words // Holly Johnson
photo // Craig Thomas
Resting on the shores of Lake Champlain is one of Vermont’s most breathtaking National Historic Landmarks, Shelburne Farms. Once a private home and farm built in the late 1800s for William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, it has evolved since 1972 to become a nonprofit education organization with a mission to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future—and it remains a 1,400-acre working farm.
Two of Lila and Seward’s great-grandsons, Alec and Marshall Webb, have overseen the transformation of Shelburne Farms from one family’s estate into an innovative and world renowned educational nonprofit. Today, Alec Webb and his wife Megan Camp are president and vice president of Shelburne Farms, respectively, and Marshall Webb is the woodlands manager.
A nearly constant stream of schoolchildren, adults, and visitors comes to the Farm for hands-on programs, classes, and activities throughout the seasons. In the Children’s Farmyard, youngsters gather chicken eggs and learn to milk a cow. Students take winter field trips through the woods to identify animal tracks, and tap maple trees for syrup in the spring, all based in the McClure Center for Education Programs. Educators from around the world attend seminars and workshops about integrating education for sustainability concepts into their curriculums. To expand this work, the Farm acquired and renovated a private residence on the property to host multi-day, retreat-style residential programs and conferences.
All of this education and activity is woven into a magical landscape that also supports cheesemaking, an inn and restaurant, lunchtime farm cart, welcome center, sustainable forestry, and market garden. There are daily viewings of cheesemakers crafting Brown Swiss cow’s milk into the Farm’s prizewinning cheeses, walking trails that leisurely track the lush fields and forests, and an award-winning inn restaurant that conjures up ultra-fresh farm-to-table meals from produce in the market garden. All the enterprises help support the work of the nonprofit and embody its sustainability ethic.
Specific examples of the Farms’ on-site program offerings range from “Sun to Cheese” (where participants learn the process of turning fresh milk into cheese), to “Exploring the Ecology of Leadership: Learning, and Change,” a five-day residential program in partnership with UVM for individuals interested in exploring new forms of ecological leadership. Additionally, the Farm annually has a four-day Pasture to Palate event (which was sold out this year), an autumn Harvest Festival, and a Forest to Furniture three-day class offered with the Shelburne Craft School, where participants create a rustic table out of a piece of wood from a tree grown on the Farms’ 400-acres of sustainably managed woodlands.
The Farm accomplishes much of its work through partnerships. On-site partners include The Renaissance Elementary School, Beeken Parsons (furniture-makers who use wood from the Farm), O-Bread organic bakery, Outreach for Earth Stewardship (which has rehabilitation aviaries on the Farm and offers wildlife-education and conservation programs), and Shelburne Vineyards, which maintains a small vineyard at the Farm.
Shelburne Farms also has forged many local, national, and global partnerships to shift educational priorities towards sustainability. Through its Sustainable Schools Project (SSP), it works closely with the Burlington School District’s Sustainability Academy, the first magnet school in the country with a sustainability focus. SSP is developing a dynamic model for school improvement and civic engagement that empowers students to build healthier communities and a healthier planet. The model has blossomed into partnership projects with the Institute for Sustainable Communities and others in Asia, Central America, and Europe. Similarly, the Farm’s hands-on teaching guide, Project Seasons, has been translated into multiple languages and been used in at least sixteen countries.
Partnerships are also critical to the Farm’s work in food systems education. The Farm is the regional lead for the Vermont Farm-to-School Network, and a partner in Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT-FEED), together with NOFA-VT and Food Works. These initiatives provide statewide leadership, coordination, and advocacy to advance children’s health, education, and community agriculture. Shelburne Farms also leads the 2,500+ member Farm-Based Education Network (FBEN), working to connect, inspire, and grow the farm-based education movement. The network shares resources and best practices for community use. Internationally, the Spannocchia Foundation, a 1,100-acre organic agricultural estate in central Tuscany, has used Shelburne Farms as its model since its inception in 2002. Like Shelburne Farms, Spannocchia works with local schools, holds adult educational classes, and offers organic farming internships.
As Vice President and Program Director Megan Camp states, “We believe in the power of partnerships and community in educating for a more sustainable future. Our goal is to have a positive impact beyond the Farm’s gates. It’s so vital to the health of generations to come, and it’s the beauty of how Shelburne Farms functions as a nonprofit. There truly is something for everyone at the Farm to learn and to contribute.”
OPEN May 11 – October 20, 2013: Inn & Restaurant, Children’s Farmyard, Property Tours.
YEAR-ROUND: Programs, Events, Walking Trails, Welcome Center & Farm Store.
Visit www.shelburnefarms.org for details.