At 90, dairy farmer Bev Hodge knows a few things. A cold November and December is a good thing, she says while sitting by the woodstove: “That makes the wreaths sell faster.”
Bev had just come in from cutting the brush that goes into the 300 or so holiday wreaths her longtime helper, Priscilla Jorgenson, weaves together by hand every year. “Always balsam brush because it smells like Christmas,” Bev says. “With a little cedar,” adds her daughter, Cindy Frazee.
The family has been farming in Fairlee, Vermont since 1846. For about the last 40 years, the Hodges have also sold wreaths mostly the old-fashioned way, in person or over the phone. “We have a roadside stand across the way from the dairy barn,” explains Bev. “We ship all over. It’s all word-of-mouth. We do gift packages, too, with Cabot cheese and our own jellies, local pickles and crackers.” This year, she adds, they even have custom soap made with the Farmer Hodge’s name on it.
The Christmas House, as the family calls it, is a seasonal extension of their year-round farmstand with trees, ornaments and snow villages, explains Cindy. Cindy and her husband Russ have taken over the daily farm operations from her parents. Bev and Herb, who is one year younger than his wife, still keep a sharp eye on things. “My dad can run the whole farm from the porch,” Cindy says with a smile.
Between them and together, Cindy and Russ have six grown kids—Matt, Noah, Shaun, Nate, Mark and Maegan—who, along with Maegan’s husband, all come home when they can to help out. “Maegan started family day to get the silage piles covered every year,” her mother says. Priscilla’s high school-age granddaughter, Emmie, also comes after school to work with Cindy.
The family will gather together for Christmas, of course, over a table loaded with good food. There will be a beef roast, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots and Cindy’s famous whipped orange Jell-O dessert. It’s a family tradition to make soft wintergreen candy with milk and sugar and a touch of pink food coloring and wintergreen oil. Cindy’s sister, Jody, a pastry chef also always brings her chocolate seduction cake. A new tradition might be the rich butter and cream pound cake known as Elvis Presley’s favorite (see recipe below) introduced by Mark’s girlfriend, Kayla Passione, a couple years ago.
Like every day, on Christmas the cows still need to be fed and milked but Cindy and Russ are happy to do it. “To be able to do a job that you truly love, it’s just everything,” says Cindy, “When I came home from college, I got to work with my dad. To be a small farmer, you have to have it in your blood. You have to have a passion for it. It’s hard, but it means everything.”
You can see what’s going on at Farmer Hodge’s on their Facebook page but if you’d like to order a fresh, Vermont-made Christmas wreath, call (802) 333-4483 or swing by Farmer Hodge’s yourself at 2112 US Route 5 North, Fairlee, Vermont
Melissa Pasanen is an award-winning Vermont-based journalist and cookbook author with a focus on food, farming, and sustainability. She was the writer for The Cabot Creamery Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).