The Land Between
Whether or not Joyce Cellars knew that collecting chicken eggs would be part of her job description when she signed on for the Community Relations Managerial position at the Intervale Center, she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seemed to enjoy it. Wearing black rubber boots, she disappeared around the corner of the two story, red, brick building where the Center’s main offices were housed. A few minutes later, she emerged with a smile and a handful of multi-colored eggs. Another day on the farm had officially begun.
“The Intervale is a geographic term that means ‘the land between’” explained Joyce. “In this case, it’s a floodplain between the Winooski River and Lake Champlain here in Burlington. The Intervale Center manages 350 acres of land within the 700 acre Intervale for conservation, recreation and community events.” As we walked around the property, sunflowers beamed down at us, butterflies floated around our ankles and shoulders, and honey bees bumped into us as they made their way from flower to flower. Volunteers in the distance dunked fresh kale into buckets of water and pulled juicy tomatoes from healthy vines. We had found a lush and fruitful corner of Vermont; however, things hadn’t always been so pleasant.
Our first stop on the tour was the Abenaki Heritage Garden, a demonstration garden engineered to honor the heritage of the Abenaki tribe that first tended to the land, growing corn, beans and squash centuries ago. The garden looked more like a patch of earth that had been forgotten. Corn stalks and tall strands of grass grew into each other and were so thick, we couldn’t see into the center of the garden. Pumpkins and squash were scattered among herbs until we couldn’t tell where one plant ended and the next began. This mess of indigenous plants looked more like a culvert than a strategic garden. Nevertheless, once a year, it is the centerpiece of a heritage festival that highlights authentic Abenaki foods (hazelnut cakes, moose soup, succotash, popped corn, pumpkin pudding, herbal tea, etc) and other cultural traditions.
As we walked from the heritage garden to the community center, we found ourselves dodging puddles on a muddy road. Vast meadows stretched out from either side of us and we were given a much better idea of the kind of swamp the Intervale could become when it rained. The land’s slippery makeup fell out of favor in 1944, long after settlers had arrived and towns were established. Townspeople stopped using the Intervale to grow crops and started dumping automobile waste into it.
Years of landfill use turned the land into a slippery toxic mess. The Intervale was forgotten and left to fester, until one day, a man named Will Raap lost possession of his vehicle and decided to look for it in the Intervale. Instead, he found a plot of land that, with a little love and care, could nurture enough crops to feed everyone in town. In 1986, Will Raap started a cleanup program. By hauling out automobile parts and filling in the holes with leaf and yard waste from Burlington yards, the program revitalized the soil. In 1989, the Intervale Center opened as an agricultural support center and started sponsoring farmers in the area. It has been moving forward ever since.
“The dozen farms in the Intervale produce over a million pounds of food every year that goes out into the Burlington community,” said Joyce. “We also run the Intervale Food Hub, which is an online local food market that works with 45 Vermont producers and delivers to 7,500 Vermonters each week.” Since it began, Intervale Center has established youth education programs, conservation projects, food assistance programs, a farmer incubation program and more. After working for the center for five years, Joyce agrees that the organization is something special (coming from someone who used to work with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, that is saying a lot.)
Throughout the tour, we encountered plump squash, crisp kale, bright sunflowers, juicy tomatoes, sweet apples and other delicious treats. We met friendly volunteers who were setting crates of produce out on long wooden tables in preparation for a busy day ahead. It was a community pickup day and citizens would be arriving soon to choose a basket of goodies. “Even though there isn’t a retail location here in the Intervale, you can find Intervale products at City Market- Onion River Co-op, which is right in downtown Burlington.” Joyce said as we passed dozens of crates full of tomatoes. Intervale products are also on the menu at several Burlington restaurants such as Farmhouse Tap and Grill, American Flatbread, Duino Duende, and the Skinny Pancake.
On top of maintaining its community programs, the Intervale Center also caters to visitors. “There’s a lot for visitors to experience in the Intervale,” Joyce said. “You’re welcome to take a walk around with a self-guided tour map. We also offer a free public tour once a month from May through October. But the Intervale is open year-round to bikers and walkers and we offer groomed cross country ski trails in the winter when there is snow.” The Intervale Center also hosts two events throughout the year: Summervale and Wintervale. Each free event features local food that was grown nearby and is designed to bring visitors and people in the community closer together.
We finished the tour at the same brick building where we began and thanked Joyce for her time. Before peeling ourselves from the Intervale and continuing our day, we took another walk around the campus. Turtles lounged on floating logs in ponds. Trees swayed in the breeze. Children picked berries from bushes and popped them into their mouths before their parents could catch them. We couldn’t get enough of the beauty of the Intervale, a place that not only nurtured fruits and vegetables and livestock, it nurtured an entire community and provided wholesome meals for thousands. Like Joyce said, the Intervale Center really was something special.