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Adapt and overcome: Valley Dream finds success in change

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Adapt and overcome: Valley Dream finds success in change

Joe, Jay and Anne Tisbert pose in front of one of their greehouses

Joe, Jay and Anne Tisbert pose in front of one of their greehouses

Courtesy of Anne Tisbert

Joe, Jay and Anne Tisbert pose in front of one of their greehouses

Courtesy of Anne Tisbert

Courtesy of Anne Tisbert

Joe, Jay and Anne Tisbert pose in front of one of their greehouses

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As the Vermont dairy industry continues to decline, more and more farms are fiscally forced into either transitioning to a different form of farming or dissolving entirely. However, some, like the Valley Dream Farm, were fortunate enough to have the foresight to abandon dairy before it was too late. Now, more than 20 years later, they continue to persevere and make a living off of their land through creativity and tireless work from the entire family.

Owned and operated by the Tisbert family, Valley Dream is an organic vegetable farm that resides on the beautifully scenic Pleasant Valley Road in Cambridge. Originally called the Sugar Bush Farm, the Tisberts purchased the land from Fred Trask and the American Farmland Trust in 1992. In awe of the breathtaking views surrounding the land upon their first visit, they realized they’d found “the farm of their dreams,” which birthed the name Valley Dream.

“We were originally a dairy farm and we milked 90 head of registered Holstein cows,” said Anne, matriarch of the Tisbert family. “We milked for five years, but with the falling milk prices it just wasn’t economically feasible. So, we sold the cows in 1997 and Joe (the patriarch of the family) and I found work away from the farm. We worked two or three jobs each while trying to keep our family of six our first priority.”

Very little about farming is without challenge, but the Tisbert’s transition from dairy to organic vegetables was made easier by some changes they had made beforehand. “The last year we had the cows, the kids had a pumpkin crop that we actually sold to an organic dog food company, and that’s how we first started with organic vegetables,” Anne said. “Also, we were already trying to become organic dairy, so we had stopped using chemicals for three years since it’s a three-year process of stopping using chemicals before you can become organic certified.”

But before they were able to make all of the necessary changes to fully transition into an organic vegetable farm, the Tisbert’s had to persevere through extreme hardships within their family. First, in the winter of 1997, Joe was diagnosed with a lung disease while working at IBM and was unable to farm. The following summer, when Joe had recovered, they dipped their toes into the pond of organic agriculture, farming primarily hay and pumpkins.

Although their pivot to organic vegetables was underway, the new iteration of Valley Dream Farm was not yet profitable enough to pay the bills, so Anne and Joe worked at Smugglers’ Notch Resort during the winter to supplement their income. The plan was to expand and diversify their produce and add a few greenhouses to the farm the next spring, but everything was put on hold as the Tisbert family faced even more adversity.

Their eldest son Jay was diagnosed with a rare tumor at the age of 16. Initially, the tumor and subsequent surgery deprived him of his speech, sight and movement. The family rallied around him and supported him throughout his time in intensive care and the lengthy rehab. As important as the farm is to the Tisberts, family always takes priority.

After several months, Jay’s sight and communication abilities returned, but his movement did not. While he is still wheelchair-bound, he refused to let his disability prevent him from going to college. Jay went on to graduate from Vermont Technical College with a degree in landscape and horticultural design and has utilized his knowledge to enhance and optimize the family farm.

Once Jay was back home, the Tisberts were able to refocus their efforts on the Valley Dream Farm. They built several greenhouses and planted various new crops across their vast fields while maintaining the hay and pumpkins they started out with. For the most part, all of the work was done by the family. Anne and Joe’s three other children, Ashley, Becky and Jon spent hours each day planting, weeding, picking and whatever else the crops needed. In addition, they hired local workers to help out, who often were friends of the family.

To sell their produce, the Tisberts created their own local market called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which peaked at 200 members. “The first year we had only 25 members and then it doubled every year until we reached 200 in four years,” said Anne. “It grew pretty fast. About half of our sales we delivered ourselves between here and Burlington, and the other half of the people came to the farm to pick up their orders. But for as fast as it grew, it also dissolved equally as fast. Last year we were back down to 25 members and this year we didn’t do it at all. It just wasn’t bringing in enough money. The people that wanted to still do it wanted a payment plan, so we weren’t getting the early money that we really needed for the seeds and other stuff.”

