by Enrico Villamaino
For 27 seasons, Clear Brook Farm has grown and thrived in Shaftsbury, VT, becoming a local fixture and a model of organic farming.
Andrew Knafel, owner and operator of Clear Brook and a native of Irvington, NY, learned the tricks of the trade while working for years at Walker Farm in Putney, VT. In 1995, when the time was right, Knafel decided to start his own establishment. “I was able to open Clear Brook as an Act 250 deal, which means a lot to the community,” he explained, “so I was very fortunate.” Passed by the Vermont Legislature in the 1970s, Act 250 is Vermont’s land use and development law. The law assures that larger developments complement Vermont’s unique landscape, economy and community needs. Act 250 criteria protect natural and cultural resources such as water and air quality, wildlife habitat and agricultural soils.
Clear Brook sits on 50 tillable acres, and Knafel said that, at any given time, 25 to 30 acres are actively being used for agricultural purposes.
For the first few seasons, Clear Brook focused on the sale of its bedding plants. The customer base for the decorative seasonal display flowers for beds, borders, containers and hanging baskets has always been robust. “Even today, with all the growth we’ve had in our produce operations, the bedding plant sales are very strong,” Knafel said. He estimates that the sale of bedding plants still accounts for the lion’s share of spring income and about 40% of the farm’s overall revenues. “Even now,” Knafel laughed, “we’ll have people who have been customers for years say ‘You sell produce too?’ They’ve never realized we do more than just the bedding plants!”
After the first few seasons, Knafel and company started to expand the produce side of the business. Asked what produce they specialize in, he responded, “If you can grow it, we try it!” He added, “But not mushrooms. We don’t do mushrooms.”
Over 95% of the farm’s produce is sold directly at the Clear Brook Farm Stand, a 1,500 square foot retail space which Knafel added in the farm’s sixth season. “We’ve really tried to grow our farm stand and make it a true one-stop farm market.” In addition to all the homegrown produce available to customers, the Clear Brook Farm Stand features produce from other local farms. Milk from Berle Farm (Hoosick Falls, NY), fruit from Menands Market (Menands, NY), beef from Grateful Morning Farm (Shaftsbury, VT), goat cheese from Blue Ledge Farm (Salisbury, VT) and apples from Scott Farm Orchard (Dummerston, VT) are readily available for the farm stand’s steadfast stakeholders. Knafel noted, “We’re always on the lookout for new partners. If we’re out of something, we really try to source it from another local farmer.”
About 15 years ago, Clear Brook began a series of CSA programs. “Our winter CSA is a more traditional sort of program,” Knafel explained. “We average between 200 to 225 members.” Most of these members pick up their produce packages in person at the farm, but Clear Brook does deliver about 15% of their subscribers’ weekly baskets to locations in Manchester, VT, and Cambridge, NY. The winter CSA features broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, bok choi, Napa cabbage, green and red cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, leeks, shallots, onions, spinach, arugula, lettuce, Swiss chard, beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, storage radishes, daikon, colored peppers, winter squash, cilantro, kohlrabi and parsley. Customers can choose to purchase large, small and “half-pint” shares.
The summer CSA is a bit different. “Our summer CSA functions more like a farm share program. When members buy in, they basically get a gift card that has greater buying power at the store than their cash would. We basically give them a little more for their money,” Knafel said. In addition to these savings, members in Clear Brook’s summer CSA participate in strawberry picking at the farm. The summer CSA draws between 150 to 200 subscribers per year.
The senior farmshare program targets low income senior citizens and, for 10 weeks every year, makes available healthy, fresh grown produce. “We work with a number of the local low-income senior housing units. Each week, they get three items. In this program we focus more on traditional veggies, which seem to be the most popular in this particular program,” Knafel stated. The program serves about 135 members annually. Prospective senior subscribers are encouraged to apply with the assistance of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT).
Assisting Knafel in all of these endeavors is a solid core of employees. “At our high season, which is from the beginning of May through August, we have as many as 30 employees, a mix of full- and part-time,” he said. Knafel credits this team with Clear Brook’s continued success. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by very competent people. They really do a great job. I suspect this place runs best when I’m not even around!”
Asked about his future plans for Clear Brook, Knafel has several big things in the works. “When we started this place, we just had the one 200-year-old barn. Now we have several barns and 13 greenhouses containing 40,000 square feet of space. We’re looking into adding another barn as well as expanding our farm stand.”
To keep the Clear Brook community in constant contact, he is also developing an online farm newsletter. Knafel chuckled, “Even when we’re not in our busy season, we’re still busy!”
For more information visit clearbrookfarm.com.