Valley Bounty: Wheel-View Farm
Published October 29, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne is named in homage to the farmers, the Wheelers, and the farm’s enviable vantage point. As Autumn splashes flaming reds and oranges across the landscape, the view from their pastures is hard to beat.
“Over there is Mount Ascutney in Vermont, and further left is Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire,” gestures farmer Carolyn Wheeler. “Then you can very faintly see Mount Tom to the south.”
Wheeler and her husband John raise grass-fed beef cattle, grow dahlias and other cut flowers, and, some years, tap trees and boil maple syrup. Their grandson – still in middle school – has also started raising pastured pork there. The Wheelers are proud of how they’ve cared for their land, and are excited to share its rich bounty with others – from the food their raise to the history they steward, and of course that grand view that greets every visitor.
The main farm sits on 350 contiguous acres of rolling pastureland, hayfield, and forest, much of which has been in Carolyn Wheeler’s family since 1896. A large portion of that is preserved for agricultural use.
In 1979, she and John bought the land and existing dairy herd from her parents and continued to milk cows for almost a decade. Then, as the demands of operating a dairy conflicted with the needs of their growing family, they sold the cows and entered a new chapter.
They grew cut flowers for wholesale flower markets in Boston and New York for a time. Pastures were rented to other livestock farmers for grazing, and they cut hay when they could. Meanwhile they both went back to school.
John Wheeler got a job teaching at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, then went on to earn his MBA. Carolyn Wheeler’s decision to take a few classes at UMass Amherst escalated into a master’s degree in plant pathology, and she began teaching in the state university system.
Then the farm drew them back. “In 2002 we couldn’t find anyone to use the pastures,” says Wheeler. “So, kind of on a lark, we decided to raise a few Scottish Highland beef cattle, and we hit the market curve just right.”
Wheeler feels raising grass-fed beef in 1988 would have been a flop. “People were mainly concerned about what food was cheapest,” she says. But the early 2000’s marked a shift in consumer consciousness, with authors like Michael Pollan capturing the public’s fascination with more complex stories of our relationship to food.
“People began to think about how their food was grown, and where,” Wheeler continues. “And they thought more about buying local.”
Demand for their locally raised grass-fed beef soared. At one point they tended 180 head of cattle – more than their land could support – and they rented pastures elsewhere in western Massachusetts and Vermont. Today their herd averages 60 animals, and to simplify things they no longer breed on-site, instead buying calves from other local farms once they’re weaned.
Wheeler lists animal welfare as one benefit of raising beef on grass, which translates to nutritional quality. “It’s a more natural diet for the for the animals, and the meat is higher in healthier fatty acids and other nutrients,” she says. “People like to know where their food comes from and that the animals are treated well, which you can see here.”
The end of the line is Adams Slaughterhouse in Athol, certified by Animal Welfare Approved. Some meat comes back to the Wheel-View Farm store packaged as single cuts, and they also supply the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Gill. But their biggest customers are the River Valley Co-op stores in Northampton and Easthampton.
Says Wheeler, “that meat is delivered fresh not frozen, and butchers at the co-ops cut steaks and roasts and grind the ground beef there.”
These cows don’t just end up feeding people though. They spend their lives at Wheel-View Farm nourishing the land beneath their hooves, indispensable partners in the Wheeler’s mission to improve the vitality of their land.
“When we started, some pastures were so overgrown with juniper and invasive plants you couldn’t even walk through them,” Wheeler says. They worked hard clearing them, and the cows have kept them clear.
“And we don’t really need to fertilize the pastures,” she continues, “because the cattle do that as they graze.”
They do have to fertilize hay fields, since haying removes nutrients from the system. But cows grazed in a rotation have a more balanced, give and take relationship with pastureland, eating grass and leaving manure. Farmers tune this balance by adjusting how long the herd munches on each paddock before rotating to the next.
“A lot of people think just forests sequester carbon, but pasture can too, when managed like this,” Wheeler adds.
From turning manure into compost to installing enough solar panels to run the farm and sell excess electricity back to the grid, the Wheelers have steadily optimized farm sustainability. The outside world is noticing.
This year, for the second year running, Wheel-View Farm was a finalist for the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award for New England, which recognizes farm landowners reaching towards stewardship ideals inspired by conservationist Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. The winner, announced later this fall, receives $10,000 alongside public recognition of their work as an example for others to follow.
“An economist would give no value to increasing biodiversity in our pastures,” says Wheeler. “But we’re leaving the land in better condition than when we found it, which is best for our cattle and the environment and the people that eat our animals. I think that’s part of Leopold’s philosophy.”
Part of the Wheeler’s philosophy is inviting people to learn about Wheel-View Farm’s ecological and historical significance. All are welcome to visit their farm store by appointment (contact information at their website, wheelviewfarm.com), which shares a building with a farm museum curated by Carolyn Wheeler.
“I’m the 4th generation on this farm,” she says. “John’s family, the Coombs, have farmed on the next hill over since 1752, and our families never threw anything away.”
Today, pumpkins and gourds for sale sit outside the newly renovated building. Inside, freezers of beef and pork and shelves of maple syrup bottles are surrounded by hundreds of historic farm tools and items left by generations past.
“I love talking to people about where these items came from and how they work,” she adds.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. To learn more about local farms and food in your neck of the woods, visit buy localfood.org/find-it-locally.