Home News and Features Khelcom Farm is Growing Local Food with Sustainable Agriculture

Khelcom Farm is Growing Local Food with Sustainable Agriculture

tall black man and shorter white woman standing in front of white building with blue sky, under
Abdoulaye Niane, left, and Marja Makinen, right, in front of their farmstand on a sunny day. Photo by Avi Zimet.
Khelcom Farm in Berlin helped feed the local community after the July 10 flood. Their farmstand, within walking distance of the local neighborhood, stayed open with fresh food during the time road travel was difficult. Abdoulaye Niane, a Senegal native, and Marja Makinen, who grew up in Michigan, operate the small but productive half-acre with organic practices, and spoke to The Bridge about their post-flood experience last month.

“We have a self-serve farmstand, people dropping in, but also just talking about growing and seeing how we’re doing,” said Makinen. “It was really refreshing seeing some people, like the closest people to us, getting their food from here,” said Niane.

Niane said he told people “don’t worry about paying now, you can pay later, or you can just like take it if you like to … Just to kinda, you know, participate in resetting.”

While not located next to a river and situated above the flood line, their farm is “in some sort of valley. The water [was] coming in the field through the mountain,” said Niane. “When we had a heavy rain … it’s immediately puddling in the field, because it’s still saturated,” Makinen said. “This time last year we had the corn on sale, but it’s still not ready,” said Niane. He said the flood caused slow growth and loss of soil nutrients.

Excess moisture meant “everybody’s weeds [were] totally out of control,” Makinen added. “The insects, like plant disease, it’s all just running rampant,” she said. “It’s just, it’s a lot.” This year’s pepper and eggplant crops, which normally would be robust in late summer, were “still just trickling out of the field,” said Makinen.

“With the seriousness of what a lot of farmers are dealing with,” Makinen and Niane are “just trudging on and just being thankful for what we have.” Other farms closer to rivers and below the flood line, such as the FEAST Farm and the Dog River Farm, had more direct damage and crop loss.

Locally Grown Food

Khelcom Farm may be small, especially compared to massive midwestern operations, but they are part of an important trend improving Vermont’s self sustainability.

“A lot of people don’t know how vulnerable the food systems are in this country. You know, people just expect to go to the grocery store and your groceries are going to be there,” said Makinen. “Depending on which direction things go with climate change and who they affect.”

“Urban farms, gardens, even home gardens, like all of that can be part of the mix. Part of the recipe for more sustainable food systems,” said Joshua Faulkner, Research Assistant Professor at UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, where Niane studied. “I think it would be wonderful for Vermont to produce more of its own food … rather than rely on so much coming from the Midwest or the West Coast.”

Small farms “definitely help with bringing some of the economy back local,” said Makinen, citing Vermont Community Harvest and the Crop Cash as successful programs.

Niane said “that’s why I am just talking about farming with people from my communities, and I inspire them to jump into this, because we do it in a way different way in Senegal. We didn’t reach our food sovereignty in Senegal,” he said. “Big step, small step, it’s a step towards moving organic, moving bio. Helping people to be resilient.”

Farming Practices

“If you’re talking about large scale operations in the Midwest,” said Makinen, its “a lot of herbicides, a lot of pesticides, a lot of really strong fertilizer, and it’s really not working in concert with the land.” She said “Abdoulaye’s number one focus here […] is really on building the soil and working as well as you can with the surrounding ecosystem.”

“We grow cut flowers for bouquets,” Makinen added. “Our [Natural Resources Conservation Service] agent was out here,” who told Makinen “most cut flowers are sprayed,” because they’re not eaten. Khelcom Farm doesn’t spray, not even the flowers. “Our goal with the flowers is (a) to add beauty to the landscape, (b) to attract pollinators in so we don’t want to spray them, you know, literally the opposite of what we’re trying to do, and then (c) also it just diversifies what we can offer,” said Makinen. 

Moving Forward

Makinen said “Abdoulaye has already decided that a lot of our beds, the directions that they’re facing are going to be reoriented next year,” so that the slope carries excess water better. 

“Like terracing the land in order to keep the nutrients not leaching off. I’m trying to build a berm, and plant blueberries on top of it so it’s not going to let the water come into the field,” said Niane.

“I’ve seen more and more vegetable farms investing in high tunnels,” said UVM’s Faulkner. Initially used to extend the growing season, “now farmers are using them also to shield crops against the excessive rainfall.” With climate change and farming, “we could have the wettest spring on record followed by the driest summer on record. It’s just very unpredictable,” he added. 

“I’m just in awe of what farmers deal with, and how adaptable they can be and still be successful at their work producing food,” said Faulkner. “With labor issues, markets, and so many other issues,” it’s “just a tremendous challenge.”

“The community that it’s built up on the hill over here,” said Makinen, “they’re helping all the time. They’re picking the eggs, they’re out in the field, they’re helping pull garlic, they’re helping with our kids.”

The Khelcom Farm farmstand is open at the end of their driveway on Highland Avenue, “up on the hill off of the Barre-Montpelier road,” said Makinen, where people “can just pull into the driveway and get fresh veggies, get fresh eggs.”