Not dogging it at Dog River Farm
By KATHRYN EDDY
Correspondent | June 07,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
George Cross, owner of Dog River Farm in Berlin, bales a first cut of hay Thursday afternoon. The farm offers a full line of certified organic vegetables and berries.
The strawberries and tomatoes are ripening fast at Dog River Farm on Route 12 in Berlin, and with a great 2012 season under their belts the outlook for this one is good — and that means a lot to owner and operator George Cross after being hit hard by both the May 2011 storm and Irene that August.
“I lost my shirt. But we got through it, everybody rallied. My goal is to recover 100 percent by the end of this year. With the crew I have now, I think we’ll be able to do it,” says Cross. “Last year we had an awesome year, spectacular year. It was the best season I’ve ever had.”
Cross started farming in 1996, with business partner Tony Lehouillier, while at Johnson State College getting his master’s in education. They started Foote Brook Farm in 1997, then a few years after Cross left to find a teaching position he and Lehouillier bought Dog River in 2001. While teaching middle school science in his native New Jersey, Cross slowly transformed the 200 acres, refurbishing, rebuilding and clearing. In 2004 he met his wife, Julie O’Keefe, moved back to Vermont and started teaching in Williamstown, where he stayed until last year.
They recently bought out Lehouillier’s share of Dog River.
The farm now offers a full line of certified organic vegetables and berries. Cross hopes eventually to be a year-round operation, offering pick-your-own pumpkins in the fall, and when the farm’s Christmas trees reach maturity it will be open until Dec. 26.
“We’ve got awesome strawberries and the best organic sweet corn in central Vermont,” Cross says.
Cross and his crew rotate and farm about 30 acres every year; winter rye is their main cover crop, which they use for mulch and strawberries and sell the surplus as straw. Cross says that after the floods he has continued to invest, putting in a new irrigation system, another greenhouse and a cooler. He has plans for a new farm stand, which he hopes to break ground on in the fall.
“There’s a little agricultural revival going on here in the Dog River Valley. Our hope is to have a stand that the neighborhood could sell products. We have folks up the road who have beef, organic chicken, bees, wine — there’s a bunch of startup ag things going on. We could have a place to pull it all together and then do spring and fall festivals centered around our strawberries and pumpkins,” he says.
“But no corn mazes,” he adds.
For now, the farm stand is a self-serve building — cash or check — that is filled with fresh produce daily and continuously restocked throughout the day. Dog River is offering different community-supported agriculture options this summer, June 27 through Oct. 10, including a vegetable, fruit and local product share; a fruit and veggie-only share; and, new this year, the Dog River Farm season pass. The card sells for $250, is loaded with $300 and is reloadable in $100 increments after that; customers can go to the farm on Thursdays and Fridays between 4 and 7 p.m., pick out whatever they want and swipe their card.
“It’s exciting and a win-win. We get to move away from packing boxes and bags, and the customers, if they don’t want kale one week or their garden is flush with something, have much more flexibility,” says Cross.
Cross enjoys wearing the many hats a farmer must in order to keep things going, but he admits it is one of the most challenging professions out there.
“Farmers work so hard, and there is nothing in their favor; you cannot control anything. And then to top it off people get upset about prices. I feel like farmers are so unappreciated, and not in Vermont, more like in the country as a whole,” says Cross.
“You have no problem spending whatever you spend on a cellphone each month and yet gripe about the price of food. It really surprises me. I think if people got their hands into a garden and more connected they would appreciate the farmer a heck of a lot more.”
Cross says the connection to the outside through his land is one of the best things about what he does.
In about two weeks Dog River’s strawberries will be ready, with some pick-your-own offerings this year and more to come next year. Salad greens, spinach and tomatoes will also be ready; whatever the farm is offering is always on its sign.
Cross posts updates on his website, www.dogriverfarm.com, as often as possible, and you can find Dog River Farm on Facebook.