Updated: Jul 19, 2019
It’s hard to take the farm out of a true country girl. Melissa Aakjar and her brothers, Lucas and Dylan, grew up on a 55-acre diversified farm in Dutchess County, New York. “Our parents raised poultry and grew 30 acres of vegetables,” Melissa explains. “They trucked and sold them at the Union Square Market in New York City in the 1980s. Unfortunately, we had to sell the farm in 2003 after property taxes soared.”
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The Aakjar family moved north to Pawlet, Vermont, where they found 100 acres to create their new homestead. Oak Summit Farm drapes across the top of Lilly Hill with majestic views west to Haystack Mountain, among others. “When we moved here, this was just forest and fields. No power, no running water,” Melissa recalls. “My dad, Fred Aakjar, spent the next few years plan- ning and building the timber-frame house and pole barn, with the help of my younger brothers. Over the next 10 years, they built every structure on the property: the barn, the garage, the chicken coop, the rabbitry, and the beehives. Constructing the homestead together literally laid the foundation for all that we’re doing now at Oak Summit Farm.”
Fred Aakjar died unexpectedly on Lilly Hill in March 2017. Although devastated, the family members kept each other strong. “Moving to Vermont was the best thing that happened to us. My brothers learned timber framing from our dad; I’m raising and homeschooling my two kids (Addison, 9, and Leif, 7) on the farm; and Mom is right here, lending a hand to all of us. Dad instilled a solid family work ethic, and we all pitch in to help one another.”
Oak Summit Farm has evolved into two family enterprises. Melissa started Pitchfork Preserves in 2009, producing artisanal pickled vegetables, jams, sauces, and honey. Her brothers, Lucas and Dylan, developed their own timber-framing company several years ago. The family also raises chickens, pigs, heritage-breed rabbits, laying hens, ducks, and honeybees. Four compatible farm dogs protect the livestock from bears, coyotes, and hawks.
Melissa has raised rabbits since she was a girl and has a passion for preserving heri- tage breeds to capture their best qualities. “We raise Flemish Giants, New Zealand, Mini Rex, and the endangered Silver Fox. We sell heritage-breeding stock for meat production or as pets. Families who want to raise their own rabbits will buy a trio of a buck and two does.” Shawn Comar, Me- lissa’s ex-husband, is the head beekeeper in charge of 70 to 100 hives. “We harvest up to a ton of raw honey each year, depending on the year. Everyone helps with extraction in September,” says Melissa. Oak Summit hives are located throughout Dorset, Rupert, Pawlet, and Danby.
“I absolutely adore the honey side of the business,” Melissa continues. “I visit schools, bring the observation hive, and give kids samples of honey. Many of them have never tasted anything besides gro- cery-store honey, which is often half corn or rice syrup. They’re blown away at how creamy and delicious raw honey tastes! It’s so important that kids learn about the need for pollinators and to get their honey from local beekeepers.”
The Power of Family
Ittakesateamtorunafarmandapairof thriving enterprises. Melissa, 34, Lucas, 30, and Dylan, 27, manage the various operations with their mom, Sabine. “Mom is the backbone of the family, though she prefers to stay behind the scenes,” Melissa says. “She does a lot of prep work and helps with the kids. I’m the front person for the family since my brothers are kind of reserved. They help extract the honey and prep vegetables and berries if I’m in a pinch. Dylan helps me at the Dorset Farmers’ Market, and I’ll help them with oiling the beams and taking photos for their market- ing.” Melissa’s partner Phil Bowen is a barber and pitches in whenever and however he can.
“My mom’s sister-in-law, Aunt Monika, comes from Germany for three months every summer. She helps with the kids and the rabbits. And like my mom, she’s happy to lend a hand with anything in the background. That gives me the time and energy to focus on the preserving at the height of the season.”
Melissa entered the food world when she was 14, waiting tables at a retirement community in Millbrook, New York. “That taught me about food production, high-quality service, and the importance of relationships.” When she moved to Southern Vermont, she worked at a variety of restaurants and delis including Dorset Union Store (formerly Peltier’s Market), Christo’s, and Rachel’s Gourmet Deli in Manchester. “Sissy Hicks, Sherrie Baker, Athena Alexiou, and the late Amanda Morris: these women were and are my mentors in the food world.”
“Dad understood my entrepreneurial personality and told me I could teach myself anything with books and hands- on experience in areas that interested me. My family moved here right after I graduat- ed from high school so I guess you could say I went to the College of Vermont!” Melissa also managed an alpaca farm in Bondville when she was 19. Melissa’s first business was growing and selling cut flowers but she grew frustrated at how fast they died. “I was pregnant with my daughter, Addison, and brainstormed about making beautiful products that have a longer shelf life. Then it dawned on me: canning and preserving! Starting Pitchfork Pre- serves gave me flexibility while raising my kids. The business took off in 2010 and I never looked back.”
Melissa learned to can and preserve from her parents and her grandmother, the source of the recipes she uses today. And now Melissa is sharing that wisdom with her own two children. “Even when they were little, I gave my kids a butter knife and let them help me prepare some of the cucumbers or string beans. Addison and Leif are good helpers in the kitchen, washing and cutting some of the vegetables. This helps them understand the whole process of growing and preserving vegetables and working with their food.”
“I try to give them a range of experiences, and that includes coming with me on deliveries and to the farmers’ market. Leif loves the timber framing and cutting vegetables, and Addison loves caring for the animals and making the preserves. I call it ‘world schooling’ since so much learning happens outside the home!”
