Earlier this year, during the International Workshop on Agritourism in Vermont, attendees were invited to visit different farms in the Burlington area to see how they incorporated agritourism into their operations. At Agricola Farm in Panton, VT, serving suppers is their meal ticket.
Co-owners Alessandra (Ale) Rellini and Stefano Pinna are both originally from Italy. Rellini first visited the U.S. at age 15 as an exchange student and made the decision to return years later. She said Vermont is the closest setting she’s found to matching her family’s hometown culture near Lake Como, Italy. A psychologist by training, she now farms full-time.
Pinna, an agronomist, is from Torino and emigrated in 2015. He has a background in agriculture, which he said became a passion for making food – especially the things he couldn’t find in the stores here. “Moving here helped me rediscover my roots,” he said.
Agricola (Italian for “agricultural”) Farm started in 2006 after Rellini was offered a position at the University of Vermont – and she was missing her food. “The pork here tasted different,” she said. “But I only had six acres, so I got Icelandic sheep (which are good for wool, milk and meat) but they were nightmarish. I had three pigs, and also a couple dozen heritage chickens.” The farm stand opened that year as well.
The farm’s expansion happened via hospitality. “I hosted a friend’s pigs and saw that they needed community, but with more pigs, you need more land,” Rellini explained. “Seven years later, I had 60 acres, so I needed more pigs and more sheep.”
Today, they raise about 180 pigs and 200 sheep and they’ve opened up their own meat processing facility.
“We’re obsessive about our meat,” Rellini stated. The pigs are slaughtered offsite at a USDA facility but are processed in Panton. “We were just selling fresh meat but got shamed by our friends into cured meats [salami] about two years ago,” she added. More than that, this autumn, they began aging prosciutto along with pancetta and capicola as well.
The farm, originally built in the 1830s, had always been a dairy in the past. The buildings have been retrofitted for their new livestock residents. Rellini said it also used to have 800 maple taps – which she utilized to gather the capital for her current operation.
The single boar onsite is the Berkshire breed, and the sows are all New England heritage breeds. They keep the sows as long as they provide litters of six or more, and the piglets stay with their mothers for two and a half months. They are fed specifically for the best fresh and cured meat.
The manure from the pigs is spread in the hay field; the hay is used to feed the sheep; and sometimes they use their chickens to spread the manure faster. Rellini said all that can help add another cutting of hay each year. They also fill in pig wallows in their pastures with manure and seed with turnips (which have long roots to help stabilize the soil).
“To move them, we use pig psychology – are they motivated by food? By anxiety? You have to figure that out,” Rellini said. “We teach our employees the ‘pig language.’ We don’t use fences or trailers to move them. We just walk with them.”
The five or six employees all use the pig language, which includes phrases in Italian.
Green Mountain Power, an electric company, hired Agricola’s sheep to maintain the grass under the solar panels in the field that abuts the farm. Similarly, their chickens are free range except for when they need to hatch a new brood. With a mix of Jersey Giant, Java and Silky White, the farm is almost at a point of creating their own breed – all born and raised on the farm for the past seven years.
“The ducks are a new addition,” Rellini said. “They taste good and they’re cute – but we need to learn their psychology.” On the day of the farm visit, the ducks were avoiding the kiddie pool they had been provided in favor of sloppy mud.
The Farm Dinners
The two main sources of income for Agricola are the farm stand and the dinners they host, and the latter is definitely the bigger money maker. They used to participate in five farmers markets, but saw better returns by earning 15% to 20% of their monthly income from one dinner night.
“The house has two dining rooms and two ovens, so we had to host dinners,” Rellini joked.
She added that for her family, being farmers comes first and tourism comes second. “It was a difficult choice because tourism makes so much more money,” she said. “It’s hard not to jump on that wagon – but if we spend more time with tourists, we’re not spending time with our animals.”
They began hosting dinners on a Valentine’s Day, which Rellini highly recommended as a starting point. The farm charges $95 each for the eight-course meals, of which at least 60% comes from the farm. She said it’s always good to forage from your own land – and that Italian food is more focused on tradition and simplicity.
Agricola tends to draw in the “foodies” and the “innovators,” Rellini said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, so you gotta find us. It’s 80% word of mouth.”
With a newsletter 800 subscribers strong and good following on both Instagram and Facebook, Rellini and Pinna parlayed the loyalty from their farm dinners to generate support for a Kickstarter campaign for necessary infrastructure. They ended up raising $33,000 for salami-making equipment. The success of the campaign stunned the co-owners.
There are struggles to contend with, of course. There’s a lot of careful balancing of enough time – four months – for the meats to cure and their aggressive dinner schedule. Not having enough staff for both the farm and the dinners is also a problem in rural Vermont.
There have also been some ventures that just didn’t work out along the way too. “We tried farm-to-grill, but it took too much time,” Rellini said. “We hosted one wedding – never again.” They also offered a homemade pasta and bread CSA, which Rellini loved to do, but she just didn’t have time to keep it going.
For the future, Rellini and Pinna want to build a new house with a communal oven for more cooking opportunities on site as well as teach nearby children how to cook and/or get into a partnership with local school system. Rellini also hopes to have enough time to integrate different ethnic bread making practices into what they do.
“There’s so much this land can offer and we can’t do it all,” she said. “We hope to attract other farmers [to partner with us] because farming is a community practice.”
To learn more, see agricolavermont.com.
by Courtney Llewellyn