Now, without the CSA, Valley Dream Farm has developed a network of buyers throughout the state. “We ship our vegetables locally as a part of the Vermont Food Hub,” Anne said. “We also ship to Deep Root Organic Co-Op, which is a cooperative of about 20 farmers and ship our crops from Maine to Florida. Most of the sales are with very big wholesalers like Whole Foods, Albert’s of New England and Onion River Co-Op.”

While the organic vegetable industry is currently less volatile and more economically viable than dairy, it’s still farming, and thus it is always challenging. “It’s a very unstable business, trying to make a living off of the land,” Anne said. “The biggest challenge is weather. We just got through the hottest year ever and in the last 10 years we’ve also experienced the coldest year, the shortest growing season and the wettest spring. Last year we had a problem with the potato crop because of the weather and the rain and the water table. We ended up with a potato virus called hollow heart. The potato still looks great on the outside, but when you cut it open it has a big hollow spot in the middle. There’s nothing wrong with them, they are still quite edible. But people don’t realize they’re still edible, they just think they’re ugly and throw it away, so it wasn’t marketable. Our buyer had to replace us with a second grower so that they wouldn’t be short. This year we changed varieties to a potato that wasn’t susceptible to hollow heart. But because of the hot season and lack of water, we ended up with a different potato issue called scab. They’re still okay, and again, still edible. It’s just spotty and brown on the outside with a really rough skin.”

Organic farming in itself presents its own challenges, especially when trying to compete with conventional farming. Organic farms are unable to use the chemicals that conventional farms use, so typically their vegetables aren’t as large. Nitrogen and water are the two biggest factors for increased growth, and conventional farmers have the freedom to pump their produce with as much nitrogen as they see fit.

Over the years, the Tisberts have deployed various tactics to try and combat the unpredictable and extreme weather, as well as the restrictions on chemicals required to be organic certified. “We’ve put in some irrigation systems, but we were so dry this year that it didn’t really help,” said Anne. “We use plastic mulch to reduce weeds and we use IPM, which stands for Integrated Pest Management in the greenhouses. For that we bring in ladybugs, which are good bugs, and they eat the bad bugs like aphids. A lot of the big farms also use it.”

For the Valley Dream Farm, organic produce may be their focal point, but within the last several years they have been using their land and resources in other ways to generate income that can withstand the unstable environmental conditions. The most popular and lucrative offering is their farm-to-table dinners, which they have now been doing for six years. “We do them every Tuesday night during the summer from the last week in June through October,” Anne said. “Before the dinners we do an educational hay ride tour, which is about 45 minutes. We also take one group on a walking tour through the greenhouses before everyone goes back to the farm for appetizers and to mingle. Then we sit down for a seven-course dinner. We have outdoor seating, and right now we’re building a commercial kitchen to accommodate the dinners.”

In addition to the dinners, Valley Dream Farm features a burgeoning wedding flower business, all of which are grown in their greenhouses and thus are immune to the climate issues. Their farm stand has a wide assortment of fresh produce available, depending on the season. They also sell numerous homemade products such as hot pepper jelly, jams and pickles, and frequently include recipes specific to the produce being sold.

Going forward, the Tisberts plan to focus on and expand their rye output and continue to tap into the hay market. “It seems like there’s a bigger demand for rye seed and straw,” said Anne. “When you plant rye, there are several options for what you can do with it. Winter rye is considered a cover crop, so you would plant it in August and it would grow until it snowed and then in the spring it would come back and continue to grow. Then when it’s about a foot high, we let it grow and go back to seed again. We then hire someone with a combine to combine the seed and it gives us two products to sell—both the seed and the straw. Also, we’ve always had a hay business here and that’s always been increasing because the demand for organic straw and hay has increased, while the demand for vegetables has decreased.”

Life on the farm never goes as planned, but the Tisberts’ determination and adaptability as a family has powered them through 26 years of economic strife, increasingly erratic weather and the most difficult of health problems. Regardless of whatever the future has in store for them, they’ve proven that they will persevere, and so will the Valley Dream Farm.

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Adapt and overcome: Valley Dream finds success in change