Josh Carter: Cultivating kids and vegetables at Shelburne Farm

Josh Carter and his son Leo Acer. Courtesy photo

Being the market garden manager at Shelburne Farms is an exercise in compromise for Josh Carter. Now in his 10th year, Carter has to balance the goals of a production garden with the nonprofit farm’s goal of educating for sustainability.

Although the three acres overseen by Carter are designed for produce, the larger purpose is to teach visitors about crops and engage them with the gardeners. “If I was just a production farmer I’d have 10 crops,” Carter said, “since being specialized gives you less risk and a better economic return.”

Instead, he has 50 varieties of annual vegetables, perennial berries, cut flowers, and shiitake mushrooms. Two-thirds of the produce goes to the Inn at Shelburne Farms and the Farm Cart at the Farm Barn, but the rest of the certified organic produce is part of the farm share, which goes to the 60 employees of Shelburne Farms as a wellness benefit.

Carter grew up in New Hampshire, spent some time farming in British Columbia, and did his graduate work in Montana. He wanted to return east, and for the year before he started at Shelburne Farms, he and his wife worked for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps at Lake Elmore State Park.

He currently oversees the main garden where camps and field trips take place, as well as several satellite fields. Carter explained that part of the decision-making on what to grow at the main location is based on what is suitable for visitors. Winter squash and potatoes, for instance, aren’t appropriate crops because they don’t ripen until after the summer camps are over and the tourists are gone. By contrast, carrots, tomatoes and kale are very visible crops which are more likely to engage visitors.

“I make my ‘what, where, and how’ decisions based on production as well as making things interactive with visitors and kids,” Carter said. The ‘how’ includes planting four 100-foot rows of carrots instead of one 400-foot row. “400-foot rows are more efficient,” he said “but shorter rows are more engaging. There is a beginning and an end and interaction is much more user-friendly, particularly for children.”

Carter has four full-time staff members. When work at the garden wanes, they take part in other Shelburne Farms agricultural endeavors like the cheese operation in the fall and sugaring in the spring. Since the farm is a tourist destination, interaction with the public is part of the job description.

“Customer service is as important as growing vegetables,” Carter said. “We want visitors to enjoy their stay and come back and maybe donate money or become members of the farm. We need cherry tomatoes and blueberries, but we’re also creating a story about where vegetables come from rather than just selling them.”

Living at Shelburne Farms is also a bit of a compromise. Carter lives on-site with his wife, Natural Resource and Assistant Woodlands Manager Dana Bishop, and their son, Leo Acer Bishop who entered the world in January. “It’s a compromise because it’s a public place,” Carter said. “People sometimes walk through my front yard, but I’m happy they are engaging in what I think is a great place. I feel privileged to be able to live in a place that people visit because it’s so beautiful.”

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