A florist and a pastry chef leave Philadelphia after their backyard chickens are confiscated
Bailey Hale and Thomas McCurdy at their Ardelia Farm in Irasburg, Vermont
To get to Thomas McCurdy and Bailey Hale’s Ardelia Farm, you wind along Vermont's paved and unpaved country roads, past lush open fields, dark woods and generational family farms. You arrive at a little white unassuming farmhouse and an old red barn, with flocks of happy chickens, ducks and geese scratching about. Thomas and Bailey’s journey from city life to farm life began the day the city of Philadelphia came to confiscate their chickens from their mini-farm they had built in a small green space next to their row house. Thomas was working in Philadelphia as a pastry chef at a catering company and Bailey ran his own floral business. After their chickens had been taken, the couple immediately began searching Craigslist for rentals with land access to start their animal herds and reestablish their flower and vegetable garden.
They landed in upstate New York, renting a small apartment with enough land to begin raising goats and pigs. They knew that renting land initially was the best option for them, so their missteps and mistakes could be made before investing in their own farm and so they could decide if a life farming was one they were committed to pursuing. A year into their farming journey, the couple married on their second rented farm in upstate New York. They felt content in this life they were building together and ready to plant roots on their own land. They knew New York state wasn’t the right fit for them long-term and began searching for the cheapest farms for sale in Vermont. They found an old farmhouse, barn and land in Vermont’s Northeast kingdom that had been on the market for quite some time and was desperately in need of a little TLC. When they visited the farm, they toured the funky little farmhouse, the askew outbuildings and walked up in the open expanses of fields behind the barn. All it took was that walk up into the fields to know that this was the place where they would build Ardelia Farm & Co.
The couple immediately got to work, rehabbing the outbuildings, amending the soil and making inexpensive aesthetic updates to the interior of their farmhouse. Now, entering their little farmhouse is like walking through a portal, suddenly you are transported into a calm and stylish retreat. Bold colors, elaborate floral arrangements, wreaths of found objects and taxidermy adorn the walls. It was important to them that their home reflect their taste and be a place to relax after a hard day working the land. In just two years, Bailey and Thomas have expanded their livestock operation, run a success Indiegogo campaign that funded building a high-tunnel greenhouse for three-season flower and vegetable production, and started an online bakery selling Thomas’s farmers market pastry staples.
This year they are working towards planting their “retirement plan” which involves transforming their back field into a giant peony farm. This October the couple planted 1,500 late bloom variety divisions and they plan to add another 500-1,000 each year into the foreseeable future. They will be the latest blooming peony farm in all of the North East and hope to one day be the largest in New England. Although the winter months are lean and off-farm work in their area is hard to find, they continue to work tirelessly to gain firm financial footing for Ardelia Farm & Co. and their floral and baking businesses. The struggles of farming, for them, are outweighed by the joy they feel working together, the love they have for their animals and the opportunity to live and work surrounded by nature.
What inspired you to move out of Philadelphia?
After educating ourselves about our increasingly industrialized food system, we wanted to do something besides complain about it. We put in a large garden next to our Philadelphia row home and got some chickens and bees. We were content with this for a while until the city came to take our (illegal) chickens. From that point on we knew we needed to try our hand at country life. The connection we got from our garden and the animals was greater than most connections we had to our urban life.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move?
Land access is always the biggest challenge for new farmers. With the help of Craigslist we eventually found a small apartment on a farm where we could keep our poultry, have a garden, and start building our herd of goats and pigs. We rented our first two farms, both in New York state. We didn’t want to buy anything until we were confident in our choice to leave urban life and stay in the country.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Thai food was the greatest loss. Luckily we have a new, very good Thai restaurant just 20 minutes away.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
We grew up in rural North Dakota and rural New Hampshire, so the culture shock was minimal. If anything we were amazed to find pockets of art and culture everywhere. We have felt especially welcomed in Vermont. There are plenty of new farmers and former urbanites here, but there are even more locals who have been here for generations who are excited to see new farmers move in and try to make a go of it. We were also surprised at how we didn’t suffer a loss of connection with our urban friends. Social media works just as well in our barn as it did in the city.
