Ruminations: on dumpster diving, or clearing out the garden

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WEB rumination curious harvestcopyright the Chronicle September 10, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything, by Maximus Thaler and Dayna Safferstein; published by Quarry Books, Beverly, Massachusetts, 2014; 160 pages, softbound, $24.99.

There is hardly any point in searching for a topic for this column. Like a cow grazing in the field, the writer is best off using what he finds before him.

In this case it is A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything. Elka Schumann handed a copy of the book to me a week or so ago while we stood talking in the kitchen at the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover.

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Ruminations: On seasonal cooking in northern Vermont

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web ruminations cookbookcopyright the Chronicle August 6, 2014

by Tena Starr

Marcie Kaufman is a professionally trained chef who lives in Jay. She graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier in 1992, but began her career earlier, in 1987, as an apprentice boulanger and patissier.

To translate broadly, that means she is a very good baker and pastry maker.

Ms. Kaufman has now written a cookbook called Seasonal Appetite, a Chef’s Celebration of Vermont’s Seasons. She says the solitude of her own kitchen has replaced the restaurant’s “animated discourse.”

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Weather problems drive up beef prices sharply

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Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton.  Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short.  Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer.  Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale.  Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said.  Someone from Montana has already expressed interest.  Photos by Natalie Hormilla

Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton. Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short. Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer. Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale. Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said. Someone from Montana has already expressed interest. Photos by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle May 7, 2014

by Natalie Hormilla

BARTON — The price of beef in most stores is at a record high, and the price of locally raised beef is getting higher, too.

The average price of a pound of ground beef in most U.S. states hit almost $3.70 for the month of March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI).

That average price was up from $3.55 in February and $3.47 in January. In March of 2013, it was $3.33; four years ago, it was $2.24.

Just like in the rest of the country, shoppers at the C&C Supermarket in Barton have been wondering why the prices have been so high lately.

“We had a sign over the meat department for three months, stating why we had higher beef prices,” said Ray Sweeney, who works in the meat department at the C&C. “Just to kind of explain ourselves.”

“People were asking a lot,” he said.

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Ruminations: Start a new tradition with Christmas cookies

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Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year.  Clockwise from the bottom center, are:  Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle.  Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

Some of our Christmas cookies from a previous year. Clockwise from the bottom center, are: Cuccidati, or Italian fig cookies; pizzelle; almond cookies (recipe not provided here); merenguitos; and more pizzelle. Photo courtesy of Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle December 11, 2013

by Natalie Hormilla

Some years ago, when we got tired of too many Christmas gifts with too little meaning, we started to give away Christmas cookies.

The whole process is beautiful.  We bake together, listen to Christmas tunes, talk about the people we’ll give them to, sip amaretto, and just hang out as a family.

The best part is giving them.  The cookies we make for Christmas make their appearance just once a year.  They have a way of inspiring talk about those past family members who carried the recipes into the present.

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Hungry Vermonters face cuts in aid

hunger web

Joe Patrissi at the NEKCA food shelf. Mr. Patrissi said it was fully stocked on Monday morning, but demand is great, and a few hours later several of its shelves were bare. Photo by Tena Starr

Years ago, Kim Arel found herself in a tough spot.  She had two young children to feed, and for a brief time the only way to swing that was to visit a food shelf.  “I was surprised to see other people there that I didn’t think I would,” she said in a recent interview.

Later, when she was in a better place, Ms. Arel decided to pay it forward, and became a donor to food shelves herself.  And for the past 12 years or so, she’s been running the food shelf in Jay, which serves five towns.

Last week, she said, many of her clientele were talking about the latest round of cuts to 3SquaresVT, the program that helps poor Vermonters put food on the table.  “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Those cuts, which will take effect on November 1, are due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, which passed in 2009 and included a temporary increase for help with food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The temporary boost increased the monthly SNAP benefit by 14 percent. Continue reading

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Three-fourths of the region is overweight

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From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department.   Photo by Tena Starr

From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — About 75 percent of the people in Orleans and northern Essex counties are either overweight or obese.  Thirteen percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are considered obese, as well as 11 percent of kids under five.

In the state as a whole, 28 percent of children and 58 percent of adults are either overweight or obese.  The rate of obesity in the Newport area is 31 percent, the worst in the state.

Those are some of the alarming statistics presented at Saturday’s filming of Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary that tackles the challenges associated with the country’s growing rate of obesity, as well as the history of America’s weight problem.