“Teaching kids the value of real food and preservation is so important. A friend and I taught a cooking class last winter for families in our homeschooling group. Imagine a bunch of 5- to 9-year-olds let loose in a commercial kitchen! They absolutely loved it. We made homemade butter, stuffed dump- lings, soups, biscuits, and carrot cupcakes.”
Melissa started selling her Pitchfork Preserves at the Dorset Farmers’ Market in the winter of 2010. “I love the relationships I develop through the market, with customers, farmers, and other vendors.” Her prod- ucts are also available at select retail locations around Dorset and Manchester including H.N. Williams General Store, Dorset Union Store, Al Ducci’s, Sissy’s Kitchen in Middletown Springs, Merck Forest Visitors Center, and the Killington Market. Customers can also purchase online through Farm Fresh Connect in the Rutland area.
Preserving Vermont’s Bounty
Melissa makes all her products by hand at a commercial kitchen in the area. She dreams of the day when she can have her own commercial kitchen at the farm. “That would definitely make things less hectic,” she laughs. Produce comes from local farms such as Little Flower Farm in Middletown Springs, Yoder Farm in Danby, Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury, and several excellent You-Pick berry farms in Castleton and Danby.
"Farmers let me know how much produce they have so I can plan batches accordingly. I aim to process about a hundred pounds at a time, and I rent a commercial kitchen when the produce is at its peak and put in long hours to get everything into jars. We preserve in the spring, summer, and fall to capture the freshness of the vegetables and fruit.”
When Melissa refers to pickles, that encompasses all her pickled veggies, not just cucumbers that she prepares as sweet bread and butter, garlicky sandwich dills, or spicy spears. Pickles are either hot-packed or cold-packed and hot water-processed. When cold-packing she fills the sterilized glass canning jars with the prepped raw veggies and spices and then pours in a just-boiled brine of vinegar, salt, and sometimes a little sugar. She caps each jar and places them into a hot water bath to remove any air and to heat-set the lid’s rubber seal. The acidity preserves the contents.
These are truly your grandmother’s pickled treasures, a perfect blend of sweet and zing, with just the right amount of tenderness and snap. Spicy pickled carrots toothsome ruby beet chunks, savory green tomatoes. Blazin’ Beans and hot peppers aptly dubbed Pure Fire. Pickled wild ramps and fiddle- heads are available seasonally in small batches. The pickled vegetables are perfect to snack on straight out of the jar, as part of an appetizer course, or with a summer cocktail or cold beer.
Melissa also produces cranberry ketchup, made with Vermont-grown cranberries, and Green Mountain Grill Sauce, a maple-based barbecue sauce perfect for marinades or swabbing on top of chicken, beef, or pork. And then an array of jams, crafted to highlight the summer-ripe fruit, not sugar: raspberry peach, strawberry rhubarb, orange marmalade, summer berry, and black gold, a delicious blend of black raspberries and rhubarb. Grab a spoon—toast is optional!
Oak Summit honey is packaged in whimsical chubby bear-shape glass jars or in square-sided bottles capped with a cork and dipped in fragrant beeswax. Thick, creamy raw honey comes in standard glass jars ranging in sizes from one pound to a whopping six pounds.
Melissa gained a keen eye for aesthetics from her dad. “I was always painting or drawing. He encouraged my creativity, and he was honest whether something looked good. That helped me develop a visual concept.” Melissa’s innate art- istry infuses everything she touches: the colorful pickled veggies, fresh flower arrangements, and the alluring dis- play of pickles, preserves, and honey at her Dorset Farmers’ Market stand.
Oak Summit Farm Timber Framing
Lucas and Dylan Aakjar honed their skills under their father’s guidance for more than a decade before of- ficially starting their timber-frame construction company in 2016. Just down the hillside from the farm- house, the brothers work outside under a large gothic-shape covered structure similar to a Quonset long house. The roomy workspace is open at both ends but provides shelter from inclement weather and sun.
All of Oak Summit Farm’s timber comes from local sawmills within 50 miles. The brothers craft their timbers using hand joinery: wooden pegs, holes, and no nails. Solid hemlock and Eastern white pine timbers are shaped, notched, drilled, oiled, and prepared for delivery to construction sites in Dorset, Pawlet, Rupert, Wells, the Lakes Region, and beyond.
“We do all the joinery, cutting, and shaping here and then transport the completed timbers to the building site,” Lucas explains. “We typically raise a frame in less than a week. The beams all fit together just like we designed them to, creating timeless, strong structures. All told, it’s a couple of months of preparation nd roughly one week to fully assemble the structure on the building site. Our business is all word of mouth, and we’re really taking off now.”
Working Together, Staying Together
The Aakjars are a refreshing throwback to another era, embracing traditional practices and skills learned from their forebears. Canning and preserving. Hand-joined timber-frame construction. Raising heritage livestock and living together as three generations on one fam- ily homestead. “It took a long time for us to get where we are,” Melissa reflects. “It was a real struggle at first because all the capital went into the land. We’re finally at a sustainable level and making a living. Fortunately, we all love manual work, and in turn, we can enjoy the benefits of this rural lifestyle and economy. My brothers and I definitely butt heads at times, but we all have the same vision, work ethic, and dedication to family.”
Fred Aakjar would be pleased.
By Maria Reade
Photo by Celia Kelly & Orah Moore
Oak Summit Farm
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