Monday, December 10, 2007


Here's a glimpse of Middlebury at its best (though this picture hardly does it justice). This is a view from the section of the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM). This part of the TAM skirts the golf couse on the Middlebury College campus. What you can't see from this small shot is that the Green Mountains there in the distance span at least 160 degrees of the horizon from southeast to northwest. That view is awesome and humbling; I often laugh and cry when I see it. It's especially compelling at night with a full moon, or when the ridge line is shrouded by a snowstorm.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Bailed on Cortland

Last week we submitted and offer on a small farm in Cortland, NY. The place was both robust and a compromise of sorts. At 45 acres it had more land than we needed to start, but plenty of room to grow. It had a new 30' x 50' pole barn (with power), and an old dairy barn that was structurally solid, but also full of trash. The house was very well maintained, until you looked at at the basement; the back foundation wall was doing a slow motion tumble-in and most floors slanted significantly.

In short we knew there were issues to the place, but it was very affordable; a reasonable compromise, it seemed, and a good place to start, even if we didn't opt to stay there forever. We made an offer at full asking price but with a contingency to split the expense of repairing the foundation (as assessed by an outside professional) up to a reasonable cap amount. The owners balked, and countered with a substantially lower cap on the shared repairs. They also ran out and (virtually overnight) got a very narrowly focused estimate on the foundation repairs. By narrowly focused I mean that the estimate only covered the back corner, which was the worst place in the foundation wall, but far from the only point of concern.

Somewhere in the negotiations, I asked about one of the circled disclosure statements which indicated others held rights (of some kind) to the property. I figured this refered to the guy who was haying the two pastures, but thought we should know for certain. Good question to ask. Turns out the local gas company holds a lease to the place, authorizing them to drill for methane whenever (and pretty much where ever) they wanted. Ooops. Also turns out the owners had not told their agent about this lease. Double oops. The techincal term for that is fraud.

So now we had visions of owning the place and having the gas company sinking a gas well in the middle of our two year old asparagus or rhubarb patch -- and driving over our raised beds to get there. OK, that's perhaps a bit over the top. But between the neglect of the foundation and the dairy barn, and not being entirely forthcoming in the legalities, we began to re-think the deal, and eventually opted to just bail out before it started costing us any money.

In the process we took stock and re-examined where we were. It looks like opportunities in the Finger Lakes are there for us if we want them. The area has land that is both good and (relatively) cheap. But we find our energies and passions are here at the feet of the spectacular Green Mountains. We're going to refocus our efforts and find a way to make this work here in Vermont. We don't know yet what the answer is: we may find it in the spring when new properties hit the market, or we may wind up doing an internship this spring-through-fall and then figuring it all out a bit later. But, as our friends Chris and Susan pointed out -- we haven't been looking very long, really. It just seems like it's been a long time since we're living in such tight quarters, and away from most of our worldly posessions. But we're also learning the Dharma of patience and, hopefully, we will gain a little wisdom along the way. That alone would make the journey entirely worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A White Thanksgiving

We hope your Thanksgiving was good. Ours was white! Well, ok, just barely, but it was still great fun!

The image on the right is of Frog Hollow arts center and studio where Yvonne has been really enjoying working with ceramics the past few months.

Below is a shot of the Middlebury green on Thanksgiving eve. The gazebo is often used for outdoor activities other times of the year. For the next few months I think it will be mostly serve a decorative purpose.

And speaking of Thanksgiving, we had a really great day! Dinah and Mitch, two of the original members of CVUUS, invited us to join them at their house, along with some of their friends from Burlington. We had a wonderful day of fabulous foods and better company. Middlebury has been so good to us!

Back to the snow. While the higher elevations around here got better than a foot of the white stuff, here in town the snow melted rather quickly. We've gotten some intermittent flurries since then. For the record though, Yvonne and I are taking no chances -- our tire chains arrived this Monday.

The Friday after Thanksgiving we went up to Burlington to meet up with our friend Kolya and his family, and some folks we know from Claggett Farm (in Maryland) who were up for Thanksgiving. Kolya, his wife Sandra, and daughter Maria used to be our cross town neighbors in Takoma Park. Kolya worked for several years at Claggett, which is where we met him. Now he has a small farm at The Intervale in Burlington, and a spacious house on the north side of town. We had a wonderful time re-connecting with Kolya, Sandra, Maria, Kenji, and Gail. The last time we saw Kolya we helped load his moving truck!

Here's a picture of Kolya, with a custom made broadfork, at his going away party at Claggett Farm. It was much warmer then!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Search for Land, Chapter II

We just got back from a five day trip to the Finger Lakes. We linked up with our very excellent and indefatigable real estate agent, Paul, and looked at 10 new properties and reexamined three from earlier trips.

A second look at the three leading properties proved very helpful. A 43 acre farm in Berkshire remains “our 80% solution”. The missing 20% is generally expressed in idiosyncrasies; the pasture is bisected by a deep stream bed that we would have to bridge, the barn needs a new roof and some rafter replacement, and the house’s first floor bathroom has a very large jet stream tub on the first floor, but there are no bedrooms on the first floor.