The morning’s events, which included the movie, a brief discussion about what can be done, and a story walk and healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box, was organized by prevention specialist Jennifer Woolard at the health department’s Newport office.

Ms. Woolard said she hoped to start a conversation about how to have a healthier community.  Orleans County is the unhealthiest in the state, she said.

The reason for that perhaps mystifies Ms. Woolard, who noted that the area has parks, community gardens, sidewalks, good grocery stories, farmers markets, and bike paths.  It also has woods and fields, lakes and streams, and a thriving local food movement.

In other words, people in the Northeast Kingdom have access to both healthy food and ways to burn off calories.

That can’t be said of other parts of the country, inner cities, for instance, where children have no place to safely engage in physical play.  But it’s certainly true in the Northeast Kingdom, where many can just walk out the front door in order to ride a bike or go for a walk in a safe neighborhood.

The rate of Vermonters who don’t get enough physical activity is 17 percent, says the health department.  In this area, it’s 27 percent.

Ms. Woolard said she doesn’t have the answer; she simply set out to start a discussion and to offer information.  “We want to make it community driven, we don’t want to tell people what to do,” she said.

That was the message of the day.

“Today is not about blame or shame,” said Jim Burnett, director of the district health department in Newport.  “But we are not immune from the struggle of dealing with overweight and obese.  We are, sadly, on a trajectory, where maybe for the first time, our children may have a shorter life span than their parents.”

About 30 people attended the event, which was held at Waterfront Cinemas.

Access to both good food and ways to engage in physical activity are factors in the nation’s struggle with an increasingly overweight population, but so is income, and that might be the key to figuring out why one of the most rural areas of Vermont also has the highest percentage of overweight people.

The highest rates of obesity are among lower income Vermonters, according to the health department.  And Orleans and Essex counties are the poorest in the state, according to U.S. Census data.

The film, done in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine among others, is a captivating tour of human biology, U.S. food policy, and small steps that have been taken throughout the country to initiate change.

While it doesn’t abdicate personal responsibility, it does point out that obesity became epidemic in the country in the past 30 years for reasons that often go beyond personal choice.

When the U.S. government started keeping track, in 1900, of why people died the three main causes were pneumonia as a result of influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea.

Today, five out of ten untimely deaths are related to being overweight, according to the film.  Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, which leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, sleep apnea, heart trouble, and pain.

While the natural tendency is to look at the situation as a lifestyle choice, biology says the behavior was laid down a long time ago.  “Biology plays as much a role as psychology,” says one doctor in the movie.

For one thing, people aren’t genetically programmed to turn down calories.  Human DNA is programmed to ward against scarcity:  If food is available, eat it, and human DNA hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.  It certainly hasn’t changed in the last 30 years, although lifestyles have changed dramatically.

The audience laughed when the film pictured cavemen devouring a wild pig.  You really wouldn’t expect people of that time to take two bites and say I’m full now, says the narrator.  Humans are genetically programmed to eat what’s available while it’s available, she says.

And for thousands of years that worked out just fine since food wasn’t reliably plentiful, and it took a certain amount of effort to acquire it.

That’s the biology in a nutshell:  People are designed for a world of scarcity where food is not easily available, and it takes a substantial expenditure of energy to get it.  Humans are programmed to survive in a hunter gatherer world that no longer exists, at least in most cultures.

Enter agriculture.  Humans became farmers.  And, historically speaking, shortly after that, industrialized agriculture developed, at least in the U.S.  By the early twentieth century, the federal government had made cheap, plentiful food a priority.  But what to do with it?

What’s followed is a glut of corn and soy in the U.S., the film asserts, a glut that’s subsidized and is used to produce cheap, and unhealthy, food:  beef fed by cheap grain, sodas sweetened by cheap corn syrup, cookies, crackers, and snack foods that pack a high caloric punch and little nutrition.  The food the nation produces in mass quantities is inexpensive compared to fruits and vegetables, which receives no government subsidies.

It gets worse.

Humans became sedentary.  Instead of cultivating crops or doing other manual labor, they began to sit in front of screens, more and more screens all the time.  In fact, Americans are using less calories per day than in 1970, but consuming more.

And then came marketing.

Obesity goes up as income goes down, the film says.  In part, that’s because people are programmed to acquire as many calories as possible for the dollar.  The dollar menu at a fast food restaurant is a lure for poor families because it saves time, and it saves money.

The film goes on to note these grim numbers:  The profit margin for a soft drink is 90 percent.  The profit margin for fruits and vegetables is 10 percent.  Naturally, companies being in the business of making money, heavily market their most profitable products.

