Posted September 6, 2023 at 12:32pm by Kelly Dolan

Flag Hill Farm: Agroforestry, the hard cider renaissance, and fruitful experimentation

Flag Hill Farm_Agforestry

Each month, Farm to Plate will be featuring stories of Vermont farmers using agroforestry related practices. These stories and related mapping project were created by recent UVM Food System's graduate Sydney Blume in collaboration with Farm to Plate's Agroforestry Priority Strategy Team. To see other featured stories, visit the Vermont Agroforestry Storytelling Map.

The Agroforestry PST is planning a meeting at Flag Hill Farm on Friday, October 6th from 10 to noon. If you are interested in attending, please email Farm to Plate Network Manager, Kelly Dolan:

By Sydney Blume

Sabra Ewing and Sebastian Lousada are the founders and stewards of  Flag Hill Farm  in Vershire, Vermont, a “better than organic” solar powered vintage cidery and agroforestry farm. From their cozy living room, Sebastian and Sabra shared stories of paving the way for a craft apple cider renaissance, long-term tree crop experiments, silvopasture, and stewarding bird habitats during their 40+ years of agroforestry work.

Sabra and Sebastian met at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, but each were drawn to farming from their early years of gardening and skills that would later become key aspects of their profession. Sabra grew in Cape Cod, earning the nickname of “farmer” for her backyard garden work and exploration of wild edible foods. For highschool, Sabra attended the  Mountain School  (about two miles as the crow flies from Flag Hill Farm) where she and her classmates raised all their own food, attended biweekly farm workshops, and developed new skills like spinning yarn from sheep’s wool. While Sabra focused more on botany and solar architecture in her college education, she highlights that she’s “always been somebody who is attracted to animals and plants.” 

Sebastian grew up in London gardening on his family’s rented land. He had an early interest in planting fruit trees, but without secure tenure of the land, he was restricted to gardening and beekeeping. He also started making wine at the young age of 12 because he “liked the fermentation more than the drink.” After moving to the States for college, Sebastian was ready to own land, reflecting that “it would be amazing to actually have land you could plant, that you’d be holding on to.”

The two spent some of their college years picking apples on a conventional apple orchard, sometimes leaving covered in a “white dust” from all the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that were sprayed, including cancer-causing alar. The takeaway from this experience in brief: Sabra said, “so we knew we wanted to be organic.” Sebastian and Sabra eventually settled on Flag Hill Farm, a 250-acre hilltop at 2100 feet above sea level with shallow soils, severe snows, and “no flat land, which one becomes more aware of over time.” Their first actions on moving to the land that they envisioned to be their homestead? Sabra planted 50 fruit trees, before they’d even built a house.

About five years later, they aimed to plant a “very small but commercial size orchard that had a saleable crop to it.” In this plot, they’ve planted plums, apples, cherries, hazelnuts, peaches, nectarines, apricots, kiwis, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, pawpaw, beach plums, nannyberries, black walnut, buartnuts. Really, as Sabra said, “everything you can think of,” and probably a few more that you didn’t think of (kiwis in Vermont!?) Their long list of plantings is sprinkled in with various updates of what remains: the kiwis are delicious, the blackberries didn’t work, the apricots needed cross-pollination and it wasn’t quite worth it. Of the 65 chestnuts planted soon after, about 50 didn’t survive. As Sebastian summarized, “we've definitely tried a lot of different things over time.” 

Not only have Sabra and Sebastian experimented with different varieties, but they’ve also experimented with different techniques and the development of new varieties, generating a whole lot of learning to share back. After seeing some Dr. Seuss-esque peach trees at the house of Professor Meador who developed the   Reliance Peach , Sabra and Sebastian grew these dwarf peach trees in whiskey barrels and would move them into the barn during the winter because they were not quite hardy enough for the harsh freezes. But this turned out to be a lot of work. “We realized one year that, yes, they would survive and grow peaches, but without the heat that peaches love, they weren't reliably good. So then you're like lugging these things in and out [for little reward].” 

Another experiment has been with selecting apple trees that resist the boring beetle organically, which really impacted their apples early on. They had planted a variety of apple trees from a mix of rootstocks, so Sebastian as “an amateur scientist” says, “I got the idea of tracking how many beetles I was getting out of each tree variety, and fairly quickly discovered that one of the rootstocks was more resistant to them.” In this way, they overcame a major obstacle to growing their orchard, planting out future apple trees with the resistant rootstock.

While Sebastian and Sabra worked on developing their diverse orchard, they also harvested from the wild apple trees on their land and started making their own cider in a barrel in their first year, drawing from Sebastian’s past experience with winemaking. From there, things took off. The two would drive around the state to food co-ops and markets sharing samples of  their craft cider.  As Sabra shared, “we actually helped create the market for cider. When we started off with cider, people didn't know [about hard cider]. We would do a cider tasting in the Brattleboro Food Coop and they would pass it off to their child because they thought cider was apple juice. And we had to re-educate them all. You know, everybody knew what cider was in the early 1800s. Because everybody drank it — that was the only alcohol!” Though there’s a long cultural history of apple cider in the North East, it was in part due to Sabra and Sebastian’s efforts at Flag Hill Farm that cider became prevalent again.

But while cider has gained popularity, unfortunately, most of the products lack the quality that Sebastian and Sabra strive to achieve. They do this through emphasizing flavorful apples and a craft brewing process. Sabra said, “I do think we make some of the best cider. So our whole orientation was low yield. Because there's only so much flavor that can go into any individual fruit. . . our fruit, it's about a third the size of a grocery store apple.” Due to its quality, their product has been recognized by Bon Appetit, Boston Magazine, and Martha Stewart herself.

