Profile: Local growers at home in community

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/17/10.] Alchemy is the transformation of matter – the creation of something more important than its constituent parts. Classically, this mystical practice has been associated with turning lead into gold. At Alchemy Gardens, Scott Courcelle and Lindsay Arbuckle have turned the word on its side, combining soil, seeds and natural growing techniques to produce fresh, organic vegetables.

Currently in its first season, Alchemy Gardens grew out of an informal conversation with local farmer and president of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) Greg Cox. Last fall, Cox offered Courcelle and Arbuckle a half-acre plot of land on Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland.

Prior to Cox’s offer, the two were considering growing on their own and selling at area farmers’ markets, but the prospect of buying their own land was somewhat intimidating. Last summer, Courcelle and Arbuckle apprenticed for Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson, an experience that gave them the confidence and skills go out on their own.

At Foggy Meadow, they learned crucial growing skills such as successional planting, soil and weed management and the use of cover crops for protecting the soil.

Their time with Horton also instilled in them a high standard of quality control and the importance of going to market every week with visually appealing products – a skill which they have demonstrated with their own display at this summer’s market.

Their table invites shoppers in with plentiful assortments of vegetables, colorful handmade signs and the couple’s friendly, helpful demeanor. Recipes are eagerly distributed, and explanations of some of their more esoteric offerings, like arugula blossoms, are happily shared.

Courcelle and Arbuckle met in 2006 in Saco, Maine, where they were instructors at Ferry Beach Ecology School, a science and ecology school that offers programs and camps to children and adults throughout New England. While their experience at the school reinforced their zeal for nature, ecology and community, the seeds of their passion were sown long before.

Courcelle, a Rutland native, is a graduate of Johnson State College where he studied environmental science. Arbuckle, who grew up in Kansas and Seattle, attended the University of Washington during which time she volunteered with an organization that linked the city’s community gardens with the local food bank.

After Ferry Beach, Courcelle and Arbuckle hit the road, where they spent time as WWOOFers, traveling across the country working on organic farms. WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a network of farms that provides the hands-on experience of organic growing in exchange for free room and board for volunteers.

The experience first gave Courcelle and Arbuckle a taste for the farming lifestyle.

“You meet these families functioning on farms,” Courcelle said. “Living their lives this way, and actually being able to make it work.”

Courcelle and Arbuckle returned to Vermont in 2008, settling in Montpelier where they both took jobs in the city through the Americorps VISTA program. Courcelle worked for the Conservation Commission and Parks Department. Arbuckle took a position at Food Works, an organization similar to RAFFL. During this time, they found themselves spending a fair amount of their free time in the city’s community gardens.

At the end of their terms with Americorps, Courcelle and Arbuckle were faced with a decision. They knew they wanted to be growers, but didn’t know where they wanted to go.

“We were seriously considering buying some land outside Montpelier,” Courcelle said.

Ultimately, they decided to move to Rutland.

“Montpelier already has a lot going on,” Arbuckle said. “We wanted to be someplace where our efforts could really have an impact.”

For Courcelle, the homecoming was ideal.

“Rutland has amazing potential,” he said. “It gets a bad rap, but I had a good experience growing up here.”

In addition to Alchemy Gardens, Courcelle and Arbuckle are co-managers of the Shrewsbury Co-op at Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury where they live. This connection has special meaning for Courcelle, who grew up with strong ties to the Shrewsbury community.

During his childhood, he spent his summers at the Settlement Project, an area camp that was heavily attended and staffed by members of the Shrewsbury community.

The goal of the camp was to build healthy, vibrant and functional communities – values that Courcelle sees put to practice in Shrewsbury.

“People are neighborly in the best sense of the word,” he said. “They are more willing to help and get involved.”

Courcelle noted that when he set out to build a greenhouse next to the co-op, the community jumped in to help, lending their time, tools and expertise to the project.

“They want to keep traditional skills alive and pass down the traditions of rural Vermont,” said Arbuckle, who appreciates people’s willingness to share everything from recipes and pottery lessons to the right way to milk a cow.

“In Shrewsbury, you have an intact back-to-the-land community,” Courcelle said. “People are more resourceful and choose to live less consumptively.”

Courcelle and Arbuckle are grateful for all the support they have gotten from family, friends and the community since they have returned.

In the garden, Courcelle and Arbuckle put these values back into the soil, growing their food with care, feeling and respect.

“It’s important to grow at a scale where you can treat things carefully,” said Courcelle.

They credit Cox with instilling in them perhaps the most important lesson of growing: don’t treat plants like products, but like the living things they are.

Surveying their full, vibrant half-acre plot, you see a variety of vegetables both familiar and exotic, including lettuce, squash, fractal cauliflower, kohlrabi and purple brussels sprouts – a natural alchemy of soil, seeds and care yielding something far more valuable than gold.

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