On the more sinister side, perhaps, is the fact that the federal government subsidizes the corn and soy industries, encouraging further production of cheap, but unhealthy, food.  The government is driving farmers, who are also interested in making a living, to overproduce food that isn’t good for the country as a whole, the movie says.

“The kind of food we eat is the kind that’s most profitable,” one analyst flatly says.  Another says it would cost the food industry between $36- and $40-billion a year if Americans cut 100 calories a day out of their diet.

Remarkably, the film says that this country doesn’t even produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the dietary needs of its citizens.

A brief discussion, led by Dr. Alan Rubin, followed the movie.  Some mourned the loss of IROC, which provided indoor recreation facilities.  Others mentioned what is available in the way of opportunities for exercise, which the area doesn’t lack.

Those who are interested in furthering the discussion are encouraged to contact the Healthworks Coalition at lesley.becker@neklsvt.org.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

To read the Chronicle’s editorial on this subject, click here.

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Sterling College hosts Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future

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High school student Toby Marx-Dunn of Jericho attempts to plow a straight furrow under the guidance of Sterling College draft horse manager Rick Thomas (at left), while Sterling students Lee Droste (at right) and Dave Martorana (immediately to the right of Mr. Marx-Dunn) help with the animals.  Sterling hosted the first Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future.  Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

High school student Toby Marx-Dunn of Jericho attempts to plow a straight furrow under the guidance of Sterling College draft horse manager Rick Thomas (at left), while Sterling students Lee Droste (at right) and Dave Martorana (immediately to the right of Mr. Marx-Dunn) help with the animals. Sterling hosted the first Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future. Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — Toby Marx-Dunn, a high school student from Jericho, was listening to National Public Radio one day, and it got him thinking about the food he eats.  He decided he wanted to know more and get better, healthier food.  This impulse led him to sign up for a brand new summer Governor’s Institutes of Vermont — one called Farms, Food and Your Future.

Last week the impulse left him standing behind the back ends of a pair of large, patient workhorses in a farm field at Sterling College.

Sterling was one of the hosts of this year’s institute, the first one to focus on these subjects.  Mr. Marx-Dunn seems to be not alone in his impulse, judging by admissions numbers at Sterling.  Last year the college — which teaches sustainable agriculture and food-related topics — had about 90 students.  This fall the doors will open to a full class of 110.  Tim Patterson, director of admissions and financial aid, said the dorms are full.

The Governor’s institutes are residencies for high school students with accelerated learning on college campuses in specific subject areas.  This year’s institutes included ones on the arts, engineering, information technology, mathematics, and Asian cultures.

On Wednesday, July 31, Toby Marx-Dunn picked up the handles of a plow behind two big horses named Daisy and Rexi.  His new job was to try to make the thing go straight.

“It doesn’t go straight by itself,” he reported shortly after plowing his very first two furrows.  Asked if it was fun, he said vehemently, “No.”

Not fun, Mr. Marx-Dunn explained, because it’s much harder than it looks.

Even so, Mr. Marx-Dunn and a dozen other high schoolers did get the basics on how fields are plowed, and why good soil is important, and how Sterling plans to enrich the soil on the particular field they were plowing that day.  Draft horse manager Rick Thomas explained that plows can only dig so deep, and the soil was hard below the furrow.  In order to loosen it up and add some organic matter to the hardpan, they would plant daikon radishes as a cover crop.  These radishes grow fast and have deep roots.

High school students at the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future walk through the turkey pen to see the pasture at Sterling College in Craftsbury.

High school students at the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food and Your Future walk through the turkey pen to see the pasture at Sterling College in Craftsbury.

Also that day, the students met a flock of young turkeys destined for a flock of Thanksgiving tables, and they learned about the difficulty of growing turkeys to the right weight, why pasture is good for them and why they are good for pasture, and a little about heritage breeds.

Sterling raises 1,000 birds a year on its farm.  The young turkey poults the students saw that day had already grown 12 pounds in a month and a half, so the farm manager explained they would have to be processed and frozen well before Thanksgiving, so they would not be too big to fit into a regular oven.

In between these outdoor adventures, the students heard about how the cafeteria works at Sterling College.

The college grows 20 percent of its own food, and 44 percent of the food in the cafeteria is grown on local farms.  Faculty, staff, and students all eat together and each helps with the work of putting that food onto the tables.

