A farmer and a carpenter walk into a garden center… and buy it

A farmer and a carpenter enter Shelburne’s farm and garden. They get to know the owner, take stock of inventory and records, do some serious thinking and soul-searching, and they buy it.

This is not a joke. For farmers, gardeners and pet owners near Shelburne, this is real news.

In late March, Maria Topitzer, who also runs Lyonsville Farm in Buckland, and her partner Justin Lively, who runs Heathan Carpentry in Shelburne Falls, bought the well-known local business from former owner Patricia Schmidt. Schmidt had run the store, which sells farm, garden, landscaping, livestock and pet supplies, since 1991. Last year, she made the difficult choice to move on, influenced by supply and labor shortages and by the desire to separate on one’s own terms.

Topitzer and Lively’s path to ownership started as a dream, which quickly turned serious when they realized just how suited they were for the opportunity.

“Justin and I grew up in the area and know the community,” says Topitzer, “and as a farmer, I know what people want from a store like this. You really need growing experience to run the place – without it you’d be lost.

Lively brings a perspective similar to that of a carpenter. All in all, “we just felt like all the companies would be good for each other,” she explains.

Topitzer sees the garden center as a natural companion to Lyonsville Farm, especially as the retail outlet it has long sought. Currently, Topitzer operates three leased acres at The Atherton Farm, growing an abundance of vegetables, herbs, plant sprouts and flowers outdoors and in four greenhouses that allow it to produce year-round. Two of these greenhouses, along with other agricultural and processing equipment, were purchased with funds from the Food Security Infrastructure Grant (FSIG) program. This program was originally created by the state to give farmers and small business owners more resources to increase local food production and the resilience of local food supply chains.

Lyonsville Farm proposals were funded in all three rounds of FSIG distributions in 2020 and 2021, enabling Topitzer to grow more and more food. It’s great for his farming business and for local consumers. It also meant she needed new ways to get that food to market.

“I sell at Greenfield Farmers Market, I have my CSA and I sell wholesale,” she says, “but those avenues weren’t enough. And I can’t sell the property I’m renting.

Now with Shelburne Farm and Garden, Topitzer has a retail outlet to sell Lyonsville Farm foods and plants year-round.

As sensible as it looks on paper, the decision to buy was still a big step forward. “It was a little scary, and we knew it would be a lot of work,” Topitzer says.

Although they are already accomplished small business owners, she and Lively are still deep in learning the world of retail. “Creating accounts with new suppliers, ordering, stocking, managing supply issues related to COVID-19 from a retail store perspective – it’s all so new,” she says.

As they find their footing, they are grateful for the community support they have received, especially Schmidt’s support throughout the transition.

“Patricia has been amazing. I followed her for a few weeks, and now I ask her questions daily and she’s so responsive. She’s been so kind to us. We couldn’t have done this without her.

As longtime residents, Topitzer and Lively knew how much people rely on Shelburne Farm and Garden as one of the few pet, farm and garden providers in the area. “This store is so important to the community,” says Topitzer, “and we felt strongly that it should continue.”

Although they have changes in mind, these will mostly be additions, not subtractions. “Previous owner, Patricia, built the store around what people needed, right down to their favorite brands of dog food,” she explains. “We want to reassure people that we will continue to store what she has done – what they are used to finding will not disappear.”

But as a child now in charge of the candy store, Topitzer is thrilled to offer new things she wishes local stores always had. “I want to add more supplies for gardeners like me, more organic produce that I love, and more quality tools,” she says. “And we are going to build a retail greenhouse to sell plants all year round. I love indoor plants, so I’m thrilled.

One thing about running a farm and a garden center: the busy season is the same for both. As spring heats up, Topitzer says she and Lively have been going back and forth to keep everything running on all cylinders. Their hard work is already paying off, as shoppers at Shelburne Farm and Garden can now find plenty of Lyonsville Farm starters and a cooler full of freshly picked greenhouse produce in the store.

“We have lots of spinach, mixed lettuce, bok choy, hakurei turnips, radishes, arugula, beets, kale, and Swiss chard,” says Topitzer. Last week, the first high-performing greenhouse tomato ripened dark red. Give it a month, she says, and more will be available as well. For now, it’s a teaser of great things to come.

“We are really excited to implement our vision for the store,” says Topitzer. “It’s frustrating not being able to do it fast enough!” But we are really excited for the future.

Shelburne Farm and Garden is now open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To learn more about them and other locally minded greenhouses and garden centers in the Valley and Hills, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

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