Spotlight on Golden Well: Bees and Floods Bring New Life to Farm & Sanctuary

By Suzy Hodgson, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Moving beyond farming and their apiary, Nicole and Ryan have created a novel healing center, retreat, and event space “devoted to re-potentiating our relationship with the living earth.” Their place is called Golden Well Sanctuary for Spirit and Nature in New Haven, Vermont.

Nicole describes what she means by re-potentiate, “living in a relationship with the earth rather than extracting and dominating the earth as we’ve done for hundreds of of years.” Her inspiration comes from looking back at indigenous ancient ways of interacting with the earth. She tells me why she was first attracted to the New Haven location, “We were magnetized by this place. It was synchronicity to us getting here.  I liked the diversity of landscape – river, wetlands, ecology, and social aspects. We can invite people to enjoy the river.”  But the river proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Golden Well Nicole & Ryan

Nicole Burke & Ryan Miller, Golden Well Sanctuary

As Ryan her husband describes, “We were looking for a place for our bees, and this place just happened to be awesome – we didn’t have a checklist of must haves.”  In 2012, they moved their bees, six hives with about 80,000 bees in each hive to the New Haven farm.

While originally only a home for bees, the owner then offered Ryan and Nicole some land for planting a garden.  In the fall of 2012, they planted 1000 bulbs of garlic.  Expecting a baby, Nicole’s thoughts turned to how she could plant enough food to feed her growing family.  The first season was a successful one; planting a ¼ of an acre, Nicole and Ryan fed their family and sold surplus produce at the Vergennes farmers market.  To supplement their farm income, Ryan worked making hard cider at Champlain Orchards.

Building on this successful start, Golden Well launched their CSA in 2013 with 15 members, growing to 25 members in 2014, 35 members in 2015 and by 2017, their CSA had 50 members.  But in June 2017, disaster struck. The New Haven River hopped the bank and flooded all four acres, which they’d planted, bar 1/3 of an acre.  Their emerging crops were underwater.

“The original concept of a CSA had changed … people want a return.”

Some CSA members were understanding and empathic in accepting the loss, but others were not and expected refunds. As Ryan describes,  “The original concept of a CSA as a community-supported farm has changed and is more like a commodity these days, not really shared.  People have spent money on a CSA share and they want a return.”

Faced with mixed responses to a really tough CSA season, when the flood hit, Nicole and Ryan also lost their wholesale contracts and had no produce for two farmers markets and their own farmstand.  While Nicole and Ryan thought they had crop insurance coverage with the Farm Service Agency, it appears that the disaster relief coverage they had was far from sufficient.  “We lost $50,000 worth of produce, a seed purchase of $4000, but we were reimbursed for only $1400.”  This could mean the time to reassess different types of risks  a farm faces and find an insurance product, which covers these risks adequately.

While Nicole and Ryan took a closer look at the risks and rewards of farming, they decided to make a shift away from more crop production, and instead are finding rewards by “refocusing on community as the heart of agriculture and sustainability.”  As Nicole describes, “we’re bringing food security and accessibility to the forefront and we’re doing this by growing with people. This year is the start of our Community Farming Project.

Golden Well Kombucha

Apis Honey Kombucha at Golden Well

More like a community garden with experiential learning, Nicole says, “we’ve had loads of enthusiasm.”  People are interested in participating for a number of reasons, some love vegetable gardening but find it can be lonely; others are too busy to grow their own food but want to have some connection, and others enjoy CSA produce but find buying a share upfront, too much of an investment.   Nicole and Ryan also offer participatory farming, farm-to-table meals, healing sessions, women-centered courses, airbnb, and brew honey kombucha.

“Having a diversity of enterprises can be a way to manage risks”

In surviving the flood and crop losses of June 2017, Nicole and Ryan learned resiliency and how having a diversity of enterprises can be a way to manage risks.  Now, as kombucha sales take off and healing courses fill up,  actual vegetable production has shrunk to be a small part of Golden Well.  Though small in dollar terms, growing food remains an essential part of the whole experience. Nicole is sanguine about future prospects, “Food is gift from nature not a commodity – we take care of her, she takes care of us. It’s reciprocity.”

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About Suzy Hodgson

Suzy works on and writes about issues at the intersections of risk, climate, environment, and economics in farming including food, fiber, waste, and energy. She is based at UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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