How the von Trapps turned their large family farm into a ski lodge and resort.
When the von Trapp family immigrated to the United States in 1939 and eventually settled in Stowe, Vermont, they, like other families, cultivated a large family garden to feed their growing family and kept a handful of dairy cows to milk. Unfortunately, their lives as traveling singers made it impossible for them to care for the cows and tend a full garden. The year after Baron Georg von Trapp’s death in 1947, his wife, Maria, decided to add rooms to the original farmhouse to accommodate guests. It wasn’t until her youngest son Johannes returned home from college in the early ’60s that he added a small herd of Scotch Highland cattle to graze in the meadows. By the late ’60s, Johannes saw the potential to open a first-of-its-kind cross-country ski center on the lodge’s 2,500 acres. Thus the creation of the Trapp Family Lodge.
Johannes, who had a graduate degree from Yale University in forestry management, was able to create a network of cross-country ski trails while managing and harvesting the forest to provide firewood for the lodge’s fireplaces and creating a small apple orchard for cider-making.
Plethora of lodge offerings
What Johannes began 50 years ago has blossomed into a full commitment to farming under his son Sam von Trapp’s supervision and inspiration. When Sam joined as vice president of the lodge in 2007, he helped to start a traditional maple sugaring operation of 2,000 taps that offered a spring experience for the guests and a way to provide the lodge’s guests with fresh maple syrup for their pancakes and waffles. For the past four years, Sam has expanded the opportunities for visitors to enjoy the Green Mountains. He did it by developing mountain biking trails on the property and, more recently, expanding the resort’s farming operations to include not only orchards, maple syrup and a garden that supplies the resort with fruit, vegetables and flowers, but also livestock, specifically pigs, chickens, turkeys, beef cows and sheep.
Sam readily admits that the resort could purchase any of this food for less from his vendors. The benefit in making a serious and concerted commitment to gardening and raising animals is felt all across the resort. He justifies the investment by seeing the entertainment and educational value the farm adds to the resort, as well as by the pure appreciation and pleasure it gives the guests. As Johannes puts it, “some resorts have golf courses, we have gardens, a farm and forests.”
Hiking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing are activities that have long been associated with a vacation at the Trapp Family Lodge where they have built and maintained an extensive and beautiful trail system. However, just as significant is visitors’ access to “agri-tourism.” They are invited to help make apple cider in the fall, take maple sugaring tours in the spring and enjoy garden and farm tours all spring, summer, and fall. Farm updates are posted each week so that guests can locate where the animals are grazing and all menus at the resort indicate which ingredients are grown and raised there on-site. Farming has become an integral part of the Trapp Family Lodge experience.
Raising cattle, too
The first small herd of Scotch Highland cattle Johannes brought in to graze the fields in the ’60s has grown to a herd of between 60 to 70 animals, which are slow to grow to maturity. A small herd of Rotokawa Red Devon was added because they can be slaughtered every two years. Sam said they initially helped to keep the fields open and were just good to look at. “We’d harvest them every now and then but just for personal use. Now we slaughter about 12 head a year each November. A local farmer adds our cattle to his load and transports them to a USDA-approved facility. We like mixing choice cuts in with our regular burger,” Sam said. His plan is to build up to butchering 20 head a year. In a perfect world, he’d like to sell a few steers to other local restaurants to help cover the cost associated with raising them. The “Johannesburger” is a favorite on the lounge menu and is marked with a golden crown to indicate that the meat was raised at the resort.
The 110 chickens raised and cared for on the premises provide a constant supply of eggs for breakfasts and for the resort’s bakery. They spend the winter in greenhouse-style hoop houses, which allow natural light in all day long. During the warmer months, the chickens are rotated from one field to the next in their “egg-mobile.” The March 2016 farm update posted at the Trapp Family Lodge said: “We are averaging about 95 eggs per day from around 110 hens. We’re primarily getting brown-shelled eggs from the young Red Star hens, but a small number of Araucanas continue to add color with their blue-green eggs. Twenty-four young Maran hens, raised right here on our property since they were tiny chicks, should start laying soon.”
