Sidehill Farm Jam: A Return to our Roots

Sidehill Farm was established in the 1970s by a small Vermont family with a rich and vibrant history of jam-making prowess. By creating one of the very first specialty food companies in the state, the Naylors would go on to become true pioneers in the fostering of a healthy local food system—and they have multiple generations of experience and knowledge in artisanal jam-making to back them up. They began by resurrecting old family recipes and gathering ingredients with their children the old-fashioned way—using fresh fruits, like raspberries, picked directly from the vines. Preferring to focus on quality and customer satisfaction over quick and easy profits, they refused to stuff their jams with added ingredients like pectin, which by then had largely taken over the industry. Instead, they chose to focus on what made jams so popular in the first place: the simple, delicious combination of boiled-down fruits and sugars. After several decades in business, the elder Naylors passed down Sidehill Farm to their son Kelt and his wife Kristina on a promise that they would observe their original commitments. To this very day, the two continue to serve their customers with real jams that emphasize quality with wholesome ingredients that stand tall above the additive-laden imposters forced on us over the years. And while their mission to produce jams with more fruit and more real flavor indeed marks a return to normalcy and tradition within the art of jam-making, the fact is they represent something even greater—a brighter, healthier future for us all.

We spoke to Sidehill Farm’s current owners—Kelt and Kristina—about their history and future as Vermont jam makers. Quickly, we discovered how enthusiastic they are for their craft as well as the customers that enjoy their products, and it soon became evident that they deserve our business and support.

Sidehill Farm owners Kelt and Kristina Naylor pose with their product display in 2020.

Q: How long was your family involved in making jams before turning it into a business, and how did you get started?

A: Both of our families were jam-makers before it became a business. My grandmother, mom and I spent summer days making jam with our own berries, as did Kelt’s family. The business began in 1976 when Kelt’s family had a bumper peach share from their co-op in Montpelier. This was an old-style co-op in the basement of a building, where members would divide up bags of food—not what we think of as co-ops and how they evolved. Kelt’s mom made more jam than the family needed (which is hard to imagine because her sons can EAT!), so she took the extra jam to a neighbor’s farm stand with a sample. Those first 30 jars sold out that very afternoon! People who tasted the jam compared it to the jam their grandmothers had once made, in contrast to popular 1970s foods like Cheez Whiz and Tang.

Kelt Naylor inspects the pH level on a batch of jam (image: Brattleboro Reformer)

Q: What has the journey been like for your business as its grown, and how have you stayed so authentic to your roots?

A: Great question! We bought the business in 2000 after Kelt’s parents retired. Early on, we were tempted to start using pectin because it’s an easier and cheaper way to make jam—but it was not the best way. We strive to keep our jams affordable, but it can be a challenge when we use so much more fruit than you’ll find in other typical jams. Most jams have sugar as the first ingredient. After all, sugar is cheap and fruit is expensive. People had to taste it to appreciate the difference. Thankfully, over the past 10 years or so, people have become more knowledgeable about their food. For example, we have gone from Cheez Whiz to artisanal cheese, from Red Delicious apples to heirloom varieties, and so on. People have also come to appreciate our heirloom jam-making techniques and the higher quality of our products. Our customers have always kept us on our path. Each and every week, we pick up the phone and hear from a new customer, calling to tell us how much they appreciate our products—especially during the pandemic. It has meant so much to us to brighten someone’s day with a great product. In fact, we had one recent caller tell us: “This is the best jam I’ve ever tasted. I can’t go back to the regular stuff now.” Furthermore, we have two other very particular customers who would hold us accountable if we ever lessened our quality—Kelt’s parents! We send them jams all the time, so we need to answer to a higher authority.

Sidehill Farm Jams has gone on to become one of Vermont’s premier specialty food businesses (image: Sidehill Farm—Facebook)

Q: What kinds of simple ingredients do you use in your jams and how are your production methods different from large-scale jam manufacturers?

A: Like maple syrup, jam has different “grades.” Our jam is classified as “fancy” grade, or “extra jam” as it’s known in the European Union. We are one of very few companies making this grade of jam in the United States. Instead of thickening sugar and fruit with pectin, our traditional method cooks down fruit to concentrate the flavor and natural pectin in the fruit. This style of jam allows you to have fruit as the first ingredient, and more fruit means more flavor in every spoonful. Our products are made with only fruit and sugar (and sometimes added spices of lemon juice or vinegar, depending on the flavor), which really allows the taste of our excellent fruit to shine through!

The next generation of Naylor family “jammers” out harvesting some fresh rhubarb! (image: Sidehill Farm—Facebook)

Q: We love the fun mural painted over the front entrance of your storefront! What’s the story behind it?

