Cultivating Vermont's Locavore Movement
Half Pint Farm is well known and loved in the Burlington, Vermont food scene. It was started in 2003 by Mara Welton and her husband, Spencer. By the time they sold the 2.5-acre farm last year, they were growing about 400 vegetable varieties, including 85 varieties of tomatoes, and selling their produce to 30 restaurants including Hen of the Wood.
Mara talks to Eco is Sexy about her recent 40-day plastic-free challenge, mantras to help achieve goals, shaping the farm-to-table movement in Vermont's biggest city, home gardening, and Half Pint.
Eco is Sexy: Please introduce yourself in a few sentences.
Mara: My name is Mara Welton. I'm originally from Denver, Colorado and have devoted the last 22 years of my life to organic farming, sustainability and feeding my community amazing, inspiring vegetables. My husband and I recently sold our beloved farm business of 16 years to an employee and are looking forward to a year-long sabbatical to explore other ideas that have been interesting to us. I have many hobbies including natural dyeing with food-waste scraps, calligraphy, crocheting, writing, gardening and snuggling with my senior dachshunds.
Eco is Sexy: Please tell us about doing the 40-day plastic-free challenge. What strategies worked best for you?
Mara: My 40-day plastic-free challenge was triggered by the single-use plastic bans rolling out across the world. People were pledging to do the 40 days of being plastic-free for Lent, and I wondered, "Can it be done? Can you exist in the world in modern times and be plastic-free?" My conclusion is: Mostly. You can certainly reduce plastic use by magnitudes, and that is something. There were some great strategies that seemed like small steps at the time, but I really feel like they are ones that have the largest impact for our household because they are ones we can maintain doing:
1. Eliminate the use of produce bags at the grocery store, along with bringing your own fabric bags from home. I shopped at places with bulk foods that I could use my own containers for (opting mostly for glass jars). I made some bags out of old fabric I had around the house for the individual produce items that needed to be weighed at checkout.
2. Cancelled our weekly trash pickup service. This forced our household to be face-to-face with our trash production; it also made it clear what is NOT recyclable or reusable and where the holes are in our regional recycling system. We ended up having to bring our trash to the dump and paying for what we throw into the landfill. It was an excellent exercise that made us reduce our plastic consumption dramatically and make better choices when shopping. This became a fun challenge - how much trash can we NOT produce?!
3. Stopped getting receipts printed. Thermally-printed receipts contain BPA and are not recyclable, even though they are paper.
4. I attend a lot of festivals and food trucks and restaurants and have made it a habit to bring my own eating kit everywhere. Cup, utensils, plate, bowl. I even bring my own take-away container to restaurants - they look at me funny, but they respect my request.
5. The most difficult plastics to recycle are film plastics (cling wrap, shrink wrap around things like paper towels/toilet paper, frozen produce bags, Ziplocks, etc.), so we eliminated those things from our purchasing habits - this is the hardest one because they are sneakily used in places I didn't expect. We tried to choose things packaged in paper or paperboard or chose fresh produce over frozen. These plastics can be recycled if local/regional facilities have the capacity, but they need to be clean and dry - often too much hassle for consumers to go the extra step to rinse and dry and THEN bring them back to the plastic bag recycling at their grocery store.
6. When faced with the option of purchasing an item that had a package that I knew couldn't be recycled, I had a mantra, which was "This will go into the Earth or into the Ocean. Are you OK with that?" It turned out that repeating that mantra was always enough to get me to make a better choice.
7. The rules I followed (and now always follow) were pretty simple:
a. Don't buy any new plastic.
b. If I have to buy something in a package I have to KNOW that it can be recycled. Do the research.
c. If I used plastic during the challenge, it had to be something I already had, and I HAD TO reuse it over and over and not make it a single-use throw away item.
d. If there's an item that I want from a company that uses plastic that actually could do better to not use plastic in the future, I let them know about alternatives. I wrote a lot of letters outlining how I won't buy from them unless they make better choices.
8. Mindset is key.
a. First and foremost, I had to get clear with myself about the actual objective. Working towards zero-waste can really wear a person down. You can start to judge yourself pretty harshly about being imperfect in this pursuit because plastic is ubiquitous and the problem of plastic waste is overwhelming once you start looking at its place in our society.
b. Trying to hold yourself to a zero-waste goal is unfair, unattainable and can be fraught with judgment. Striving to create habits that have an obvious impact and that you can sustain is a good strategy.
c. I have another mantra that I use when I feel bad about not being a perfect zero-waste household: "It's not about being perfect, it's about making better choices every single opportunity. It's about incremental, sustainable change. It's about not making the problem worse with my personal choices. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Upcycle. Do better."
Eco is Sexy: What would you do to accomplish your one-year zero-waste goals in the next two weeks, if you had to?
Mara: My goal for the next year in the waste arena is to research exactly what happens to recyclables in my community and share. If I had to accomplish that in the next two weeks, I would travel to several recycling centers and ask a TON of questions... hey wait, I think I'll just do that!
Eco is Sexy: Please tell us about Half Pint Farm. What were your goals when you started it and what part of its success made you the most proud?
Mara: Half Pint Farm was an idea my husband and I had in the 90s. Our idea was to create a farm that produced high-quality, inspiring vegetables that was profitable on small acreage. We settled in Burlington, VT and started our urban farm in 2003. Over 16 years we helped form the new farm-to-table movement and get people excited about vegetables and cooking. Our 2.5 acre farm provided produce for 24 households in our CSA, 100 senior citizens in a farm share program, 30 restaurants and caterers, one farmers' market that boasted 10,000 visitors each Saturday, and one grocery store. What made me the most proud is all of the relationships our little farm enabled us to make - from the chefs to the CSA families to the seniors to the farmers' market attendees; it felt like a true collaborative effort to produce such high-quality vegetables that ended up on all of their tables. It was an honor to grow for the Burlington community for 16 years, and the fact that our little farm gets to live on in the hands of our employee and her crew is the cherry on top.
Eco is Sexy: Any tips for the home gardener zero-waster?
Mara: Be gentle with yourself. Change is hard, but change is also growth! Gardening gives you so many opportunities to reuse and recycle - using the whole plant for instance. Don't just eat the delicious root of a carrot, find a use for that carrot top - composting can be the final resting place, but what else can you use it for? Can you dry it and use it as a delicious herb? Can you use it as a natural dye? Can you feed it to an animal? Can you do some art with it? Can you make stock with it? Can you also eat it? The answer to all of these questions is: YES. And that's just a carrot top!
Eco is Sexy: What projects or goals come next for you, and what's the best part of the next thing you're doing?
Mara: I am taking a sabbatical year. As someone who knows all to well how to get consumed by the day-to-day work of any job, I needed to step off of that train to recalibrate what I want to spend my days doing. The best part of this period so far has been really diving into my values and swimming around in there getting crystal clear about what I would like out of this life. It is a delight rediscovering interests, people, and influences that I have not connected with for some time. I am focusing on what I want to do and how to be the best human I can be.
Eco is Sexy: What is your most recommended or gifted book?
Mara: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.