Trailblazers of Organics – Orb Weaver Farm Cultivating Success
“Creative farming – that’s how we’ve managed to survive.” So explained Marian Pollack in response to how she and partner Marjorie Susman were making a go of it on Orb Weaver Farm.
It was the spring of 1985, and the two women were reflecting on their progress to date for a feature article in the first incarnation of Vermont Woman, entitled “Back to the Land and Making it Pay.” At that point, they were in their early 30s, and celebrating five years in business, already with their share of woeful tales of lessons learned and successes earned.
These days, we’re quite used to hearing ubiquitous agricultural concepts and catchphrases such as “organic” and “Fresh Network”, “sustainable” and “grass-fed” – and specialty cheeses are all the rage now in the Green Mountain State. This was not the case in the 80s when Pollack and Susman first moved to Vermont. They have proven to be ahead of the curve from the inception of their farm operation, pioneering in all-things organic. Their idealistic philosophy of farming – from how their dairy herd is treated to the raising of produce – has been accompanied by savvy business acumen characterized by diversification.
All of this has been achieved by the two women essentially by themselves. From time to time they have hired help for particularly busy harvesting periods, or getting help unloading hay bales. But for the most part, every aspect of the farm operation is handled between just the two of them, from planting & picking crops, to milking the Jerseys, to the making of their two signature farmhouse cheeses; not to mention the daily upkeep of the barn, farmhouse, greenhouse, and acres of property.
And, in their world, a day off is truly a rarity. In three decades, they’ve taken but one vacation (to Italy; if they ever take another one, they joke, they’d like to see the West Coast of the United States). They’ve coped with the unexpected challenges of Susman’s bout in 1999 with breast cancer, and Pollack’s recent hip replacement surgery (made necessary by a fall while unloading hay bales). These are no ladies of leisure.
The orb weaver is the name of the only spider to weave a circular web they explained of their choice in farm name. “It takes on more and more meaning the more we farm,” Susman had remarked in 1985. “A spider’s web is its universe. They build their world around them. We want to make our farm, our web – to be one self-contained unit.”
And so they have. Vermont Woman revisited Pollack, 63, and Susman, 55, as they approach their 30th anniversary of operating Orb Weaver.
Vermont Woman: How did Orb Weaver Farm emerge?
Marjorie Susman: We first started living together in 1976, in western Massachusetts; we decided we wanted to become farmers and we moved here for a job – a miserable situation working on a farm in Morrisville where we really didn’t know much; it was not a good situation! We then answered an ad for farm help in Ferrisburgh and moved into what was then a totally run-down dilapidated house here, in 1980. And then we got our own first cows, pretty fast.
Marian Pollack: First we got one in May and another in June… and milked ‘em by hand at that point.
MS: We had started making cheese in Massachusetts, but not commercially. We were sort of figuring things out. And then we decided we would go more into cheese-making and we eventually had a herd of up to 30 cows. And so we were shipping milk, making cheese, and doing the garden – as only the young can do!
But when we got here nobody else was making cheese in Vermont. So, it was a pretty blank slate. We thought we’d find tons of people doing what we were doing! Of course everyone makes their own cheese and grows their own veggies!
MP: We thought there would be all sorts of people doing this.
VW: How long was it before you started making the cheese commercially?
MS: We put up our cheese room in… ’82? We were selling cheese in a lot of places around Vermont, and, we also sold to New York City a bit and places like that – but then we really wanted to keep our cheese local – it was very important to us to take care of people in Vermont – to try to make a product that they could afford, and not have to ship it out of state. And, they wanted too much – if we make 100 wheels of cave cheese a year they want – one store wanted a hundred. And we didn’t want to [do that].
MP: I think we spread ourselves out because we didn’t know how things were going to go – over the years we’ve kept it all pretty much in the state – We have some small orders we sell around the holidays.
VW: Is the major part of your business the cheese-making?
MS: We make cheese for half the year and we do gardening for half the year. So our cows all calve in November – we start making cheese by the end of November – we make cheese straight through the end of May and then the cows go out to the pastures – and we do gardening. So it’s pretty half & half – we make more money on the cheese.
MP: And the cheese-production isn’t as captive to the weather. Not this year but the two previous years have been terrible – too much rain, or the tomato blight we had last year… so the cheese is the more predictable income. Once we make it, it can sit in the cooler until we sell it.
