Hank Bissell
Owner of Lewis Creek Farm

This is a brief autobiography of events and experiences that lead up to my starting Lewis Creek Farm in 1981.
In addition there a brief description of my of non-farm activities over the years.

Born in NYC. Childhood exposure to farms in southern Vermont

I was born in 1954. I have 3 sisters and 1 brother. We grew up in New York City. My father was an architect and my mother had a passion and a knack for buying and selling real estate. We spent the summers in Putney Vermont.

During the summers as a young boy I hung out at a local dairy farm watching and learning. I was a quiet boy, and many years later the farm manager at that dairy farm said "Yes, we let Hank hang around... 'cause he didn't ask too damn many questions!"

In 1963 my parents bought an old hill farm in Putney and this allowed me to dabble in farming on my own. I planted a vegetable garden and raised chickens, and learned to pickle.

High School at the Putney School

In 1968, I started high school, attending the Putney School, a boarding school in Putney Vermont which had the distinction of having a fully operational Dairy farm on the campus. The school has a strong emphasis on physical work in its curriculum, and I spent a lot of time working on the farm, helping with haying and sugaring, driving tractors, cleaning the barn, and pretty much anything there was do.

The take away message for me was "I don't want to milk Cows twice a day. I love the rest of it, but milking twice a day, no thanks."

I was put in charge of what was at that time a very new technology on the farm: sugaring with plastic tubing.

The summer after I graduated, I had a summer job caring for the school vegetable garden: planting, cultivating, harvesting and supervising the summer camp kids who helped with the garden work.

The Gap years

From the autumn of 1972 through the summer of 1974, I took a double "Gap year". Gap years have become de rigueur today, but back then it was call "Not going to College". For my parents, who had sent me to "All the best schools", it was a big disappointment. But they took it in stride, as do the parents of all teenagers, probing gently with questions like "So then, what are you going to do?", while hoping I'd come to my senses sooner or later.

That first fall out of high school, I built a log cabin, on my parent's land, all with hand tools. My first winter in the cabin I taught myself to play the fiddle and finished reading all the books I had been assigned during high school. It was my first time cooking for myself, and I was on the "All Macaroni and Cheese Diet". By spring I had a mild case of Scurvy.

My second gap year I joined forces with Phil Gerard, a friend from high school and together we explored work horses. Over the course of year we jointly owned 3 horses, and learned about horses and feeding and fences and harness and training and working horses in the woods. Phil had a much better native sense of animal care. I was learning that I was better with mechanics than I was with animal care.


In the fall of 1973 I applied to colleges (much to my parents' relief) and in the fall of 1974 I went off to Cornell. I was enrolled in the Ag school there. "It's amazing" I said at the time, "All my courses are so interesting. I'm learning so many things. I'm getting so many ideas. But I've got way too much energy to spend that much time in the library." During that year at Cornell, I got a job offer to run the Putney School vegetable garden. Not just take care of it during the summer, but to plan it, start it, grow it and harvest it. Everything from start to finish. It was an exciting opportunity that suited my head full of ideas and bursting physical energy.

1975 -1976
Head Gardener at Putney School & Logging in Maine

I ran the Putney School garden for two years. It was like a family vegetable garden, but feeding 350 people. We didn't by any stretch produce everything that was eaten, and the school still bought a lot of vegetables from a distributor.
We had (needless to say) way too much Zucchini at times in the summer, and the distributor said "If you pick that nice and small, we'll buy it from you." We sold him quite a bit of Zucchini for about a month each summer and Cabbage in the fall too. It was then that I realized that there was a market out there for local vegetables. We had to pack them up so they looked like they were coming from California, but there was definitely a market out there, and that was the first time I realized that I could go into business selling vegetables wholesale and make money at it.

The season ran from April to the end of October. In the late fall I got a job logging in Maine for about 6 weeks. I lived in a logging camp with a bunch of French Canadian loggers.
The Camp was 15 miles into the woods on a private road. From there I drove 5 miles out a logging road to my work site, and then walked a half a mile into the woods, to work by myself all day with a chainsaw. Boy, was I careful! You didn't want to make a mistake and cut yourself with the saw. Help was a long way off.

I saved a lot of money. I live in a bunk house. Meals were $1 a day, all you can eat cafeteria style. The menu was largely meat and potatoes and an unimaginable spread of cakes, pies and cookies. I talked to the cook and on the average each man in the camp was eating 5 lbs of sugar a week. But we were working hard and burning it up. I worked hard all day, ate well and in the evening in the bunk house with everyone around me talking French (even the Flintstones on the TV were in French), I lay on my top bunk reading Russian novels. It was a wonderful way to use up all the energy my young body was full of. I worked hard all day, got tremendous amount of reading done and saved a lot of money.
In 5 or 6 weeks I saved $1000 each year. And that was in 1976 dollars. I think minimum wage was a little over 2 bucks an hour at that time.

