September 22, 2014

New farm focuses on community

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

August 1, 2013

Williston’s newest farmer, Alessandra Rellini, stepped over the low electric fence on South Road, where about a dozen young pigs were rooting around in what will become her garden.

“They’re like little dogs,” she said of the pigs eagerly gathering around her, one of them even flopping at her feet for a belly rub.

Nearby, a small flock of heritage-breed chickens gave themselves dust baths. A big lovable sow named Spots heaved herself up, trotting over eagerly for a pat.

“Even when she’s hungry, she always demands a little pat first,” Rellini said. “Half of my job is petting pigs.”

The animals are the first wave of livestock at the new Agricola Farm, which will eventually sell fresh meat, eggs, Pecorino cheese and a range of Italian charcuterie. Rellini and her husband, Charles Hubbard, along with dedicated workers and volunteers, began moving in approximately two weeks ago.

This weekend, she hopes to move a dozen Icelandic sheep. Icelandic sheep—the type with big, curling horns—provide high-quality meat and also dairy, which Rellini hopes to eventually develop into Pecorino cheese.

“You really need to diversify to survive,” she said.

They will also raise quail and guinea hens, which Rellini described as having all the flavor and richness of duck and the leanness of chicken.

THE RIGHT FIT

Rellini, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont, first came to the U.S. as an exchange student from Italy when she 16. She returned for college, and ended up staying. She and Hubbard got into farming approximately four years ago, starting with a few pigs. Before long, their pig herd grew, and they added chickens.

Rellini spent two years searching for a piece of land to start Agricola Farm, considering 50 or 60 places before she found the South Road location.

She had almost purchased a plot of land in Hinesburg, when the arrangements fell through at the last minute because the parties couldn’t agree on a price.

With time running out before she had to move out of her Hinesburg location, she was having trouble finding a home for her 14 pigs.

“I just started knocking at people’s doors, literally,” she said. “I would just drive around, and leave little maple sugar candies and a note.”

When she knocked on the door of Waldo Siple, she said they “hit it off really well.”

Waldo Siple and his daughter, Mary, heard her business plan, checked out her operation in Hinesburg, then allowed her to move quickly. She is leasing approximately 20 acres for three years, and the Siples also granted her access to their equipment.

“I’ve only known them for a few months, but I feel like they’re my family now,” Rellini said.

A COMMUNITY FARM

Rellini and Hubbard hope to make Agricola a sustainable, diversified, community-oriented farm.

Neighbors have already been welcoming and interested, frequently stopping by with their children to say hello and see what she is doing. Some have volunteered to help, including Williston resident Michael Wayman.

“I’ve always been into raising farm animals, and I thought if I could at least help someone else, I might be able to get my fix that way,” said Wayman, who keeps chickens and plans to add bees to his property.

“I think it’s a niche that has not been tapped into, and we’re excited to have a place like that in Williston. I think Williston gets the big box moniker applied to it too often.”

Rellini encouraged residents to visit the farm, as well as to get in touch with her to share ideas—whether it’s a type of meat they’d love to try or a new breed of chicken.

In the fall, Rellini and Hubbard plan to begin implementing “farm to grill” nights on the lawn next to the barn, with live music and grilled meat from the farm.

They also plan to sell directly to customers through a farm stand and reservations, along with some farmers’ market stops.

“Our plan is never to go too big,” she said. “We don’t want to lose control.”

Rellini added that she doesn’t want to ship her meat to distant markets, even if they are more lucrative.

“I’d rather save the gas and feed the people around me,” she said.

She also hopes to utilize traditional, diversified farming methods, such as having multiple species on one farm. Having multiple species helps keep away predators—foxes won’t dare to snatch a chicken when there are pigs around. It also prevents parasites, meaning she doesn’t have to treat her animals with antibiotics. And, she said, it adds a companionable air.

“Maybe I anthropomorphize everything, but I really feel like they like to hang out with each other,” she said.

Rellini hopes to begin selling eggs, as well as homemade ravioli, in approximately two weeks. Tentatively, chicken and fresh lamb will be available in September, fresh pork in October.

Rellini hopes to begin selling handmade charcuterie in November.

Charcuterie is a long and specific process, she said. It takes roughly two years, from breeding the right type of pig to finishing the curing process, for a finished product.

“That’s why it’s expensive, but I think it’s worth it.”

The pigs must eat a particular diet—lots of greens and certain vegetables and grains, never any soy or corn—to get the treasured, pure white fat and rich flavor in prosciutto, salame, coppa and more.

“I love doing it,” she said. “I love eating it, I love sharing it with people.”

For more information, visit www.agricolavermont.com.

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