For about 15 years, Sabra and Sebastian kept up this ma-and-pa distribution, traveling around the state to small stores and co-ops. Eventually, they found a distributor to take some of that burden of travel off of them. However, when they recently added a new product — an “organic, delicious, local apple balsamic vinegar” — they were shocked by the reception. From selling cider to critical acclaim, they now couldn’t find anyone to carry  their vinegar . In Sabra’s words “I cannot believe that we cannot right now get a premium local product to Burlington without doing it ourselves all over again.” Their vinegar can be found in Brooklyn and Boston, but not in Burlington. 

Sabra and Sebastian’s concern with this style of distribution speaks to their values around providing for their local community, but with a globalized economy, this faces some challenges. Sabra shared that in her ideal world, the major alcohol distribution trucks wouldn’t stop at the nearby family general stores and gas stations, and instead everybody would just drink their cider within a 10 mile radius. In that situation, Sabra says, “we could probably fill their alcohol needs.”

The global economy strikes again in adding challenges to the distribution of their wool; fast fashion and plastic-based garments have thrown off the value of quality clothing. Wool “costs $50 a pound to convert into yarn,” and yet the market value for wool is only 67 cents. The market for wool is so bad that most people in Vermont raise sheep for meat and just compost the wool. This market has impacted the species selection: it’s now hard to find breeds of sheep that have high quality fleece. Sabra raises fine wool Shetlands which “are a breeding standard in the Shetland Islands back to 1927 with super fine micron fleece.” Her latest product is a hat kit that includes wool to make a hat, a pattern, and some educational material on how the sheep are raised and how they can support regenerative agriculture. 

Yet, Sabra says, “It's very hard to convince somebody who doesn't have enough money in Vermont that they should be wearing local wool.” Despite the heat regulating, stain-resisting, moisture-wicking, and durability of wool, due to the capitalist global economy’s preference for cheap materials, cheap labor, and disposability, mass-produced clothes have low prices, and most people don’t have the income to rationalize buying alternatives. However, while a better market value and dressing the local population in wool sweaters might be the ideal, the sheep at Flag Hill Farm have a role beyond generating a soft and fluffy product. 

Sabra raises sheep for wool in silvopasture, which means the integration of grazing animals under a managed tree cover. The sheep at Flag Hill graze in the orchard, fertilizing the trees with their manure and maintaining the grass, precluding the need for mowing while also building soil. Sabra explains, “the idea is that the sheep chomps, and then the grass tries to grow again, so it puts roots down again, and so you're building up humus that way.” Unfortunately, the sheep are restricted to how many days they can spend in the orchard due to contamination risk of E coli., despite the fact that the vinegar and alcohol process eliminates the risk of this. Even still, with the time the sheep have spent in the orchard, they have noticed an improvement in the soil from the manure. Similarly, in the past, they had 100 Angora goats in the same set up. Combining pasture animals with orchards is a synergistic practice: animals provide built-in fertilization and mowing, and the trees provide shade, wind protection, and sometimes tasty treats. Sabra and Sebastian have seen the benefits first hand, and are actively expanding their silvopasture practice by adding more trees to a 20 acre pasture where the sheep rotationally graze, likely selecting for flowering trees to enhance the diets of the sheep or to add another marketable product from the same land. 

This perspective of integrating parts of their farm to generate a holistic functioning system stems from an ecological perspective that predated any conception of agroforestry. To Sebastian and Sabra, it’s been essential to a “dream of homesteading and growing [their] own food.” After sharing about the challenges of the intense climate and lack of flat land at the farm, Sabra clarified that their ecological ideas have been rooted in maintaining the beauty and diversity of the land. “We keep going on about how bad and rugged it is here, but it is actually a really, really beautiful hill farm. And so [our goal has been to] perpetuate that and keep it pretty simple, but add diversity.”

In this work to maintain and improve biodiversity on their land, Sebastian and Sabra have some of their land in Audubon management. While Sebastian admits that “this isn’t really agroforestry,” it is a part of an agroforestry-aligned perspective that looks at integrated functions of agricultural land use. Flag Hill Farm has “more rough land that’s open than [they] need” so instead of mowing it multiple times a season, they have it in a rotational mowing plan where they mow about every five years. This allows the land to stay at a point where it could easily be expanded into, whether for pasture or more orchard development, without the high cost of converting forested land and also serves to support wildlife biodiversity. Now, their land has “incredible warbler habitat” and the diversity of wildlife in the fields is “just night and day” from what it was before. 

Whether in creating new habitat for wildlife biodiversity, creating new markets for a classic Northeastern beverage, or discovering which tree varieties survive the best, Sabra and Sebastian’s work at Flag Hill Farm has generated lots of experiential knowledge. Their years of experimentation point to the inherent long-term, intergenerational nature of agroforestry. From the 15 chestnut trees that survived their initial planting, they picked the hardiest ones and planted out their seedlings to replace the ones that had died. For a tree that, depending on the variety, can take over ten years to produce nuts, improving varieties can take a whole generation. Rather than see this as an effort in futility, Sabra shared that she sees the value in it: “I think the experimentation maybe will help people out a little bit in the future to keep trying things out.” The two are also looking to the next generation of agroforestry farmers to keep up this work, but wonder about passing on the knowledge that they’ve gained. Sabra said, “we have people like Sebastian, who are scientists and have been monkeying around and learning all these things. But who are they going to share it with, and how?”