounds of food end up flooding landfills. On a global scale, one-third of the world’s food, or roughy 1.3 billion tons, is wasted each year. Among the greenhouse gases that deleteriously deplete earth’s ozone layer, 7% is resultant of food waste. In order to suppress climate change, we need to be more conscientious about food waste.

Emma handed me a container of blueberries. They were in season and they were beautiful. Plump, slightly dewy, and delightfully packaged, the blueberries came in adorable robin’s-egg-blue-colored containers made of biodegradable pulp fiber.

Unlike plastic packaging, the fibers in the pulp packaging used recycled materials, including straw and bamboo. The blueberries I bought back home came in plastic packaging, like most of the food I bought. And still I’d wonder each time I took out the recycling bin by the week’s end, “How on Earth did one single person consume so much plastic?”

Alex, Emma and I decided to make pizzas for dinner that night and bought all of our ingredients at the farm’s market: pizza dough, fresh mozzarella, pesto, tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini. We also picked up some delectable snacks to eat for lunch. I was amazed to find that the total for all our food and ingredients was under thirty dollars. Clean, organic food should not cost an arm and a leg, and I was happy to see Cedar Circle Farm advocate this belief.

Under a golden sun, we sat at picnic table that overlooked the harvested strawberry patch and a big red barn. Excited and hungry, we spread out our smorgasbord at the center of the table and took turns tearing off squishy hunks of herb focaccia bread that paired as the perfect dunking vessel for the velvety, lemon-kissed white bean hummus.

“Your mom made this hummus?” I asked Emma. My eyes widened and I took another bite.

“Yeah, she makes all the kitchen items day of,” Emma said. She pointed to a container. “The Moroccan quinoa is my favorite,” she said, then removed the lid and handed me a fork. “It’s got pistachios and dried apricots with this crazy delicious dressing.”

The dressing was a roller coaster of flavor, a unique blend of boiled apple cider, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt—all to taste. Then quinoa, pistachios, dried apricots and currants made up the salad base. I took another forkful and turned to Emma.

“Did your mom go to culinary school?”

“Yes,” she said proudly, “She was the top of her class!”

As if summoned by our speech, Emma’s mother, Theodora, walked out of the farmhouse where she was preparing food in the kitchen.

“There you girls are!” Her smile was wide.

Theodora was a sunny, gregarious woman, the type more prone to hugs than handshakes. Upon meeting someone, she instantly took interest and listened with intent. She noticed Alex’s Dead & Company shirt, a souvenir bought a week earlier at the Citi Field shows, and the conversation found us sharing our favorite artists. We all had an affinity for Neil Young, the Byrds, and Joni Mitchell — music most adults over the age of 50 said Alex, Emma, and I were too young to appreciate.

I had met Alex and Emma at the beginning of 2018, yet we had this undeniable bond, and after we got to talking about the concerts we frequented back in NYC, we realized we had been attending the same shows for years, rubbing elbows with each other all along.

Theodora pointed to the bright yellow jar of Golden Yogurt in front of me; it was one of her signature kitchen products. The silky, yellow yogurt laced with cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, turmeric, sugar, and yogurt culture was the perfect balance of sweet and tangy and gave all other yogurts a run for their money.

cedar circle golden yogurt jar, blueberries, spoon

After lunch, we snapped photos of each other in front of the red barn, said goodbye to Theodora, and that’d we’d back home for dinner to make pizzas. Then we hit the road.

We drove southwest in Alex’s four-runner for twenty miles through rolling green hills that traveled each bend in the road. The winding black road slipping under our wheels seemed like a ribbon of licorice. We rolled down our windows and I hung out my head to drink in the pine-scented air. Spotify perfected the moment with a rotation of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” and that flute and those lyrics — “gonna leave the city got to get away” — made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up straight.