MS: We milked our cows year-round though for the first 15 years, without taking any time off and then, around 1995 – we kind of looked at each other and thought, how much longer can we keep doing this? We thought that we would keep milking till Marian’s 50th birthday. We had gotten up to about 50 animals and in the meantime we had a really high-producing herd of cows – when we were shipping milk, we had the third highest production for our size herd in the country. We were just running ourselves ragged. So somebody told us if we wanted to sell our cows it would take [at least] a year to find a good place for them to go and get the price that we wanted and so we put out the word and – the next day – they were sold off! He was putting together a herd of really high-producing cows and ours were really, really beautiful. So then, that’s when we decided we would keep just a couple of cows and just make cheese [with their milk].
So now we make cheese about  times a year – we make cheese every Monday and every Thursday, November through May. In the summer, we make our vegetable deliveries every Tuesday – so we pick Mondays, deliver Tuesdays, pick Thursdays, deliver Fridays.
VW: So you were doing all these things that now are all the buzz! It must be really gratifying …
MP: [Early on we were] selling vegetables to restaurants and then like 10 years later we see the [emergence of the] Fresh Network.
MS: We learned so much by dealing with the chefs. Woody of Woody’s in Middlebury and Mary’s in Bristol was our first account. We went and said here, would you like to buy some parsley? And he said yes he did, so we brought it in and he asked, is it washed? And we said, “It will be next time!” But it’s the way we always, without even thinking about it, how we wanted to have our business to keep it local and not to schlep all over the place making our deliveries and… it’s pretty great!
VW: You were able to keep it cost-effective for you and the restaurants even though it’s not large scale?
MP: Weeeeeellll... If we had to put kids through college or buy clothes… (laughs) – We pretty much have our own food except for things like coffee and nuts and things like that. We don’t sell much to restaurants anymore because the Middlebury Food Coop has gone through such huge changes that they take just about everything we grow – it used to be that they were quite small and we would sell to restaurants – every time we’d deliver we’d have about 8 stops to make.
VW: How did you meet?
MP: We were in an Equal Rights Amendment meeting – the ERA. I was sort of living at the end of a dirt road by myself and people were saying, you’ve gotta get out, you’ve gotta get out! So I went to this meeting and then very quickly we were living together.
VW: So you hear about the rapid rate of farms disappearing in Vermont annually…
MP: Every time you open the paper. About a third or half since we first got here. But in Middlebury the three farms that have been doing it for years – they’re still going. And we see some people coming up behind us… but they’re doing it differently, they have a different idea of how they can make money. A different way of marketing … Like CSAs didn’t exist when we started.
We don’t do that stuff and we’ve never contemplated a farmers market because we don’t have time to do that. And a CSA would mean we’d have to grow too big a variety of stuff for people and, it’s just not in our mind. But this year, there were so many CSAs! I wonder if there are enough people to keep doing it that way? It’s a different way of working/marketing.
MS: But what’s really exciting in a way, too… For a while it seemed as though [young] people were not getting involved in farming and now, you’ve got the Pete’s Greens and the whole Hardwick thing going on and a lot of young people are saying I want to farm but [to heck with] the not-making-money part. I want to farm, and I want to make money. What we kind of didn’t do. [rueful laugh]
VW: You mentioned future plans – what will you do for income in retirement?
MS: Let me tell you, we talk about this every single day.
But yes, it’s been a struggle, but we’ve always paid our bills every month. So we’re thinking about maybe – once you have cows – you’ve got to always have cows, they’re just so fabulous – so what we’re thinking about is maybe getting a herd of beef cows and maybe doing a nice breed – I don’t know, that’s sort of an exit plan that we’ve been talking about.
MP: Yeh, we have no idea. I can’t imagine making cheese for too many more years. I’m going to be turning 63 next week and … in my head I could keep doing it but my body can’t take it! Not the cheese-making part, but having the cows, and putting in a thousand bales of hay every year… Beef cows stay outside in the winter, and you can feed ‘em those big bales of hay (right now we have to use the smaller bales, carry ‘em, and they’re 40-50 pounds); you just take a tractor and dump it for them.
