Thursday, August 15, 2013

Out & About with AOLCPs: Longtime AOLCP Sarah Holland Raises the Bar in Vermont

Out & About with AOLCPs: Longtime AOLCP Sarah Holland Raises the Bar in Vermont 

By Kathy Litchfield

VERMONT -- Driving by the Red Hen Baking Co. along rural Route 2 in Middlesex, one might notice something unusual towering above the cars filling the parking lot – nine-foot tall broom corn (Sorghum spp) growing alongside amaranth, quinoa, millet, wheat, oats, sunflowers and barley. Toss in a little parsley and basil and one has the ingredients necessary for a wonderful loaf of freshly baked herb bread.

Showcasing these grains, carefully and organically grown in handmade hemlock raised beds adjacent to the popular eatery, is the brainchild of Sarah Holland of Moretown, one of the NOFA Organic Land Care Program’s original accredited professionals and one of just a  handful of AOLCPs in the state of Vermont.
Holland was a student at the very first OLC course, in January of 2002 in Massachusetts. She earned her 10-year certificate and pin in 2012 and has never questioned the validity, methodology or philosophy of caring for soil and plants organically. In fact, she attests it has helped keep her in business over the last 14 years.

“There’s no other way to grow. I consider OLC extremely valuable. I just don’t think that being a responsible landscaping company I’d do it any other way,” said Holland, whose business, River’s Bend Design LLC, has grown from installing perennial gardens and annual containers using a greenhouse in her cellar to the full-service landscape design, installation and maintenance business it is today.

With one full time employee and four part-timers, Holland designs organic perennial, annual and vegetable gardens for mostly residential clients throughout central and northern Vermont. She is the only company offering fully organic lawn and pasture care services in the region, following courses she took with Chip Osborne. 

While she has done some newspaper advertising, she’s found the best method of attracting clients to be word of mouth – and via demonstration gardens like the one at Red Hen Bakery.
“When I first started out, it was really tough (to offer organics). I’d go to NOFA events and my colleagues in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island would say people are asking for organic land care, this transition is amazing, and I’d come back to Vermont and it’s like a vacuum,” she laughed. “People didn’t think they had anything to worry about in the beginning, that’s just how it was. Now, parents are asking for changes to the municipal athletic fields and parks where their kids play. They’re aware of the problems with pesticides, not to mention the pollution of bodies of water,” she said, work tackled by the state’s non-profit watershed groups.
Moretown was one of the towns hit hard by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 – isolated as an island for over a week after the Mad River flooded its banks, destroying homes and businesses. Holland got involved helping her neighbors re-build their landscapes and revitalize soils.
A Moretown native (who lives in the house her family has owned since 1882), Holland worked as a registered nurse for 15 years before choosing to go back to school with the goal of running her own business. She attended Vermont Technical College and earned an associate’s degree in ornamental horticulture, landscape development and design in 2000. She had been a NOFA Vermont member for years and was delighted to receive notice of the first-ever OLC course in Massachusetts. 

“It seemed like, of course, that’s what I needed to do,” she said.

From there the years “whizzed by” and Holland made good use of her past and continuing education, adding new services and employees to the work and diversifying when the economy called for it, such as during the recession of 2008.

“We re-thought the business plan as clients pulled back with their budgets. We went into raised beds at that time. I designed a rough hemlock raised bed structure that we could put together quickly, and made us known for offering cool ways for the homeowner to garden that were easier, less time-consuming and affordable. From the beginning I included natives and edibles in my designs and it was exciting to get people to think about their home or business landscape fitting into the environment, ecosystem, that surrounded them,” she said. “We also plant fruit trees and small fruits, thanks to having Elmore Roots (Nursery) up here in northern Vermont as a good source of plants and expertise.”

The mother of three grown children ages 27, 31 and 33 – all of whom work in the artisan food industry at American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vt., Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vt. and Real Pickles in Greenfield, Massachusetts -- Holland would like to teach organic gardening to schoolchildren. She has also begun offering “integrated composting system” services for clients, helping them determine how best to process the compostable goods their household produces on an individual basis, “tailored to their kitchen routine, tolerance of compost bucket mess, lifestyle, community recycling services, size of yard . . . all of the details that may be discouraging to people and get in the way of composting success,” she said. 

Holland said her present hobby is trying to figure out how to have a hobby!

At age 61, she is working hard to finalize budgeting and fiscal sustainability for her business over the long term, remain socially responsible and a good local employer, all while keeping her hands in the dirt. She is a member of the Moretown Historical Society, vice president of the Washington County Mental Health board of directors and newly elected member of the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association board of directors, from whom she received the Environmental Awareness Award in 2011. She also published an article a few years ago in the Ecological Landscaping Association’s newsletter on green roof installation in rural north central Vermont. 

 “My original goals were to earn a good living and have a socially responsible business and those are still my goals. I consider being an AOLCP one of my best accomplishments towards those goals,” she said.  
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