Vermont voices

Oliver Levis at his bakery at the Earth Sky Time farm in Manchester.

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MANCHESTER — Earth Sky Time farm is a steady presence in both the North and South Shires. It started with growing produce for local farmer’s markets. That led to baking sourdough bread in a 40,000-pound Spanish, wood-fired oven.

It now runs a farm stand, caters, builds sustainable timber frame kits, grows greens year-round in a self-designed passive solar greenhouse and hosts epic community concerts. The man behind the curtain at Earth Sky Time is the first person to spread the credit over everyone that played a part, especially his wife, Bonnie, and his four children. This week, we chat with Oliver Levis, owner and creative genius behind the famous bread and dozens of other endeavors at any given time at his family’s Manchester farm.

“We were doing farmers' markets with our produce around the area in 2010, and there was one bakery selling bread at the Dorset Farmers Market. They announced that they were not going to be doing bread that winter, so that summer, we had been toying with the idea of bread. We had a CSA, and we informally included some of those first loaves of bread, some English muffins and pita bread. That’s how all of this bread baking started.

“I got kicked out of high school. I went to a prep school in Concord, Massachusetts. I grew up here, but I had, you know, what, for whatever reason, the family wanted me to go to a prep school, but I got expelled in my junior year for just some shenanigans, you know, nothing too serious, but they’re pretty strict that place. I came back here and finished at BBA.

“My dad came to pick me up and take me home after I got expelled, and there was this place that had some ducks for sale while we were passing. We stopped and bought ducks. It’s funny, on my way home after getting kicked out of high school, we bought like six ducks. And that really started it for me.

“I’ve lived here on this old farm for most of my life. This was my family home. After graduating from BBA, I knew I didn’t want to go to college. I just wanted to grow stuff and raise animals. This was in 1996. So anyway, that year, I raised a couple of hundred chickens, and they had some horses here on the place already. My dad let somebody keep their horses here. But I just enjoyed having animals around.

“After that, I got really interested in agriculture. I decided that I wanted to study that in college, so I applied to Cornell’s school of agriculture, but they said I had pretty bad grades in high school, and I’d gotten kicked out, so I  obviously didn’t really have the record to show. They told me to go somewhere else first. I went to UVM to study agriculture and transferred to Cornell a year later. That’s where I met Bonnie.

“Bonnie went to graduate school in New York City, Bank Street College, to study education. When I was there, I got a job as a super in the building where we lived. I started to learn a lot about how to fix things. I was always interested in that. I was the repairman for this complex of buildings in SoHo. We lived there for four years. And during that time, I just sort of like, you know, they would call me to be a plumber, an electrician or whatever it was, I had to fix it. So, I figured out starting from basically nothing. That was a very good skill set to learn in those years.

“You know, everything that we do now, all the fixing of things and hands-on with everything, came from those experiences.

“I think about farming in the pretty broad sense of production, you know, what that means to make things and make food and feed people. That sort of expanded to include bread and food production, as well as working with wood, now. It’s all really connected, sustenance and what we do here. I like to figure out how to do things, how to do them efficiently and sustainably. How to deal with whatever complications and changes arise, how to have that sort of resilience.

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“I’ve spent most of my life living in this town, in this house even, and seeing how that has evolved. And I think we’re a really strong part of the community here, especially with the concerts in the summer. A lot of people come through here. We feed a lot of people, and do a lot of farmers' markets. To me, even when I was 18 years old and thinking about farming, I was just picturing doing it here. I wasn’t thinking about bread, or, you know, milling wood or anything specifically, but it was always about, 'What can we do? What can we put together to make a livelihood, something which is fun?'

“I’m always thinking of ways to dig out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. That’s usually followed by thinking where to dig the next hole.

“My theme here is you can do this. We’re going to do this, and that pivot always leads to that sort of stimulation that forces you to change how you react. I love that, like, when we go traveling, I like to get lost and find my way out of whatever situation we’re in, you know, and that’s sort of how we operate here.

“I really enjoy winging it and then coming up a with a plan. That’s how I have come into everything that we do. That’s a cool skill set for young people to understand, because I don’t think you’re taught that in school.

“People come here, and they learn to farm, they learn baking, they learn whatever we’re doing because that’s how we operate. We share skills and learn from each other. But also, we provide a community where people can share resources and infrastructure for creative pursuits. We have a pottery studio, woodworking facilities, metalworking and music, anything people need or want to do. That lends itself to us to having a really good crew of people that are interested in creative pursuits and also working with the land and working with food. I’m sure many of those things applied to communities back in the '60s, but here, we’re not specifically anti-anything or pro-anything. It’s not a dogmatic situation. We’re working together to be productive and have a good time.

“The Sunday summer concerts are one of the most fulfilling parts of what we do here. We had nine concerts here on the farm last summer. It’s really big fun, a family-friendly thing. We keep it pretty affordable, $15 tickets or $10 for farmers, students, or teachers. We make pizza on the bread bus and feed everyone with great music. It’s just a big dance party. People are out on the lawn on blankets. People come to the farm. They see what we’re doing here. It’s good exposure for people to know that we’re here and to see what we’re doing, and for people to see where the food comes from. We get to meet people eating our food that we might not have met otherwise. It’s a great way to share that connection.

“We’re designing timber frames now, building things, renovating things, whatever it is. People generally like to leave things to professionals, but I have to say, getting in there and doing it yourself, learning how things work, that just opens up all kinds of opportunities and possibilities to be more independent and resilient. If you can feed yourself, if you can know how to grow food, how to provide shelter and fix your machines when they break, you’re not just a statistic. You’re a part of the solution. I would encourage kids and adults not to be a tourist. Be engaged in the things that you use, and the things that you do and the things that you eat throughout the day. Understand how things work. It’s amazing.

“When my mom passed away, we did the whole thing ourselves. We kept her here, and then we buried her. We homeschooled our kids for a while to, like, whether, you know, that’s what I’m really talking about, from birth to death and everything in between. Don’t be passive about life.

“Next summer, I want to redo the farm store into a place that people come in for food, but also a gallery for the crafts we create, maybe a music venue, people playing their instruments, both people that live here and people, local people, so it’s like a farm than bakery that people come into, and there’s you know, somebody playing the cello in there and you can ... get your food and art, and so that’s sort of my vision for next year to sort of take the farm store in that direction.

“I’m pretty politically engaged, pretty liberal and progressive. We’re fortunate here in Vermont. I think our politicians, on the whole, are pretty conscious and pretty good, but we’re not isolated. Just because we’re living the dream at our little agricultural utopia, you can still see the erosion of many of the rights we take for granted. Seeing a lot of states roll back advances that we’ve taken for granted, it’s scary. I think about the climate crisis. I think about a lot of things. What can I do about it? Trying to find resilient solutions. We like to train people how to do things on their own, not just on their own, but together, building that resilience in the people that come through here. And that comes through in concerts and the people we feed by not being preachy about it, not being pushy, trying to lead by example, trying to make sustainable choices as much as possible and amplifying that by putting it out into the world.”


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