MS: Dairy cows you put ‘em out every day , put ‘em in everyday, you have to clean the barn, they don’t kick but they step on you or move funny… and we are getting older…
MP: So there’s a lot less labor to it. People have Social Security to fall back on – we get those letters saying how much you’re going to get, our’s is like zero! (Laughs ruefully) – Why bother with the postage?!
MS: Basically I don’t think we thought we’d get old so fast!
MP: And what do we do with the cheese business, do we sell it, do we get someone else to do it? It’s all very confusing.
MS: Because we’ve been around for so long, a lot of people know our name, like all over the country and so we have the potential to sell 100 times more cheese than we make – is a doable thing – they know the name – Orb Weaver means something to people – which is sort of cool! A little surprising, but cool!
MP: But anyone taking over the business the way we have it, our infrastructure’s too small to make it big enough to make money. We’ve talked about it, but we never arrive at any conclusions! I’m reluctant to think of not doing it – I’m not very good at leisure, we’ve worked for so many years! (Chuckles) I don’t know, we’ll see. Stay tuned – come back 25 years from now!
VW: Are there things you think you would have done differently?
MS: [pause] I don’t know, we’ve been really fortunate – we’ve been fortunate that the whole local food thing happened, that we were able to sell all our cheese and produce so close by.
MP: I guess we would have tried to save money but we … We’ve [had to spend] so much money for this house along the way.
MS: It never ever occurred to us that we would stay here! We thought this would just be a blip on our way to finding our real farm and when people offered to sell it to us – it was like oh okay, we don’t have to move. I don’t think we realized what a world we would create here.
We didn’t have any money to play around with at all. I mean none. So where I went to ag school I was able to borrow interest-free money –I went to Stafford School of Agriculture which is a two-year land grant school at U-Mass Amherst – and, the woman who left all of this money was a dancer in the gold rush – her name was Lotta Crabtree – she has a very cool story! – and when she died, she was really famous, and had millions of dollars but no heirs and she set up a bunch of different trusts and one was for new farmers. It was interest-free money!
VW: Tell us a bit about the cheese.
MP: It’s a recipe of our own – the same recipe for both the cave and the wax cheese. Out of every batch we make we take some and put it in the cave, so they’re aged differently. The wax cheese is aged in a walk-in cooler – the cave cheese is not waxed so the rind is the actual outside of the cheese.
MS: It’s a cheese made with Jersey cow milk. The cave cheese is aged about a year and a half and the other is about a year and four months. What we wanted was a kid-friendly, mac & cheese, real cheese kind of product – so that’s what we started working on. And then we heard about natural rinding cheeses, and we started sending our cheese out to Vermont Cheddar in Putney…
MP: …sent it down there to age. We won a prize from the American Cheese Society. Then we decided well, we can’t keep sending it down there, we’ve got to put our own cave in.
MS: It is just cheese, no mushrooms, or [exotic ingredients]… But we’re fortunate. When we got started, we were the only Vermont farmhouse cheese so that now there’s all the new people starting in and then there’s Orb Weaver. People know what it is.
VW: You have a blog, and I saw correspondence with local school kids…
MS: We had a beautiful experience last year – a teacher at Mt Abe brought her English class over after they had read Tess of the d’Ubervilles and she wanted to go to sort an old-fashioned type of a farm so we gave them a farm trip – And afterwards, she passed out pieces of paper to the kids and they all read passages from Tess of the d’Ubervilles, and it was soooo beautiful!
MP: [observing a thunder cloud on the horizon] Last year we had a hideous hail storm – I get a knot in the throat [just thinking about it]…
MS: We lost thousands of heads of lettuce in 20 minutes last year. And we were here and we were watching and there’s not a damn thing we could do – so we put on a movie. What else can you do?
MP: We only grow seven crops now: lettuce, red peppers, tomatoes (three kinds), shallots, and broccoli. We never did potatoes, a little bit of corn, did beans, cucumbers, zucchini – more of a variety but it got to the point that certain things didn’t make enough money to be worth it – like zucchini, you’ve gotta pick it every other day.
MS: We’ve tried to learn through our mistakes – we try not to make the same mistake three times! First time you didn’t know any better, second time you’ve forgotten, the third time you better get it right!
For more information, visit www.orbweaverfarm.com.