At the Vermont Antique Mall in Quechee Gorge Village, we looked at delicate and intrinsic glass figurines behind glass curios, fifty-year old copies of Time Magazine and an entire chest devoted to turquoise, including a Stevie Nicks to-die-for silver conch-shell belt with turquoise trim.

Upstairs, a wall of rusty tin cans and soda bottles reminded Alex of her late grandfather. Surrounded by so many relics, it was hard not to think about my grandparents, too. I spent a lot of time with my nanny during my childhood, as evidenced in my love of Loretta Lynn, bubble-gum pink Cadillac Coupe de Villes, and 50s-themed decor.

At the antique mall, Emma, Alex and I were drawn to various trinkets and went our separate ways. I stopped at a bookshelf. There was a small pamphlet, yellowed and dog-eared, dated 1917. The pages smelled like a musty basement, and the cover read FOOD FACTS in boldface above a cartoon woman, dressed in a petticoat and bonnet, picking up fresh produce at the supermarket. The imagery reminded me of my nanny. I opened to a random page: “You want CLEAN FOOD IN YOUR HOME because (1) It prevents disease, (2) It prevents waste and saves money, (3) It is decent.” The message reminded me of Vermont, and I had to have it.

Though we had planned to check out Harpoon Brewery afterward, the dozen crates of vinyl had other plans for how I was to spend the next hour. Like a prospector in search of nuggets, I rummaged through genres of country, folk, rock and jazz that spanned all the way back to the 30s. In the second crate, I struck gold: Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

I held it in my arms and felt a flood of emotion. My eyes swelled and a lump formed in my throat. It was a feeling I got whenever I thought about my nanny. She had passed away four years earlier, but in that moment, I felt her near me. I lived for moments like that, little emotional pulls of the heartstrings. If only the previous owner of this record knew just how special it was to me.

I continued to peruse the aisles of the Antique Mall for something to wear. I loved secondhand clothing. There was something special about imagining the former life it led: what it saw, where it danced, why it was given away. I also loved its affordability and positive impact on the environment. To think that it took 1,800 gallons of water just to make a single pair of blue jeans was reason enough to shop at thrift stores and revere secondhand clothing.

On a metal clothing rack at the Antique Mall, I found a cream-colored dress shirt covered in little Studebakers. Or, rather, it found me. It fit perfectly and only cost five dollars. I also found a set of wooden napkin rings with gold cats etched in the grain for a friend at home whose birthday was around the corner. I loved the excitement and surprise of digging through thrift stores and antique shops; similar experiences were hard to come by at shopping malls or Amazon.

Afterward I took my treasures to the counter and had a wonderful conversation with the cashier about Loretta Lynn. On our way out, Emma, Alex and I sampled Vermont cheddar in the adjacent Cabot Creamery then drove to Harpoon Brewery where we sipped seasonal ales that went down easy. We talked about Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson’s son, and how he inspired Bradley Cooper in the film “A Star Is Born.” Before heading home, we bought a case of beer from inside the brewery to bring to the BYOB all-vinyl dance party later that night.

Back at Emma’s, Theodora greeted us with glasses of sparkling champagne. We clinked our glasses, then began prepping dinner. I put on “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and the four of us hummed along, each cutting, dicing and chopping vegetables and herbs, the bright, colorful mosaics that would garnish our pizzas.

We ate outside on decorative china. The pizza — with its thin crust, crispy sautéed mushrooms and shards of sweet, fried onion that played off little pools of olive oil and bubbling mozzarella cheese — was a recipe with universal appeal. Similarly as appetizing was our second pizza, checkered with tender coins of yellow and green zucchini flecked with salt crystals and pepper. I grabbed second servings, as it was the only obvious thing to do. The best part was knowing every single ingredient came from one local farm. In Brooklyn I had no idea where my food came from unless you counted McDonald’s as a place of origin.

