Bob and Kim Gray began their lives focused on the frosty world of winter and snow. But the former ski racers – Gray a two-time Nordic Olympian, Kim (Mumford) an alpine downhiller – have ended up in a very different warm weather world the last three decades.
They’re market gardeners. We’re not talking just an acre or two: Their 4 Corners Farm in West Newbury ranks as one of Vermont’s larger market enterprises, a picturesque operation on 225 acres overlooking the Connecticut River, diversified in so many edible directions a visitor’s head is left spinning like a salad drier.
Still, Bob and Kim Gray manage to find new ways to grow even more each year. More strawberries. More varieties of tomatoes. More blueberries and raspberries. More tunnel greenhouses (there’s now a dozen scattered around their property). More employees – “20 at least,” says Gray – and more land in cultivation.
All this fertile cornucopia had its spur-of-the-moment beginnings back in the mid-1970s when Gray decided to attend a novel event in Brattleboro.
It was called a farmers’ market.
As Vermont enters the first week of May, farmers’ markets blossom in the traditional season kickoff. They have proliferated like zucchini in August in recent years, along with farm stands, pick-your-owns, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). The Vermont Agency of Agriculture now lists more than 50 weekly farmers’ markets, which draw thousands of regular patrons for fruits, veggies and flowers, ethnic foods, breads and honey, music and even crafts.
But back in the mid-1970s, folks were more likely to know mescaline than mesclun. Quiche and chardonnay, let alone kimchi and wood-fired pizza ovens, were still just a glimmer on the horizon. Fresh, organic or whole-grain anything was a novelty, and vegetables came in cans or from the freezer aisle. Food cooperatives? They were for hippies bundling bulk orders in back rooms.
That was the edible milieu Gray lived in when he made his first foray to a farmers’ market, a time almost hard to imagine in our artisanal-everything world. He was, at the time, not a starving artist but a broke former cross-country ski racer living in Putney, looking for a way to make a living.
“I was just a guy off the ski team who had no money and all kinds of debt,” explains Gray, as he took a visitor around his spread last week, reflecting on his 35 years of farming and the back-to-the-land movement that brought about a remarkable transformation of Vermont’s agricultural landscape and culinary ethos.
His father had always been a “really good gardener” who grew vegetables and planted fruit trees and berries on his property on West Hill in Putney, the nexus for the U.S. Nordic ski team back then.
“We always had all kinds of homegrown food,” he recalls, and a lot of surplus vegetables they tried to give away. It was 1975 and Gray was in his early 30s when on the spur-of-the-moment, he came up with an idea to get rid of some of that surplus he and his parents had.
“I decided to go to the farmers’ market in Brattleboro, which the hippie commune people got started,” he says. To his astonishment, he came back with $200 in his pocket.
“Back then, it was a huge amount. That was a whole week’s salary,” recalls Gray, who was working construction to make ends meet. So he decided to try another farmers’ market that had just cropped up in Norwich. Suddenly, he found himself with $600 in hand.
The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and he swung with it.
In his wife Kim, he found a kindred spirit. Digging into a big plate of their own salad greens during a lunch break in their farmhouse kitchen, she explains she was raised in Marlboro and had always loved to garden. The two met in the 1970s when Kim was going to Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center and was staying at the nearby Three Stallion Inn, whose owner was a friend. After a brief stint running a ski touring center at the inn, they realized eight or nine months of growing season offered better economic potential the three spotty months of skiing.
“She had always wanted to farm, and I was farming, so we got together. We’ve been a good team,” says Gray, whose voice has a hint of a Vermont twang but is paired with an ebullient demeanor far from Vermont taciturn. That role is taken by Kim, who is completely at home on a tractor but says she prefers the grow-lights to the limelight.
Today, Gray looks out at the artisanal, Vermont fresh agricultural terrain and is amazed at how the state has changed during his decades in farming.
“It’s fantastic,” says Gray, who at 74 is as lean and athletic as ever and looks and moves far younger than his age. “Vermont is leading the country.”
It’s fair to say 4 Corners Farm is a leader as well. The farm is anchored by a spectacular 200-year-old barn whose lower level serves as their thriving farm stand. Their property, which fronts the Connecticut River, includes flat river basin with fertile sandy soil and knobby hills with more typical rocky terrain. A herd of 50 friendly Jerseys graces the hillside behind their house, producing the “cream-top Jersey milk” that they sell. Higher up, Gray has about 25 Scottish Highland beef cattle. But it is the food crops that captivate the eye here.
Raised beds sheathed in plastic with buried irrigation tubes stretch hundreds of yards, already sprouting lettuce and broccoli, spinach and beans. Vast fields of sweet corn, tiny new shoots already emerging, are covered by swaths of white translucent row covers. There are long neat rows of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, asparagus beds and rhubarb, all heavily mulched.
The diversity of homegrown crops and pleasing vistas draw visitors from as far away as Barre and Montpelier, Gray says. Great strawberries are their signature, planted in a profusion that’s hard to comprehend: 34,000 plants, says Gray, hopeful for a good crop after a couple of disastrous years. “I was really into strawberries” Gray admits when he began farming. That clearly hasn’t changed.
The farm is a bracing mix of high- and low-tech, thrift and Vermont ingenuity, all tied to the gleaned wisdoms that come with 35 years of working the soil. Scattered around the property, or garaged in the barn, is a staggering array of farm machinery and devices. His visitor asks about the small, funny-looking old Kubota tractors with big thin wheels.
“It’s an L2454HC, a high clearance tractor,” explains Gray, adding that he now has nine of them. Built in the late 1970s and 1980s, they work well for his farm needs.
Why nine? “Well, I haven’t got time to change equipment” and when one breaks down there’s always a backup, Gray says. Though nine, he says with chuckle, might be “a little overboard.”
It certainly seems to be working. Gray pulls his van over by a tunnel house and we enter a warm aromatic space filled with bushy, trellised tomato plants already four feet high, loaded with green fruit, some the size of a small lemon. Giant lettuce heads ready for picking line the edge of the greenhouse. It’s a localvore paradise.
Both Bob and Kim Gray say they can’t imagine doing anything else, and for Gray, the bonus is he gets to indulge his continuing passion on snow.
“In winter, all I do is ski or think about skiing,” he says.
In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. Andrew Nemethy is a longtime writer and editor from Calais.