Later, I ran across the book
Lumberjack by Wiliam Kurelic. He describes his 2 winters in a logging camp in Canada. He's primarily an artist, and the book is full of great paintings of the work, the men and the whole culture. It describes to a T what the camps were like. When I got there it was chainsaws rather than bow saws. The horses were gone and it was skidders and logging trucks, but the camp culture was all still there. I don't think there's anything like it left. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to experience it.
The first winter I worked around Moosehead lake in northwestern Maine. I learned recently that Moosehead lake is now surrounded by McMansion second homes.

My first vegetable farm

Building on my success at the Putney School garden, and particularly on the good connections I had made with the local wholesaler, I set off to have my own vegetable farm.
This was the season of 1977. I bought a tractor and a truck. I still own that tractor today and we use it extensively every season. I found some land to rent in West Lebanon NH and I grew 8 acres of vegetables particularly with wholesale markets in mind. I hired one person to help me. Of the 8 acres, 3 acres was Cauliflower, which we sold to the P&C warehouse in White River Junction, and the Grand Union warehouse in Troy New York.
We also sold to some local stores and restaurants and at a Flea Market. This was before Farmers' Markets were so plentiful. There were only 2 Farmers' Markets in the whole state at that time.
Anyway, the adventures, the lessons and the mishaps were plentiful, and at the end of the season I had $1000 less than I had started the season with. However, I had a ton of hands on experience of the kind that you could never get at college. I considered it money well spent.

Green Mountain Volunteers

I have always loved dancing. I started folk dancing when I was 10 , and in 1971 I went to my first contra dance. Contra dancing has been a major source of recreation all my adult life.

From 1977 to 1983 I was a member of The Green Mountain Volunteers. We performed old time dances in period costume. I went with the group to Bulgaria in 1978 and to Sweden in 1980. I met Cecilia through the Green Mountain Volunteers.

Marriage to Cecilia Elwert

In 1978 I met Cecilia Elwert, and we were married in 1979. In 1981we bought Lewis Creek Farm (until then "The Smith Place") and moved to Starksboro.
We owned and operated the farm together until our separation in 2005. Cecilia largely ran the retail portion of the business while I produced crops in the field. Many folks remember her vibrant personality at the farmstand in Starksboro and at the Farmers Market in Burlington.
We have one son, Sam. He went to the Robinson School, and Mt. Abe and then went on to The California College of the Arts. He now lives in Oakland CA, working in graphic design.
In 2007 Cecilia and I were divorced and I bought her share of the farm. Cecilia still lives in South Starksboro and works in Middlebury.

Winter Olympics in Lake Placid NY

During the winter months of 1975 and 1976, I worked maintaining cross country ski trails at the Putney School. I moved on to working at the Viking Ski Touring Center in Londonderry VT the winters of 1977 through 1980. In 1980 I did track maintenance at the 1980 Winter Olympic in Lake Placid.

I was down town in Lake Placid one evening during the 1980 winter Olympics, and everyone on the street was gathered around television sets in the store windows. Sort of odd, I thought, but whatever, being a part of the Olympics was a definately somewhere on the paranormal scale, anyway. All of a sudden the crowds exploded into cheering, the klieg lights came on, the camera crews were there and the jubilant scene on the street was being beamed out world-wide into television land. Groups of people crowded up to the television cameras, some with raised fists; "Beat those Bears!" or with their index finger pumping demonstratively " USA Number one!" and some waving cheerfully from the back, (yes really) "Hi Mom!". The US had just beaten the Russians in Hockey. I had been so up to my eyeballs in the cross country scene, I didn't even realize that this era-defining game was even happening. But, by chance I was there, and it was memorable.

Looking for a farm to buy

The 3 years following my farming in West Lebanon, I scaled my vegetable farming back to just a couple of acres, moved operation back to my parents' place in Putney, and started looking for a farm to buy. I spent 3 years growing vegetables, selling firewood, picking apples, sugaring, saving money and scouring the entire state of Vermont for land or a farm to buy. During this time, Cecilia and I met, and got married. By the fall of 1980, we had located a farm in Starksboro Vermont that met our specifications.

Buying the farm.

On March 31st 1981, we closed on the farm in Starksboro and moved in April 1st in time to start plowing and planting for the 1981 season.

All farm related stories from after buying the farm in Starksboro, you will find on the
Farm History page.

