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Knoll Farm

08/29/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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Knoll Farm in Waitsfield sits at the brow of a high hill overlooking the Mad River Valley. Mountains rise like forested green walls above it to the left and right. Directly to the south and far below, the valley of the Mad River curves. From the broad, grassy meadows of the farm, the busy traffic of Route 100 half a mile down the hill is but a whisper.

For 30 years Ann Day worked the farm and ran it as an inn. People who stayed there tended to come back, seeking the farm's peace and beauty. They said it was like coming home. But eventually Ann realized that she was getting a little too frail to run the place. She worried that it might have to be sold, and she didn't want it to be cut up into house lots or made into another exclusive enclave for the wealthy.

"My dream was that it would be farmed," Ann day said. '" feel very deeply about the people that farmed it before me. It's terribly important to have things (like the farm) not change."

Yet Ann could see change throughout the Mad River Valley. She knew that farmland - especially beautifully scenic farmland like hers - is under tremendous development pressure in Vermont these days. So she contacted the Vermont Land Trust, told them she wanted to conserve her farm, and furthermore, that she hoped to keep it somehow used by the community. She didn't know that all that could be accomplished, but she hoped it could be.

The Land Trust and its director, Darby Bradley went to work. And earlier this month, when the Land Trust held its 25th anniversary annual meeting, it was no coincidence that they held it at Knoll Farm.

The new owners, Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow, were there to tell people about their plans for the place: they will raise Icelandic sheep and have a pick-your-own blueberry operation. They'll continue to use the open fields and the 100-year-old barn. And they'll sponsor conferences and retreats for conservationists.

"We're not just protecting the land," Forbes said. "We're hoping to protect the relationships that exist on the land." Ann Day recalled the McLaughlins, who had farmed the land before her, and the August day in 1889, when Sam McLaughlin had put in the last of 99 loads of hay. And she said that she was grateful that she and the Land Trust had found the perfect couple to keep Knoll Farm going.

Others at the meeting agreed. The beauty of the farm, the transition being celebrated, and the knowledge that maybe - just maybe - a key part of Vermont could be saved - may have been why Governor Howard Dean said: "In many ways, this is the most important thing we do."

For the past 25 years, the Vermont Land Trust has worked with more than 1,000 farmers and other landowners to help keep their land open and undeveloped. Upwards of 400,000 acres in all have been conserved - including more than 400 working farms. Most of them have a story just as touching and urgent as Knoll Farm's.

More will have to be done if Vermont is to be saved from runaway development. As Vermont Land Trust Director Darby Bradley has noted, land conservation isn't everything. But it is a start, and it does offer hope.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
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