A: We loved repurposing an existing building to house our jam kitchen when we outgrew our original jam kitchen. We loved having this new access to pavement, but the building exterior was showing its age. Kelt wanted a mural to brighten the entrance and asked local artist Terry Sylvester to paint it. Terry’s specialty is painting scenery for movies and television, as well as large murals. It is a faithful reproduction of the original Sidehill Farm, and it has our dogs and chickens painted in to greet us as well. In one happy moment of creativity as we were sketching out the plan, we realized one side of the building was damaged beneath where we sketched out the tree. We then decided this damaged corner would make a nice knot hole for an owl, and today it is one of our favorite parts of the mural.

The hand-painted mural offers a warm Vermont welcome to employees and customers alike!

Q: Sidehill Farm was one of the first specialty food businesses to emerge in Vermont. What is it about the state that makes it so appealing for building a small food business?

A: There are probably many factors, but Vermont’s rural agricultural landscape plays a large part. Vermonters are connected to farmers. As much of America is now coming back to appreciate where their food comes from, this appreciation never left Vermont. Food is central to small-town Vermont life, from maple sugaring to our local apple pie festival where our little community church makes about 1000 pies for a fundraiser each fall. Everyone knows who makes the best pies and who is relegated to apple peeling. Oftentimes, three generations of families and friends will spend every night together making pies, with the next generation waiting to ascend to actual pie-making from the apple peeling station. In small towns like this, word travels quickly if someone has a great food item—an apple pie, an heirloom apple, a new jam or an artisanal cheese—and from there, people will find you. Vermont’s food co-op system was a part of this social network, and it’s helped many small companies get to the next stage by easily getting these foods on store shelves.

Not only does this connection help small businesses with their marketing budget, it also cross-pollinates business ideas. For example, we were introduced to quince from a local farmer who didn’t have a market for his product. We fell in love with this unusual fruit and spent time researching recipes, then visiting our local co-op cheesemonger and our local sheep cheesemaker to see if they would sell a local membrillo (Quince paste)—a traditional European accompaniment for sheep cheeses. Based on these conversations with neighbors, we now had a source for fruit and a market for two new products—a membrillo and a quince butter!

Quince is an ancient fruit that’s closely related to apples and pears in both taste and common ancestry (image: The Spruce Eats)

Q: Your traditional jams are based on classic family recipes that have been passed down for generations. Which varieties have been around the longest, and are there any family favorites?

A: While peach jam was the product that launched the company, our red raspberry and wild blueberry are the longest-running flavors. Asking which jam is our favorite is a bit like asking which child is our favorite, but on most days, you can find a jar of red raspberry on our counter.

One of many delicious ways to enjoy Red Raspberry jam from Sidehill Farm (image: Sidehill Farm—Facebook)

Q: What other qualities make your jams so special and unique?

A: Our traditional methods not only taste more “fruity,” but after almost 50 years we know which fruits to use, as well. For example, we know which blends of apples make the best tasting apple butters, and how to pivot to another great blend of apple varieties if that particular crop fails that year.

Sidehill Farm’s seasonal specialty apple butter uses locally grown apples from around the state!

Q: How does purchasing Sidehill Farm jams contribute to a healthy and sustainable local food system?

A: We work with local farms as much as possible and have loved finding ways to use produce that lacks a retail market. For instance, apples that have gone through a hailstorm might not look perfect, but they will make a perfect apple butter. Providing our neighboring farmers with a market for these underutilized fruits in their backyards to improve their bottom lines has been one of the most rewarding things about running this business.

Click here for an in-depth article about how Sidehill Farm has grown into a climate-beneficial business!

Q: You’ve been in business for almost 50 years now—quite an accomplishment! What is your vision for Sidehill Farm during the next 50 years, and is there anything new on the horizon?

A: Managing day-to-day operations safely during a pandemic has distracted us from developing new products. Things must be returning to normal a bit though, because I just started leafing through our “future ideas” file last weekend and found something not new at all—Kelt’s mom’s green tomato relish she’s made for over 50 years now, and it is amazing. Also, we were working on a crabapple jelly, since both crabapples and green tomatoes are other underutilized fruits often found in great supply in New England. Kelt and I hope to resume testing new recipes as our typical Friday “date night” as we return to a more normal life.

There are so many choices when it comes to picking a Sidehill Farm jam to try—from customer favorites to seasonal specialties! Here are some of the varieties we carry at the co-op:

Apricot Jam
Wild Blueberry Jam
Fig Jam
Hot Red Pepper Jam
Red Raspberry Jam
Maple Pumpkin Butter Jam
Peach Jam
Quince Butter
Strawberry Jam

Sidehill Farm represents a legacy of jam-makers who love their craft and care about their customers, community and the world. Start trying their delicious assortment of jams today!

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