Anne Obelnicki, director of food systems, explained to the group that last year the college grew 760 pounds of rutabagas and because of the skill of cooks at Sterling, no one got sick of rutabaga.  She said they used it in all sorts of unusual ways, even mashed as an ingredient in cake.

“I think that deliciousness is part of sustainability,” she said.  If the food doesn’t taste good, people won’t keep eating it.

She said another part of sustainability is making the food affordable.

“The food at Sterling doesn’t cost any more than at any other college,” she said.  She said people are always saying local food is more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.  Sterling has great cooks, she said, who can make a delicious meal out of rice and beans, for example.

Ms. Obelnicki passed out free samples of salami made at Sterling, which she explained is made with raw meat and bacteria so it will ferment.

At Sterling, she said, “We don’t just eat to eat.  We eat because we’re trying to live our education here.”

Ms. Obelnicki said students at some colleges have started a “real food” challenge.  They go into their college cafeterias and start asking questions about how much of the food is local, organic, and fair trade.  If a series of questions can be answered in the affirmative, she said, the food can be called real.  The students who came up with the idea set a goal, she said, “Let’s get real food into our college — 20 percent by 2020.”

Under these guidelines, Sterling’s cafeteria has about 70 percent real food, one of the highest percentages in the country.

Jonathan Kaplan, lead faculty for the Governor’s Institute on Farms, Food, and Your Future, teaches biology and history at Lyndon State College.  He is a former state advisor for the Future Farmers of America (FFA).  Lyndon State is also a participant in the real food challenge.

After hearing Ms. Obelnicki’s discussion of Sterling’s food system, he told the students they might want to take that real food challenge back home with them.

“There’s nothing stopping you from going back to your high school and making this happen,” he said.

Christian Feuerstein, director of communications for Sterling, noted the college now offers minors in draft horse management, climate justice, and sustainable food systems.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Book review: A showcase for Vermont food and farmers

vermont farm table cookbookReviewed by Tena Starr

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State, by Tracey Medeiros.  Photographs by Oliver Parini.  254 pages.  Paperback.  Published by the Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.  $19.95.

This is a cookbook that was just waiting to be written.  Given Vermont’s attention to local food, diversified agriculture, and family farms, the only wonder is that someone didn’t write it earlier.

The Vermont Farm Table combines recipes with short profiles of the farms, breweries, farmers markets, and restaurants the recipes, and many of their ingredients, come from.  It’s also a picture book.  Lots of cookbooks include photographs of food that make your mouth water.  This one does, too, but in addition, it’s a Vermont Life-style photo show of forests, fields, gardens, and farmers.

Predictably, there’s a lot of “brand” ingredients involved here.  For instance, it’s likely possible to make a fine New York strip steak without WhistlePig whiskey, but if it doesn’t turn out to be quite the dish you’d envisioned, you can probably blame the cheap brand of whiskey you used instead of WhistlePig.

It’s about time to say here that I have theories about cookbooks, the main one being that the best cookbooks — the most worn ones on my shelves — tell you how to put together ingredients you’re likely to already have in tasty ways you haven’t thought of before.

To a large extent, this book does that.  The maple-glazed sweet potatoes with walnuts and cumin that we made Thursday night were terrific, easy to prepare and didn’t even require a trip to the store.  The recipe comes from Square Deal Farm in Walden, owned by Sarah Lyons and Ray Lewis, sugarmakers who also raise Pinzgauer cattle and pasture fed pigs.

There are lots of recipes in this book that are as simple and inexpensive:  for instance, asparagus and brown rice from Pomykala Farm; Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches with heirloom tomatoes; Kimball Brook Farm’s hefty corn chowder; Butterworks Farm’s maple cornbread; Longview Farm’s leg of lamb; or the amber ale-braised highland beef chuck roast from Shat Acres in Greensboro Bend.

But be prepared to shop as well as cook if you plan to use this book, which may be part of its purpose.

It also helps to be a gardener.  Some of the simplest recipes rely on ingredients you’ll find at a farmers market, or in your own garden, but probably not at Price Chopper.

For instance, there’s no way that Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches are going to be as tasty without Brandywine tomatoes, which you’re highly unlikely to find in a grocery store, given their relatively short shelf life, odd color, and lumpy shape.  Grocery stores, and the growers who supply them, long ago traded in flavor for longevity and appearance.

But I think it would be fair to assume that a major purpose of this particular cookbook is to introduce local ingredients, as well as their sources, the idea being to reconnect people to good food and where it comes from.

