Kelsey and Phelan O’Connor fell in love on a farm in 2010 in Asheville, NC. Now, they own a 170-acre spot in South Hero, Vermont, located on an island in Lake Champlain. “We’re an island farm, which is a great in some respects and produces some interesting challenges in others,” said Phelan. “We have great soils and a beautiful landscape, which is part of why we’re doing it.”
South Hero is a small community on Champlain’s biggest island, Grand Isle. Although the island is connected to the mainland via Route 2, the farm is subject to bitter winds and different growing seasons because of their location. “The weather is interesting in the winter for sure. It’s very, very, very windy,” said Phelan. “But we do have a lake effect so it stays warmer for a little bit later into the winter season. Our first killing frost usually comes late October, early November, which is pretty nice.”
The O’Connors raise 2,100 laying hens and they’ll finish approximately 150 pigs this year. Both are first generation farmers. O’Connor said they learned many of the techniques they now use at Warren WIlson College, where they first met and where Phelan graduated from with a degree in environmental science and agriculture.
“There were a lot of teachers and professors, in terms of agriculture, that were more on the alternative side, which is great,” Phelan said. “But, I think there’s definitely some great lessons and some really great conventional farmers out there, as well, and certain technologies that you can really adapt a into pasture-based systems, which I have learned about since leaving school.”
In 2013, after graduating college, the O’Connors leased some land from Stony Pond Farm, an organic grazing dairy farm in Fairfield, Vermont. There, they were able to incorporate what they learned at school and what they picked up first hand while working in apprenticeship into their pasture farming approach. “It’s helped us save labor in the winter and create a more efficient egg collection system and things like that so we have more time to plan for the summer when we’re not necessarily going to have as much time to plan and structure the farm,” Phelan said.
The O’Connors ran a pork-only operation until they began looking for land of their own. In order to fulfill their dream of running a self-sufficient farm, The O’Connors knew they had to expand. “Our friends were raising a couple pigs and they told us about Walden,” Phelan said. “We were looking at adding in eggs and wanted a place that we could send our product and have a guaranteed market.”
With help from Walden members, they were able to successfully add eggs to their product line, which means financial sustainability for their farm. “Walden’s standards and beliefs are in line with what we wanted to do and how we wanted to raise our animals,” Phelan said. “And it just ended up being a great partnership.”
Now, on their island farm, the O’Connors are thriving, but they still take moments to appreciate why they started, especially if the wind picks up or the weather doesn’t cooperate. “Obviously there are days where you’re hot or you’re cold, but it’s always a pleasure to be out there working,” said Phelan “The thing that always gets me is going out and then seeing the wildlife interacting with our livestock. We’ve got this ringneck pheasant that keeps showing up in one of the paddocks. He’s been eating a little bit of the grain and then he’ll just like take off in the morning. It’s beautiful to see.”