An 8 acre horse farm in Groton didn’t look as good the second time around, and that’s ok because it went under contract the day after our second viewing.

The third place we took another look at is near Cortland. We saw the place at open house on the last trip, and our impression then was that the house was well cared for, but the asking price was too high. It has since been aggressively re-priced. Our reexamination was very helpful. We never had any question on the land -- it’s 45 acres, half pasture and half arable, and all well drained. The living space in the house has been very well cared for. But the owners have done bupkis for the foundation, which is in very serious need of fundamental repairs. This explains why it’s being sold “as is”. Paul suggested that we might offer them full asking price but toss in a clause that would require the sellers to set aside $15K-$20K in escrow to repair the foundation. The place has an old 16 stall dairy barn and after a second look we concluded that it’s in much better condition than we remembered. A little work on the roof would give us a large, solid structure to work with.

One of the new places was of interest too. It’s either a 7 or 17 acre place in Lodi with very new outbuildings. At least two of the out buildings have both water and power. The knock on the place is that the house is a doublewide mobile home, though we thought much more of it than we would have imagined. It is in very good condition, with ceiling fans in most rooms, sky lights, and a wood stove. It’s also surrounded by Amish farms and is close to wineries; both big plusses.

After three days of running around looking at properties we repaired to Gentle Giants B&B for a weekend of R&R. We chilled out, toured some wineries, and generally let the dust settle some on our search to see where we were/are.

So here’s approximately where we are: we found some places in New York that would certainly allow us to start the market-garden vegetable operation we envision, with plenty of room to grow. The Finger Lakes are beautiful, exciting, and inviting. That said, we have really enjoyed Vermont, and would really like to find a place here, but it’s very difficult to argue with the economics. Vermont really suffers from the pressure its popularity as a vacation and seasonal home destination puts on the land prices. We’re also growing anxious to have all of our belongings in one place again, but we don’t want to make a rushed decision. We’re going to cogitate and meditate on it a bit more, view a handful other listings here in Vermont and then see what we've got.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Latest from Middlebury

The big news in town was last Tuesday’s train derailment . A single track runs directly through the center of town, and, most days, a pair of freight trains run up to Burlington. The one cargo they always carry is gasoline -- this one was carrying 200,000 gallons, plus a few cars full of road salt. The train derailed and a small fire broke out. Things were a bit troubling, to say the least. Yvonne was working in the pottery studio at Frog Hollow at the time. She and everyone else within the center of town were told to evacuate. All traffic was rerouted around town. Things were a mess! Fortunately for us our apartment building was beyond the evacuation zone. Folks who live in the center of town ended up quartered at the VFW hall for the night.

Fortunately the HazMat team response was outstanding. Some gasoline spilled onto the ground and thence into Otter Creek, but most of it was contained. And most fortunately, none of the petrol caught fire. A specialized HazMat team from Pennsylvania arrived on Wednesday to help drain the gasoline and set the cars back on the rails. It wasn’t until Thursday that traffic was back to near normal conditions. The last of the street closings ended yesterday, though you can still smell gasoline as you walk through town.

In other news, we met the fellow who played Officer Friendly on the Mr. Rogers Show. He is Francois Clemmons and is on staff here at Middlebury College . We met him at church a few weeks ago! All this and celebrities too!

Next week we’re going back out to the Finger Lakes to look over some more properties. We have half a dozen places to review, and we’re going to reexamine three that we’ve seen before. It feels like things are beginning to come into focus for us. Here’s hoping! It will be great to have all our things in one place again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Otter Creek Falls

For my boating buddies, here's a shot of the falls mentioned in the previous post. I estimate the drop at 20', but it might well be closer to 25'. The line folks run is far river right. The whole creek is pretty shallow, so I think a creek boat is absolutely required to avoid penciling in too deeply. The good news is that there are no issues setting up for the drop -- the water above is pretty slack; no hairy ferries or other complications, apart from needing to nail that boof stroke on the lip.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Search for Land

As you might guess we’ve been pretty actively engaged in searching for suitable land and a home. Our business plan calls for purchasing a small place outright, so our “unfair advantage” (in the parlance of Joel Salatin) will be that we don’t have to pay a mortgage. That will take a good deal of the pressure off, particularly the first year of operations. But at the same time we’d like a place that is immediately livable, even if it eventually requires some measure of work.

We’ve looked at about a dozen properties here in Vermont. And while we’ve found places that would work, they often include too much upfront work -- either the house needs extensive reconstruction or the land needs to be cleared, or the soil maps report the place is mostly rock and we’d be looking at raised beds (and much $$). We’re casting a fairly wide net: we’ve been looking here around Middlebury, “across the mountain” (as they say around here when they mean the Montpelier area) as well as the Finger Lakes region of NY.

