by Gail Falk
Reprinted from Plainfield Co-op Newsletter: Spring 2021
Five-foot snow drifts line the greenhouse walls outside on a late February day, but inside, green spinach, kale and lettuce shoots are stretching toward the sun. It’s the beginning of a new farming year at Robin Taylor’s gardens and greenhouses off Beaver Meadow Road in Marshfield, an annual cycle of growing fruits, flowers, and vegetables that has shaped her life for more than 40 years.
For nearly all those years Plainfield Co-op shoppers have been enjoying the fruits of Taylor’s work — fat asparagus spears, tender early lettuce heads, never-fail Sungold tomato plants, heirloom tomatoes, tender nutritious kale, winter squash, bright flowers, and sweet flavorful cantaloupes.
Taylor came to Vermont from Massachusetts in 1975 to attend Goddard’s Adult Degree Program. In 1979, her garden in North Montpelier produced more spinach than she could use. A friend suggested offering the spinach to a restaurant in Montpelier, which was happy to buy it. “That was eye-opening,” she says, her clear blue eyes sparkling. She realized she could make money doing what she loved.
A self-taught gardener, Taylor learned to love gardening from her grandmother. “She was my gardening guru,” she says. During her first years of gardening, Taylor didn’t earn enough to make a living and had trouble finding work in Vermont. She went back and forth to Massachusetts, but soon decided she didn’t want to live in the city and that she would come back to Vermont and try to survive. “Vermont isn’t easy,” she says with a shrug, but she thrives on country living and the alternative economics of barter, nonprofits and cooperatives.
It took her a while to find the right spot. She had a garden in Plainfield, but it was too small. She went to work at Smith Farm when it was still a dairy operation and built her first greenhouse there. Now, in Marshfield, she has the space for a large hoop house, smaller greenhouses, and ample outdoor acreage for flowers and vegetables on land owned by Russell Codling. “I helped him when he was farming, and now he helps me,” she explains.
Over the years, the market for fruits and vegetables, along with her crops and her energies, have evolved. She started with greens, lettuce and tomatoes and kept adding. “Every year I experiment with something,” she says. Her large sweet melons have been one of her most successful experiments. Last year she grew squash that are a combination of acorn and delicata (acorns aren’t so popular any more). This year she’s planning to try winter cilantro. In the past she sold to NECI, Foodworks, Food to Table, and several restaurants that are now gone. Buffalo Mountain Co-op in Hardwick and Plainfield Co-op have been consistent outlets for her crops, and she sells flowers to Botanical Flowers in Montpelier.
More people in the area are growing vegetable crops, “which is good,” she says, but means more competition. As a one-woman operation Taylor is making changes as she ages. She’s giving up her asparagus bed — too much weeding — , and growing more flowers, which are easier on the back than crates of melons and tomatoes. She would love to find a younger person to garden with her and learn from her and help with the long hours and heavy lifting.
Taylor’s connection with Plainfield Co-op is deep and longstanding. From 1985 to 1989 she managed the Co-op after Cathy Chodorkoff left. There were just two paid staff back then — she and Ellen Bresler ran the entire operation along with volunteers. She says there were a lot of small suppliers before consolidation; “I would shop the sales to keep prices down. I worked very hard.” It was a much smaller operation then — $100,000 a year in sales compared to more than $1 million a year now. But the store was solvent when she decided it was time to move on. Reflecting on changes at the Co-op, she says she appreciates that staff have time to be friendly. “I think it’s lovely now.” Back in the 80’s she said, “I was always so stressed and maybe not as lovely as people are now.” She’s glad the Co-op is hanging on, and hopes it will continue and thrive. ❖
Photo credits: Gail Falk