By NEIL ZAWICKI
Willow Hill Farm, on Hardscrabble Road, offers a two-acre forest of 10-foot-tall organic blueberry bushes offering ten varieties of the berry. Each year since 1992, families and travelers have come to pick them from mid July to Labor Day.
The other 476 acres of the farm are used to produce sugaring sap, and, for more than 20 years the farm was one of the original producers of artisan cheeses in Vermont.
Farm owners David Phinney and Willow Smart stopped making their cheeses just a couple years ago, partly because the number of competitive cheese makers in Vermont has jumped to around 70, and that number was just around 12 when Smart and Phinney started.
The other reason they’ve closed the cheese factory is because, as Phinney put it, “We haven’t had a vacation together in 18 years.”
Phinney grew up in Milton, graduating from Milton High School in 1978 and then earning a mechanical engineering degree. He worked for IBM as a facilities design engineer, and met his wife Willow in Florida. The couple came back to Vermont in 1991 and bought Willow Hill Farm.
One of the first things they did was plant just over 1,050 blueberry bushes. Now that they’ve bowed out of the cheese making game, that investment has paid off. Each season they see maybe 30 families each weekend, selling at least 5,000 pounds of berries. Phinney also sells maple sap to Georgia Mountain Maple.
Phinney and Smart once had 80 sheep and eight cows, and produced award-winning artisan cheeses. That operation sits dormant now, in a building on the farm with a hand-written sign on the doors that reads, “Closed permanently.” Just inside the door is a wall filled with more than 30 awards and ribbons — the accolades of high end cheese making — and beyond that is a room full of idle cheesemaking equipment, all for sale. Four of the awards on the wall are from the World Cheese Awards in London, where in 2004 Willow Hill bested Cabot.
“We beat Cabot that year,” said Phinney with a smile. “It was the only time we ever beat ‘em.”
But Phinney doesn’t waste any sentimentality when it comes to his and Willow’s former life as cheesemakers. He’s busy feeding his tow horses, milling lumber, maintaining his sap lines, and preparing for berry season. He has a relaxed and affable demeanor.
“You reach a point where quality of life almost doesn’t exist,” said Phinney of the all-consuming occupation that is cheesemaking. At peak times they would hire UVM students to work in the summer, and the extra hands were a help until school started again.
“They’d always seem to leave at the end of August, and nobody knew how to milk sheep, so I had to milk eight cows and 80 sheep by myself,” he said.
With the cheesemaking shut down, Phinney’s busiest task is maintaining his sap lines.
He’s constantly working to get a better pumping station, and will spend around six weeks in late winter walking the lines and maintaining them. Still, he’ll take that over dairy work.
“It’s better than milking cows in a barn in 10-below,” he said.
Walking the blueberry patch, Phinney talks about the different kinds they sell, and most importantly that they’re all certified organic. Instead of using weed killer, he takes a weed whacker to the base of each bush.
“That takes a while,” said Phinney. “But we don’t do poison.”
While he walks the berry patch, bushes towering over him in the bright sun, clusters of not-yet-ripe berries hanging on the branches, Phinney spoke about what he won’t allow during picking season.
“I won’t tolerate kids having blueberry fights,” he said. “I’ve actually had to step in a couple times.”
Phinney also won’t let pets in the berry patch. It’s just too much bother for the other pickers. But beyond kids throwing berries and the occasional dog, Phinney said the biggest peril to the berry patch are the birds.
“We’ve had birdwatcher come out here to count all the different types of birds we get,” he said.
But the height of the bushes can help in keeping the birds from getting to all the berries.
The bushes tower over visitors, with berries at all levels.
“We have blueberry picking for all different heights of people,” he said.