The name – Ski Hearth Farm – is a hint to the diversity that has helped preserve this pastoral landscape of 630 acres in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, for decades. Yes, it is first and foremost a farm, as evidenced by the greenhouses lined up behind the old red farmhouse, the neat rows of vegetables planted in the wide fields, and the tractors moving across the landscape. But skiing is also an essential part of the story here and has been since the 1930s, when owners Sel and Paulie Hannah ran a ski lodge during the winter months and farmed in the summers. And “Hearth,” well, that’s a place for gathering together, a nod to the sense of community pervading this place.
Like most small New England farms, Ski Hearth has gone through an evolution or two over the years. From a small dairy herd and subsistence farming in the 1800s and early 1900s, to a successful commercial farm famous for Sel Hannah’s corn and potatoes in the years bracketing World War II right up to the turn of the last century, to a few fallow years and eventually a rebirth near the beginning of this decade when Davis Mangold purchased the farm. The success of this rebirth hinges on diversity: growing vegetables and strawberries from spring through summer and into fall, harvesting and selling firewood in the fall and winter, and operating a full-fledged Nordic ski center during the snowy months.
“I didn’t buy the farm with any of these things in mind,” said Mangold. “It kind of fell into my lap, and I thought, ‘How can we make this thing sustainable?’”
Mangold purchased the farm (from local Olympic and World Cup ski champion Bode Miller’s foundation) too late in 2013 to plant anything or prepare the fields for the next growing season. With the early chill of fall in the air and winter on the horizon, Mangold’s thoughts turned to skiing. He hired renowned trail designer John Morton of Vermont to map out a series of ski trails on the farm.
The trails were built and ready for skiers the winter of 2014-2015: 25 kilometers winding around the fields and into the woods, where they twist through the trees in challenging climbs and rewarding descents. There was snow that year – lots of it – and local skiers came happily to this new mecca of groomed cross-country tracks with stellar views of the Franconia and Kinsman mountain ranges and the welcoming warmth of the farm stand-turned warming hut.
That first year was great for skiers, but challenging for Mangold, who ran into a hiccup with the restrictions of a conservation easement on the property, held since the 1980s by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Mangold was allowed to offer skiing on the property, but not profit from it. So, he provided free skiing that first season. By last winter, that easement wrinkle had been ironed out, but there was enough snow to ski only a handful of days. Mangold is banking on the third season being the charm, the one when all the pieces – snowfall, ticket sales, and local enthusiasm – fall into place.
When Mangold looked into building Nordic trails at the farm, he also hired forester Ben Hudson of Lyme, New Hampshire, to create a management plan for the 460 acres of forested land on the property. The 10-year plan for the forest – a mix of northern hardwoods with scattered white pine, hemlock, and spruce-fir patches – includes increasing the percentage of northern hardwood species for future firewood production (both for outside sales and to heat the farm greenhouses) and enhancing wildlife habitat through small patch cuts to create early successional growth.
The CSA vegetable operation. More recently, firewood sales and delivery was added to help generate revenue during the non-growing seasons.
“Two years ago while building the trails I did some minor logging,” said Mangold. Last year, harvesting activity took place on some 150 acres, but cutting was light. “The management plan calls for selective harvesting of the woods as opposed to clear cutting,” he explains. “Using this approach, we think we can actively harvest an area every 5 to 10 years instead of once in 25 or 30 years.”
This is, perhaps, not the type of harvest Mangold envisioned when he bought the farm, but it helps further diversify the operation and it’s now an important component of the year-round business plan.
“I think of the farm as sort of a three-legged stool,” he said. “We’ve got the vegetable farm. That’s an essential piece, but not necessarily the most profitable. The cord wood is profitable. And because we deliver it in the fall and cut it in late winter, it fits well with the timing of planting and harvesting. The Nordic ski aspect, I think, is going to be a nice, sustainable, profitable part as well.”
After three growing seasons, Mangold is hoping to find someone to lease the vegetable operation and farmstand for the coming year, while he continues to focus on Nordic skiing, growing strawberries, and harvesting and selling hay and firewood.
Mangold also owns a successful software company in nearby Littleton. But he’s no stranger to life on a farm. His voice still carries a twang, a lingering reminder of his upbringing on a 1,600-acre farm in Kentucky where corn and soybeans grew. On that farm, everything was mechanized, there was little crop diversity, and no personal connection to the customers. That’s much different than the organic, sustainable enterprise he has created at Ski Hearth Farm, tending both the land and the community he and his family have called home for 15 years. (His wife, Tina Mangold, owns Balance Bethlehem, a center for yoga, nutrition, and healing arts in a neighboring town.) Not one to do anything halfway, Mangold jumped into farming whole-heartedly, building not only ski trails, but new greenhouses, purchasing new farming equipment, renovating both the farmhouse and the farm stand.
Locals and summer regulars have been thrilled to see the farm stand open again, to see tractors in the fields, to watch Ski Hearth Farm return to bustling activity. Nordic skiers are excited to have a bonafide ski center close to home. The success of all of it hinges on diversity and community.
“It’s extremely hard. It does require a lot of good will, local support. Without local support, this is not a sustainable venture,” Mangold said. He emphasizes that sustainability over the long haul is the goal, whether it’s the management plan for the woodlot or the overall business plan: “I look at the farm as a long-term investment.”
This series is sponsored by the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.