Picture Perfect: One Vermont Couple Makes Farming Look Beautiful And Delicious

Oct 15, 2015

In one photo, apples, crispy bacon, shredded cheddar cheese and a couple of sprigs of fresh sage rest on a weathered wooden cutting board, ready to be made into savory scones.

In another, a pink flower with an inner yellow base, the size of a silver dollar, practically glows in the palm of a soil-streaked hand.

This is the work of Thomas McCurdy and Bailey Hale. Together they own Ardelia Farm in Irasburg. Their Instagram account is full of beautiful flowers and baked goods, pigs and tiny chicks. They've leveraged their ability to tell a story about their farm into a successful crowd-funded campaign to build a greenhouse that will help them expand their growing flower operation.

On how they came to Vermont

In Philadelphia, McCurdy worked as a pastry chef and Hale, his husband, was a floral and event designer (and a singer with the Philadelphia Opera). Four years ago, in what can be acknowledged as an age-old cliché, they renounced city life to move to the country.

"We really love food, and wanted to be more involved with where our food came from," says McCurdy. "And so we found some rented land up in central New York state."

Once they determined they could actually hack it as country farmers, they began looking to buy a more permanent homestead. This brought them to the 49-acre diversified pasture-based farm they now occupy in Irasburg.

"We looked far and wide, throughout New England and beyond, and all signs pointed to the Northeast Kingdom," says McCurdy.

The pair first visited the property that became Ardelia Farm in the wake of a blizzard. Four feet of snow buried the land, yet the couple knew they had found their home.

"It's unlike anywhere we've lived before, up here in the Northeast Kingdom. I think because we're so isolated," says McCurdy. "We're all in this together."

McCurdy and Hale hope the greenhouse will allow them to grow more local flowers against the constraints of weather in Vermont.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

On the flower business

The passion for local food shared by Hale and McCurdy carries over into the flower business they started.

"I was [using] all of these flowers from South and Central America," says Hale. "It didn't really make sense to me."

The climate in the Northeast Kingdom, though a challenge that shortens the traditional growing season, does have its benefits.

"There are some things we can do better here than anywhere else," says Hale. "Our peonies don't flower until July here, and the entire rest of the East Coast is finished by that point. The only option is to get them out of Alaska, but I can have them down to Boston and New York in an afternoon."

To expand their flower business and maintain their commitment to local goods, McCurdy and Hale launched a successful Indiegogo campaign this past spring. Their goal? To construct a 2,500-square-foot greenhouse that would add two to three months of growing to their season.

"We can have frost any month of the year up here, so this really lets us grow some things that otherwise would not be possible here this far north in Vermont," - Bailey Hale, Ardelia Farm & Co. co-owner

"We can have frost any month of the year up here, so this really lets us grow some things that otherwise would not be possible here this far north in Vermont," says Hale.

Dahlias, Calla lillies, lisianthus, dianthus and celosia line the steamy greenhouse nestled on their property. Hale says this first year of growing in the greenhouse was kind of an experiment. But he plans to narrow down the types of flowers he grows in the greenhouse next year, devoting particular attention to sweet peas. A couple of acres of land outside the greenhouse is devoted to peonies, which won't mature until 2020.

On the "localvore" flower movement

"Traditionally, florists grew their own flowers. That's how it's been in the United States since the beginning," says Hale. "I don't have the exact statistics, but upwards of 80 percent of our flowers are now imported from Central and South America."

Hale goes on to say that maybe 20 percent of the cut flower market comes from the United States, and 80 percent of those flowers come from California. A very small percentage are being grown and distributed at the local level. And Hale he hopes to capture some of that market.

"It's about 10 years behind the slow food movement, but people are really starting to pay attention to where their flowers come from."

Hale says there are a lot of good reasons to support the slow flower movement. Importers do not have to declare pesticides used on flowers brought into the United States, and so consumers appreciate the additional transparency found at the local level. Plus, purchasing locally-grown flowers directly supports a farmer within the community.

"We have very different skill sets that complement one another. While I head off to the bakery in the morning, Bailey's here in the greenhouse and out in the fields." - Thomas McCurdy, Ardelia Farm & Co. co-owner

"You're paying a pretty good price, so if you can pay that price directly to the farmer, you usually get a better value for your dollar," says Hale. 

This commitment to locally grown flowers does require customers to be a bit flexible.

"We can get any color, at any time. We can work with certain feels and certain textures," says Hale. "But there are some things like roses that are difficult to grow without a greenhouse. They're very intensive with fertilizers and pesticides, and are prone to diseases."

On their baked goods

Although McCurdy left his career as a professional baker back in Philadelphia, his passion for baking stayed with him.

Local ingredients get ready to become an autumnal scone. The bakery is helping sustain the farm as Hale and McCurdy get their flower business up and running.
Credit Ardelia Farm and Co.

"With our own eggs and almost entirely our own produce, as well as local flour, buttermilk and butter, we're able to produce an array of baked goods that we've been selling for the past couple of years at local farmers markets," says McCurdy.

These baked goods have been flying off the stand at farmers markets in Burlington, Craftsbury Commons and Stowe. Profit from the bakery has allowed McCurdy and Hale to experiment and take more risks with the flower farm.

On how to make a small farm work

Small farms in Vermont don't always share the same success story as Ardelia Farm.

"We have very different skill sets that complement one another," says McCurdy. "While I head off to the bakery in the morning, Bailey's here in the greenhouse and out in the fields. And then we can join forces at the end of the day to do evening chores and start planning for the next day."

McCurdy also credits their strong social media presence for their successes. Their well-curated Instagram and Facebook pages allow the pair to convey an authentic depiction of Ardelia Farm to all who may be interested.

"We don't try to paint a beautiful, bucolic picture that isn't our reality," says McCurdy. He says they just go about their daily activities, appreciating facets of the world that surrounds them. If a camera is on hand, they snap a picture to share with followers. While McCurdy's claim to represent the unvarnished truth may be accurate, it's clear that their reality is both beautiful and delicious.