Ardelia Farm & Co.—Baked Goods and Baby Flowers in the Northeast Kingdom
When the cops came to take the chickens from their downtown row house in Philadelphia, Bailey Hale and Thomas McCurdy knew it was time to leave the city—about five years sooner than they had planned.
“It was a bad day,” McCurdy said, and his first words to Hale were: “Let’s run away.” So they did. In 2011, they left behind Hale’s career as a professional opera singer and floral designer and, they thought, McCurdy’s as a professional baker, to try their hand at farming.
But after a two-and-a-half-year stint farming in central New York State, McCurdy describes their realization that it wasn’t working: “We had our come to Jesus moment and knew we had to get something small enough so we could actually farm—bare minimum, cheapest land.”
Not surprisingly, they ended up in the Northeast Kingdom.
The 49 acres of an old dairy farm in Irasburg came complete with a house, of 1900s vintage, described by the men, who are now married, as having everything they wanted despite its being “in a bit of disrepair.” Its biggest selling point: They could afford it and it was big enough to raise goats and sheep and pigs and chickens. They named it Ardelia—which means blooming meadow—after Hale’s grandmother who instilled in him the love of plants.
To keep body and soul together, McCurdy sold his baked goods at the Craftsbury General Store and at two small farmers’ markets, and both men worked at the store. That, along with food stamps, kept them afloat as they set about raising those goats and sheep and pigs and chickens.
Two years later, all that remain are the chickens and two pet pigs: There was no market for their pork or raw goat’s milk but their baked goods, made using the eggs from their chickens, were a great success.
The men might still be eking out a living with the animals but for a stroke of good luck. And brilliant marketing.
Active on social media, McCurdy describes the sequence of events: “We put up a silly little video of our chickens walking through the snow. It was only eight seconds long but it went viral. So we launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money and sent a tote bag and some of my home-baked cookies to anyone who contributed $50.”
In one month they raised over $13,000, enabling them to build hoop houses to raise flowers that Hale is now selling at the Burlington and Stowe farmers’ markets. And in the fall of 2015, they launched a mail-order bakery business: A year later, their sales had tripled.
With Hale back in business raising flowers and selling his services as a flower designer, it turned out to be a lot easier, and much more lucrative, than chasing sheep, wrestling pigs or taking care of pet goats. Only the 200 chickens remain in residence, providing the eggs for the flourishing baking business.
The popularity of their baked goods, which are available year-round, hasn’t escaped notice. “Those guys are going to skyrocket,” said Emily McClure, owner of the Craftsbury General Store where they once worked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they become a large mail-order bakery and a common household name. They are real savvy about crowd media and their package is beautiful. We were lucky to have them on our staff.”
McClure is especially fond of their coconut macaroons (gluten-free), and their flourless almond macaroons (also gluten-free) are irresistible. And so are the ginger molasses cookies with centers of raspberry preserves. There are moist and richly chocolate brownies and superb tarts, including traditional dark chocolate with caramel and sea salt, blackberry rhubarb with streusel topping, strawberry compote with balsamic and candied rosemary, fresh lemon curd with blueberries.
“We’d love to have an on-farm bakery and offer an agritourism experience and maybe have space in a barn for events,” said McCurdy. “But we don’t want to get huge.”
Which means it may be only a matter of time before Hale, who is 41, and McCurdy, 30, head toward the “big city,” as in Burlington.
In the meantime, for those who want to buy flowers or sweets in person from the farm, simply call ahead to order. Or go to their website: ArdeliaFarm.com.
At the end of last year, Hale started a new international business as a broker of baby flower plants from all over the world that have not been available in this country in the past. He and McCurdy spent a month in Germany this winter at the largest horticultural and floral trade show in the world, with 1,600 exhibitors from 60 different countries.
“It was a matter of connecting the dots to find importers, and it’s a tremendous opportunity for growth,” said Hale. “It helps bridge the gap between farmers’market season—May through October—and the rest of the year.”
And they are definitely making a living.
As part of her job, Marian Burros felt she should sample all the cookies—more than once—but she reports the diet that followed was successful.