So how did the Finger Lakes get in that list? Our friends Robert and Elaine similarly emigrated from DC now live in the country outside of Kingston, NY. They encouraged us to consider upstate New York in our quest. A little googling and I found some very interesting prospects around Ithaca. So we took a trip out that way back in September. We looked at three properties on that trip, and one small farm in Berkshire, NY had about 80% of what we were looking for and was very affordable. We also took some time out to sample some local wines and chanced upon the Thirsty Owl Winery . We met the owner at the wine tasting and he was very excited about our mission. “Oh, you need to be here “ were his exact words, and he was able to tell us about the large number of Amish farmers who are relocating to Seneca county. Hmm, we thought. Amish folks make great neighbors and we stand learn plenty from them. We also visited the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca to get a sense of that community. And we checked out the very excellent Ithaca farmers market. All the way around things looked pretty good.

Two weeks ago we mounted a second expedition out that way and in a whirlwind we looked at 12 properties in 2 days. It was tough keeping things straight in hour heads, but we took lots of notes. In the end we were most impressed with the first place we looked at, naturally. We plan a third trip in early November.

One thing I didn’t appreciate until we actually started walking around properties was the real difference in land prices between Vermont and New York. I knew Vermont was home to many vacation properties and expected that to translate to higher land/housing costs. But the equally exotic Finger Lakes region (with better wine) -- are cheaper by a factor of 3 or 4. Yikes!

So I’m not saying it’s New York for us just yet. But it’s beginning to look that way.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hello From Middlebury, VT!

Hello from Middlebury, Vermont!

For those that haven't heard from us, we arrived here in Middlebury on September 5, and we’ve been enjoying the small town New England scene ever since.

So why Middlebury?

Our friends, Chris and Susan, moved from New Jersey to Cornwall, VT about a year ago. Cornwall is about 3 miles south of Middlebury. Chris and Susan have an empty pole barn on their property, and they very kindly offered us some storage space therein. That has been very helpful -- thanks guys!

So it made sense to find a place to set up base camp near where some of our goods would be. Middlebury is home to Middlebury College , and some short term housing is available for visiting faculty and parents. I trolled craigslist and found a furnished efficiency for short term rent right. “Furnished” in this case meant complete down to cloth napkins and broadband internet access. A furnished place made packing much easier -- we only needed clothes and essential personal effects -- everything else went into storage in Hyattsville (also big thanks to Bones & Andrea for storing some of the more delicate items -- thanks muchly guys!).

A second reason for being here in Middlebury is the land itself. Middlebury is located near the center of the Champlain Valley, which is home to 80% of the arable land in Vermont. Since we aspire to farm, quality land is, well, important.

We are well. Yvonne has found work on the prep staff of a local 4 star French restaurant, Christophes on the Green . I’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue to work part time for the same National Weather Service office (via SAIC) for which I worked for over 10 years down in DC. They have kindly given me a very interesting project to tackle.

Our apartment is right on the edge of the college campus, and we’ve been using their cross country course for our morning runs. The college students are generally quite pleasant, much more so than I remember them being when I was one. The college also offers some arts and entertainment, which we hope to take advantage of in the coming months.

The town of Middlebury is small, maybe 8,000 people, or roughly the size of town I grew up in back in Pennsylvania. Middlebury has much better restaurants though. Middlebury is a valley town, sitting astride a river named Otter Creek. Right down town Otter Creek has a beautiful 20’ water fall, which was harnessed to power industry in the 19th century. The ruins of some of that infrastructure still stand, and yes, boaters run that drop in kayaks. I saw a couple of guys in creek boats doing that yesterday, in fact. My day for that may come, but first I’ll have to figure out where my dry suit is. Probably need a creeker tool; my RPM is a bit too pointy for gnar like that.

One other claim to Middlebury fame is John Deere, the namesake of the company that still produces farm machinery today. Mr. Deere came to Middlebury as a teen to learn blacksmithing, then went to the Midwest and invented “the plow that broke the prairie”, aka the moldboard plow.

Middlebury is an agricultural hub -- the county stock yards are just 2 miles southeast of town. From our apartment we can smell the local dairy farms on every south wind, which some folks might not think much of, but to me it’s a wonderful accompaniment to a savory meal and a glass of earthy, red wine. Milk trucks the size of fuel tankers roll through town most daylight hours, and occasionally tractors haul loads of proto-silage or livestock past our apartment.

We’ve begun making contacts with people here in town. Our landlords, Bud and Deb, are wonderful folks, who take it upon themselves to help us out frequently. It’s handy that they know pretty much everybody in town. Bud also buys fair-trade, organic coffee beans (green) and roasts them in the garage out back. Most mornings the area smells of roasting coffee, which is different from brewing coffee, but it’s still very pleasant. His Indonesian brew is my favorite.

We’ve been attending the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (CVUUS) here in Middlebury. Turns out CVUUS is the second largest UU congregation in Vermont, though Middlebury is nowhere near the 2nd largest city/town in the state. It’s been a very good experience thus far, and it often reminds me of our time at UUCSS (UU Church of Silver Spring, MD). As an aside, here in Vermont the UU congregations tend to call themselves “Societies” rather than “Churches”. In due course I hope to learn what drove that naming convention.