The rest of the animals, pigs, turkeys and sheep are raised for specialty meals. The pigs – Tamworth, Berkshire and Yorkshire – are raised specifically for the Easter buffet and the resort raises 45 turkeys every year, all of which are butchered at the resort in time for Thanksgiving. The guests can expect their meal to include not only root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and turnips, but also squash, Brussels sprouts and herbs from the garden, as well as cider from the orchard. The resort’s executive chef, Cody Vasek, supports Sam’s farming goals. Having grown up on a homestead in Texas, Vasek is no stranger to raising and processing his own food. He loves the fresh ingredients provided by the resort’s farm. He is proud that the lodge can say they raise their own turkeys for Thanksgiving.
Of all the animals, Sam said that the sheep are the most time intensive. “We need a handler with a well-trained dog to move them.” It takes time and many hands to transfer the sheep to new grazing grounds, and when they escape from a pasture it can take all day to round them up. With a good handler and sheep dog, Sam sees the opportunity to have the sheep graze where the terrain is steep and dangerous to mow. They could also graze trails and overnight in open areas to the side of the trails. Lamb is occasionally found on the menu.
Sam’s desire is to have the resort take a greater role in the management of the farm and to consider what they raise and grow as a “product.”
Garden-fresh menu items
Kim Earley, the Trapp family garden manager for the past 19 years, says the von Trapps have always fed their family and guests from their gardens. The communication between the kitchen and the gardeners and the resort management has grown more focused and efficient. Thus, the kitchen steadily receives fresh garden produce from July to the first frost in October.
Each year, the kitchen produces about 200,000 pounds of waste for composting. Earley says that it plays a key role in expanding and maintaining rich soil in the gardens. “We let the compost cool down for about a year and then mix it with manure and let it sit for another six months. It is then ready to use in our gardens,” she said.
The gardens cover a couple of acres and Earley carefully plans out what will be planted in March. Part of the planning involves close communications with Chef Cody to ensure that his menu needs are met. Her other consideration is flowers for the 300 containers that decorate the resort. Earley relies heavily on the 15 cold frames and the seasonal hoop house to get seeds planted as soon as possible. She also uses black mats toward the end of May to help warm the soil and to help keep the plants cleaner for the kitchen crew.
Gardening in Vermont is a challenge, with deer, woodchucks, blight and unpredictable early- and late-season frosts typical for anyone gardening in the state.
Once the gardens are in, Earley hires additional gardener to help her tend to them and to coordinate the harvesting with the kitchen. In order to make best use of the produce, she has to let the kitchen crew know a week in advance what they can expect and how much they should plan for. Chef Cody likes to can tomatoes, pickle cucumbers and process as much food as he can for later, but he also wants to serve freshly picked vegetables.
The gardens attract daily visitors and Earley loves being able to point out to them exactly which vegetables they will find on the menu that night. Her favorite menu item is the squash blossoms that Chef Cody prepares to be eaten as an appetizer.
The most reliable crops are the herbs, edible flowers, summer squash and green and yellow beans. Cucumbers and peppers are unpredictable depending on the weather. Earley also anticipates and plans for crop failures. “Last year the sweet corn was a flop,” she said. If possible, they replant, and if not they have to let the kitchen know they will have to buy that vegetable from a vendor.
The Trapp Family Lodge strives to buy its produce locally, but that is not always possible. Earley prefers to have her gardens as the kitchen’s primary source for fresh food.
The culmination of all of this farming can best be appreciated mid-and-late summer while sitting outside enjoying a cold Trapp lager or an authentic Austrian pastry on the deck of the Trapp Family Brewery/Bakery. Visitors can enjoy colorful flower boxes, Scotch Highland cattle grazing in the surrounding fields, long green hop vines climbing the porch railings and the view of the beauty of the Green Mountains.
Between maple sugaring in the spring, cross-country skiing in the winter, hiking and mountain biking year round, making apple cider in the fall, touring the gardens and viewing the farm animals, guests at the Trapp Family Lodge have plenty of opportunity to fully enjoy the resort’s 2,500 acres. Sam’s vision of the resort’s future allows for expansion while staying true to his family’s commitment to the land.
Photo courtesy of Trapp Family Lodge