Mixed Company A cappella

I have always enjoyed singing. In grade school the music teacher told me that I should take voice lessons. At the time I took it to mean that I needed to do serious remedial work. My singing was that bad. Later I learned that you only took voice lessons if you showed real promise as a singer.
In high school I was in the choir. I sang briefly with the Blanche Moyse chorus in Marlboro VT.
From 1984 to 1992 I sang a cappella rock and roll with a group called Mixed Company in Burlington VT.
It's a staple of college extracurricular activities to have an a cappella group, and I occasionally go to hear these group at Middlebury College or at UVM. It used to be these were all close harmony singing, but now it's standard for these groups, as well as having members singing various harmonies, to have one or two people singing the part of the high-hat or the synthesizer. I was never much at harmonies, but back in the 80s I was pioneering those other sounds necessary to covering contemporary music: The high-hat, the synthesizer and in one song I sang the pedal steel guitar. It's interesting to hear all those special effects as part of the standard repertoire now.

President of the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers. Bringing IPM to Vermont

From 1993 to 1999 I served as Vice-President and then President of the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers' Association. During this time we worked hard bringing Integrated Pest Management (IPM)to the vegetable growers of Vermont. Integrated Pest Management is most simply explained as "Looking to see if you have any insects before you spray for them". It's a bit of a cheeky definition, but remarkably accurate. You can find a more comprehensive explanation of IPM in our
Sustainable Agriculture page.
Since WWII it had become the general practice among mainstream farmers to spray regularly, preventatively and copiously, viewing pesticides as cheap insurance. We all know how that ended up, with pesticides in water and all sorts of other places they shouldn't be, but what was also happening was that the insects were evolving and developing resistance to the pesticides. And so we were locked in an arms race with the insects and diseases requiring us to use ever stronger and more dangerous chemicals.
One important aspect of IPM is the idea that growing healthy plants is a primary means of minimizing pests. This brings us to the concept of Integrated Crop Management, which not only looks at pests, but overall crop health from the roots up. Integrated Crop Management is a phrase that has little or no meaning to the general public, and so the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers created Integrated Crop Management Standards that would allow practitioners to use the more intuitive and meaningful phrase "Ecologically Grown".

President of Burlington Farmers' Market. Growing the Market. Protecting its integrity.

From 1995 to 2010 I was president of the Burlington Farmers' Market. The position mostly involved the mechanics of keeping the Market running smoothly.
Before I was elected president, the Market was operated by volunteers, each taking responsibility for some small aspect of the Market operations.
My first act as president was to hire a Market Manager to take over all these little jobs and allow the Market to grow with cohesive management. When I started as president the Market was grossing about $150,000 per season. When I finally stepped down, the Market was grossing over $1,000,000 and had a one of the largest winter Markets in the state as well. I put a big emphasis on the intergity of the Market. It was a Farmers' Market, not a craft market, or a flea market or a food fair. We had a good thing going and all the small craft producers wanted to be a part of it. However, it was important to me that farmers should be the major participants at the Market. We held that line, and I like to think that the Market thrived as a result.

I was happy as president, and the Member Vendors were happy as well, and I just kept running, term after term, until I looked up one day and realized I had been president for 15 years and the organization was only 30 years old. I had been president for half of the life of the Market! It was time to step down.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

During the winters from 1996 to 2002 I served on the S.A.R.E Northeast Technical and Administrative Committees. S.A.R.E stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
SARE receives funding from USDA to help farms use less chemicals and make more money. We received proposal from farmers, scientists, educators and extension personnel to further these ends. Working with a budget of 3-5 million dollars (depending on the humor of the congress ) we reviewed the proposals and awarded funding to the best of them.

The work was largely done in the winter which at that time was my off season, and fit well with the farm work schedule. I had always farmed giving preference to non chemical practices, which is why I was asked to serve on SARE. It was very exciting being exposed to so many cutting edge ideas, and I incorporated many of them into our operations at the farm.

Treasurer of the Starksboro Village Water Coop. Keeping the wonderful water in Starksboro.

From 1999 to 2013 I was treasurer of the Starksboro Village Water Cooperative. The village of Starksboro is served by a single water system. The water is largely untreated with chlorine or other disinfectants and it has the most wonderful water I have ever tasted.
Water systems are heavily regulated and it makes it hard for a small system such as ours to operate without incurring enormous cost dealing with the regulating authorities. By becoming a cooperative of users supplying our own water, rather than a corporation selling water to the users we were able to eliminate a lot of the cost associated with dealing with the public service board, and save this wonderful little water system. I helped get this system on an even keel, and helped run it for many years.
Hugh Johnson has been the real force behind keeping the system safe, compliant and operating, and he still operates the system and serves as president of the Cooperative.

2009 -
Morris Dancing

Since 2009 I have been Morris Dancing with a group called On the Border Morris from Burlington VT.
Morris Dancing is an ancient form of dancing from England, which is associated with fertility, good crops and the changing of the seasons. You can (of course) find examples of Border Morris on Youtube.