Vermont has far exceeded our expectations, as we have a great community of like mined farmers nearby. New York was more isolating, but was a great place to make our mistakes.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
We are continually amazed at our scenery and surroundings. The quality and abundance of food that we have access too is also a blessing. Nearly everything we eat we have raised ourselves, or is raised by people we know.
The community of like-minded farm folks we have met has been the best part. People with passion are fun to be around. It is infectious. Few in our social group would ever say that they are “stressed” or “busy," though I’ve never seen busier people in my life. When you love what you do, and it is directly linked to your survival, you quickly find a healthy perspective on your work life.
Would you ever go back to an urban environment?
Highly unlikely, but maybe in retirement. We are about two hours south of Montreal, and we have really enjoyed the couple of visits that we’ve had up there (when we can find a farm sitter).
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Visit the country. Rent first. Try out a few areas. Don’t glorify city life to rural folks - they don’t care and you sound like you’re trying to be superior. Be a good neighbor - nothing can make our break you like having supportive neighbors. Respect the community you are moving to and don’t disparage their lack of _________ (pour over coffee, bagels, galleries, fashion sense, etc.)
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Primarily books and the internet. We try to travel at least once every couple of years to break up the routine of farm life.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Yes. We go to bed tired, and wake up rested. There is never a sense of dread about starting your day or going to work. We work all day, everyday. But when you’re doing what you truly love, it doesn’t feel like work. Most of the time.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
There is a routine and a monotony to daily farm chores that we enjoy. The day begins and ends with chores, which is the bare minimum we can do to keep our livestock and gardens alive and productive. In between, the day is flexible. In the height of summer, Thomas goes to the bakery for most of the day while Bailey plants/weeds/harvests flowers. Three days a week are spent at farmer’s markets. There are no “days off.” It’s all very matter of fact and honest.
Back in our “city days” it wouldn’t be uncommon for us to leave the house at 10pm to meet friends for dinner and drinks. These days, it’s rare that we’re awake at that time.
Since leaving the city, we cook a nice dinner at home every single night. This is due in part to financial necessity, and because there are really no restaurants nearby. But more than that, we are so fortunate to have 3 freezers full of our own meat, a garden full of our produce, and fresh eggs and goat milk everyday. And anything that we can’t produce for ourselves, we can source from our neighbors. We adapted quickly to the pace of rural life, and enjoy slowing down to appreciate how fortunate we are to be living the dream, even though it may not always feel that way.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you couldn't in the city?
We couldn’t have raised goats, pigs, and poultry on this scale in the city, couldn’t be farming flowers on this scale either. Our bakery space would cost five times as much in the city. The financial risks have been lower for us in the country. We wouldn’t be able to raise the majority of our own food or source so many local ingredients from our neighbors. We don’t lock our doors and we keep our car keys in the ignition at all times because we trust our neighbors.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
We are inspired by the beauty that surrounds us everyday, by our animals, the trees and flowers, and by delicious food. We are inspired by our community of like-minded farmy folks, who are passionate about what they are creating. And we inspire one another. Some might imagine that being partners in life and in business would prove to be challenging, but we and a good team and we couldn’t be happier.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to understand about life in small communities?
Respect the locals! You may find many of them to be less fashionable with less formal education than the people you knew in the city, but they have genuine practical skills and knowledge of the land that they will share with you if you are lucky. In an area with long and harsh winters you may literally need your neighbors to stay alive. Be slow to judge and quick to lend a hand.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We just launched our online mail order bakery this holiday season. Our flower farm will come into full production between now and 2020, but will make a major leap forward this year. We hope to have an employee or a couple of dedicated interns join us this year.
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