At the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this past September, I went to see Neil Young and Willie Nelson perform at the Outlaw Festival. They had just played Farm Aid the day before, a festival that has advocated for American farmers since the 80s. In between songs Neil Young told the crowd to “never drive past a farmer’s market” and to teach our children “what real food is and where it comes from.” These were words I found myself really taking to heart, and my experiences in Vermont only cemented this new, positive change within me.

We ended a perfect day in White River Junction, a quaint and memorable railroad town dotted with art galleries and museums. Outside Main Street Museum, a chalkboard sign read, “dance party” in pink bubble lettering. We could hear a pulsating rhythm from inside. Red curtains hung in the museum’s windows and a strobe light flashed rapid bursts of light. We were the only people outside and by the looks of the parking lot, the only people there.

“I have no idea what we’re about to walk into,” Emma said, rolling her eyes.

We walked inside, down a hall to a table where a blonde woman stood and collected ten dollars a head with all proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood. I handed her a crisp green bill from my wallet and then she wrapped a neon pink wristband around my wrist. She noticed my Studebaker shirt.

“Oh my god, that shirt is awesome!” she said. “Where did you get it?” That was the other great thing about secondhand clothing: the compliments it garnered.

Inside the dimly lit museum, taxidermy, cultural relics and other eccentric oddities lined the walls and filled glass cabinets. A display of miniature shoes made me feel weirdly uncomfortable. I took a video and posted it to my Instagram story. Two friends messaged me asking where the hell I was. There was Emma, Alex, me, the DJ and five strangers. It was too awkward to dance, so the three of us decided to check out the back yard of the museum. A deck stood erect over an old Cadillac and further in the yard around a blazing fire, paisley and corduroy-dressed smokers painted a scene straight out of “That 70s Show.”

Ten minutes later when we went back inside, the place was packed. We danced to deep vinyl cuts such as Carl Carlton’s 1981 “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” spun by a skinny DJ decked out in a cheetah onesie and gold-rimmed shades. Every song he played was pure gold, and I could not remember the last time I had so much fun dancing. It was unlike anything I had experienced back home, and I felt as though Vermont’s rural obscurity gave its people a unique sense of integrity, a people uninterested in putting on airs. When our legs finally felt like jelly form the dancing and our ears started to ring from the music, Emma, Alex and I stepped out in the cool night air, sat around the fire pit and watched the dancing orange flames flicker.

I took out my phone and played a song from my library. A faint militant beat crept in, and before the lyrics came on, they could cite the artists: Simon and Garfunkel, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” — an unsurprising talent for two women who had attended Newport Folk Festival for the past ten years. “The problem is all inside your head she said to me,” we sang and continued to sing through the chorus.

A guy with a beard overheard heard our singing, walked down from the deck and sat down next to us. We listened and sang along to Jim Croce and Steely Dan and were soon surrounded by new faces. The music from inside the museum had finally ended, but the party continued outside. Underneath that Vermont moon shining bright, a dozen of us sang, shared stories and laughed the kind that makes your jaw hurt. I couldn’t tell you any of their names because nobody ever gave an introduction. Share music interests with people, and it’s as if you’ve been best friends all along.

Though we may share similar interests in music, wine, or pizza, we are a varied people with our individual strengths and weaknesses. We learn from each other, and we need to lean on each other.

Not everyone can hang their clothes out to dry, compost egg shells or become members of co-ops; not everyone has access to container-free stores and farmer’s markets and not everyone will DIY their hygiene products. We will use plastic cutlery and leave the lights on when we’re not at home. We will inevitably consume and produce waste. We will take 10 steps back, then we will take 12 steps forward by learning innovative strategies that benefit us as much as they do the environment.

Ultimately, learning is best formed by modeling, and if there is to exist a society that facilitates an environmentally-sound lifestyle, we must avoid disparaging others for not “doing enough” or for being unaware of their carbon footprints. Sanctimonious pedants rarely bring positive change. We must surround ourselves with an openness to change, and in this process, we have to respect that there are others learning at their own pace.

So share ideas and support one another. It takes a village.

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