Farming Magazine - December, 2013


Berries, Trees, Syrup and Weddings

Five-generation Vermont farm begins new traditions
By Kathleen Hatt

Kids move quickly, so calm, well-socialized animals are a must.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.

Half of Vermont's people live here in Chittenden County, and many of them are not native Vermonters or farmers. People move to Vermont to see and learn about our way of life," says Mike Isham of Isham Family Farm in Williston, Vt. "I like to think of my area here on Oak Hill Road south of Burlington as an agricultural center for them and for the whole community. I believe that I'm building something everyone can enjoy."

When he was ready to retire from full-time farming, Isham's father, David Isham, solicited proposals for the future of the 125-acre farm on which five generations of Ishams have lived and worked since 1871. The farm is on the National Register of Historic Places, and David also ensured the land would always remain a farm by conserving it through the Vermont Land Trust. In 2005, he accepted Isham's proposal for the farm's future.

Chickens at Isham Family Farm are accustomed to being around people, as Mike Isham demonstrates. Four varieties of chickens arrive at the farm as day-old chicks in May and are sold as layers near the end of the season.

Now, Isham no longer works nights at IBM. Instead, he's expanded products and activities at the farm, and he's working to make the farm self-sufficient in terms of energy. Available products and current activity information can be found in the farm's daily phone message, on its website (, and on Facebook (

Current information is important to marketing Isham Family Farm. Isham updates his answering machine message daily, always beginning with the date. You won't hear any January recordings about Christmas trees or May recordings about Maple Weekend. Isham also updates the Facebook page regularly.

As a boy, Mike Isham milked cows in this 200-year-old timber frame barn, which he has restored for use as a wedding venue.

A full calendar

There's lots going on at the Isham Family Farm, including pick-your-own blueberries, raspberries and pumpkins; Vermont Maple Open House Weekend; chicken tractor rides; sunflower and corn mazes; and the Oak View Hill hiking trail. Reservations are required for group events such as tractor-drawn wagon farm tours, birthday parties, reunions, community events and weddings. The farm also offers maple syrup year-round, sweet corn, and Christmas trees and wreaths.

Berry summer

Maple syrup comprises the largest portion of gross income for the farm, but it involves high expenses. So it is the farm's blueberry and Christmas tree sales that net the most profit.

The 480-bush blueberry patch established in 2003 is not certified organic but is cultivated using organic principles; the patch is kept weed-free with lots of handwork. Free-roaming chickens that came to the farm in May as day-old chicks fertilize the bushes and keep bugs from the berries. Their presence also deters robins and other birds. The four berry varieties - Blueray, Bluecrop, Patriot and Duke - sold for $6 a quart (pick-your-own) in 2013.

A trip to the farm to pick berries also gives families a chance to interact with some of the animals. Kids can feed bread to the chickens scampering through the blueberry patch and pet the two calves that are tethered uphill near the sugarhouse. The calves are on loan for the summer from a nearby dairy farm. At only 5 weeks old in mid-August, the calves seem to enjoy the attention.

Patience and good humor

Visitors to Isham Family Farm are generally interested in getting to know their local farmer and learning how their food is grown. As part of his mission to teach people about Vermont agriculture, Isham spends time chatting with each of them. He listens equally to a retired person telling old farm tales and children who want to know why they can't chase chickens.

Every year, Mike Isham plants 1,500 balsam trees. To help maintain vigor and decrease the possibility of disease, he gets seed from three different sources. In 2012, Isham Family Farm sold 350 Christmas trees, all before December 9.

Pumpkins and Christmas trees

Pumpkins come after the last of the fall raspberries. Isham plants three varieties of orange and some white pumpkins. Pumpkins are all pick-your-own. "People really like to choose their own pumpkins in the field," he says. The ones at Isham Family Farm are sold by weight and generally range from small to large, with large being around 50 pounds. Along with choosing a pumpkin comes the opportunity to get lost in one of Isham Family Farm's sunflower or corn mazes - lots of fun at no cost.

Corn on the cob is a new treat for this 5-week-old calf.

Grow your own

For area residents who lack garden space of their own, Isham Family Farm offers 30-by-30-foot plots in the farm's community garden. In 2013, 29 plots were rented at $30 each for the season. Isham turns the soil, stakes the sections and offers advice on growing. Community gardeners provide their own water and fertilizer.

Two murals, created by local artist Mary Hill, adorn the side of the wedding barn at Isham Family Farm in Williston, Vt.

Powering a farm

Wood has always played a part in heating at Isham Family Farm, but it's now being utilized more efficiently. In 2007, Isham installed a 300,000-Btu Econoburn wood gasification boiler that is the sole source of heat and provides most of the hot water for the four-unit 1852 farmhouse. A portion of the 30 cords of wood Isham cuts annually from the farm's woodlot fuels the boiler.

Wood also fuels the Vermont-made Leader Vortex evaporator in the sugarhouse, where 500 gallons of syrup were bottled in 2013. Sap from 1,700 taps is pumped using energy generated by two AllSun Tracker solar panels that were installed in 2010. Solar electricity also powers a Leader Springtech reverse osmosis machine and the farm's lights. All in all, approximately 90 percent of the energy used at Isham Family Farm is generated on the farm.

The pride and joy of Isham Family Farm

Visitors to Isham Family Farm pick their own blueberries, with four varieties to choose from.

In 2010, Isham began restoring the farm's former dairy barn, a 30-by-102-foot English-style timber frame structure built more than 200 years ago. Restoration included jacking up the building, pouring a new foundation and footings, repairing the timber frame, re-siding, and installing new windows and doors. Much of the wood for the project was cut on the farm. By 2012, the restored barn was ready for community gatherings, special events and weddings, with room for up to 175 people. So far three weddings have been held in the restored barn, including that of Isham's daughter, Jennifer. A renovated 30-by-40-foot carriage barn built in the 1850s is available for smaller events. It also houses numerous antique farm and home implements that Isham encourages wedding parties to use as props in their celebrations.

Old and new on Isham Family Farm: Solar panels were installed near George Isham's (Mike Isham's grandfather) toolshed.

Isham Family Farm was included in a USA Today article this past summer (, "Can weddings help save Vermont family farms?"). In the article, Isham notes the advantages of the availability of a beautiful indoor venue: "I think it's real important because the weather now is so hard to predict. We've had droughts, we've had floods and windstorms," he said. The farm can hold weddings no matter the weather. "I think it'll be more of a predictable income," he added.

Kids can get acquainted with cows at Isham Family Farm.

It's predictable income, a wonderful use for a beautiful old building, and an exciting addition to five generations of Isham Family Farm traditions.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Farming. She resides in Henniker, N.H.