Author Tracey Medeiros is marketing Vermont and its farmers here, but also providing Vermonters themselves with information about where to find fresh, local meat, produce, cheese, fruit, and maple products — and what to do with them.

Not surprisingly, the weakest section of the book is that which deals with seafood, Vermont not being known for its fresh scallops and shrimp.  But the main reason I say that is because the recipes tend to come from restaurants rather than from farmers, and are thus more complicated.

Yes, I would love to make butter poached halibut with forbidden black rice, beet dashi, and fennel salad, but I have no idea where I’d get two fennel bulbs, stalks removed, bulbs trimmed, and a cup of dried shitake mushrooms, as well as two star anise pods.

That recipe comes from a Burlington restaurant, rather than a farmer — a restaurant that’s committed to fresh, local food, but the recipe does not suggest where the ingredients might be found.  Most cooks, outside of chefs, aren’t likely to traverse the state in order to locate what they need for dinner.

Some of the ingredients called for in this book include vanilla bean paste, root of celeriac, hulled hemp seed (isn’t that illegal?), arrowroot, fennel bulbs, and pomegranate molasses.

Like I said, you might have to shop in order to use this cookbook.

As a book about Vermont farmers, it succeeds admirably.  The brief profiles are of people who grow, raise, or prepare Vermont food in all its fresh diversity.  We all know that superior maple products, great apples, a variety of cheeses, and grass fed beef and free range poultry are grown here.  But cranberries?  Rabbit?  Flowers?

As a cookbook, for the most part, it approaches cooking with solid but creative ideas about how to use the wealth of local products that Vermont has to offer.  The Vermont Farm Table is better than many I own and seldom open unless I have a rare day to spend hours in the kitchen.

I can’t wait until the squash crop comes in and we get to prepare grilled coconut delicata squash, or roasted root crops, or winter squash with roasted garlic.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Even in winter, local food economy is growing

by Bethany M. Dunbar
copyright the Chronicle January 19, 2011
Even in the middle of January, in the middle of an essentially stagnant economy, the local food movement in northern Vermont is showing signs of not only life, but growth as well.
Barb Judd at the Mountain View Stand in Newport is operating a winter market for the first time.
“The more stuff that goes bad in the big world, it pushes people back — back to their roots,” she said. She said more and more, people want to know who grew their food and where it came from.
“People are sick and tired of not knowing.”
She decided to try a winter market and see how it went. She opened up the week before Thanksgiving in the same space where Cinta’s bakery is located just outside of Derby Village. Not all of her food is from Vermont — especially this time of year — but she buys as much local produce as she can find, Vermont chicken and other meats, and she gets wild seafood directly from Massachusetts.
She didn’t have sales statistics on hand during a recent impromptu interview at the store, but she said the response has made her know the timing was right. It took her usual summer customers a while to find her — up Route 5 a bit from her summer location — and she said they sometimes come bursting through the door expressing enthusiasm to have found her again.
“Five years ago, I remember thinking, I am on the edge of something.”
Based on the response, she is considering making renovations to her summer farm stand to make it into a year-round business.
Alicia Knoll, one of the owners of Montgomery’s Café and Newport Natural Foods, said they have seen enough growth in the past five years to hire about three more employees than the businesses used to have.
“I think that people are cooking more,” she said. “We don’t really have prepared foods in our store, we have ingredients.”
She said Steve Crevoshay and Madeleine Winfield built up the store for years. The core base of customers is still coming back, plus more.
“We like to think we haven’t lost that many,” Ms. Knoll said.
“There’s a certain number of people who will always go to Price Chopper.”
On a recent Friday, Gerard Croizet of Berry Creek Farm in Westfield stopped in at Mountain View, and Ms. Judd discussed getting some spinach from him.
Mr. Croizet and his wife, Rosemary, sell organic vegetables, honey, beeswax candles, and strawberries in the summer. They have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group with 60 members.
People who want to buy directly from the farm join the CSA and are guaranteed a weekly box of food for 20 weeks. Mr. Croizet said their CSA group has grown by ten people each year (which is more than 10 percent). He has had to turn people away because he wanted to make sure he could grow enough food for all the members, plus continue to supply the Berry Creek farm stand, Newport Natural Foods and Mountain View.
On a freezing cold Sunday afternoon, spinach was growing inside one of his unheated greenhouses. The greenhouse has double plastic walls, and the spinach growing inside is covered by a white light cloth row cover. Underneath the cloth, spinach is green and growing.
Mr. Croizet said sometimes it freezes and looks pretty bad, but after a day or two of sunshine it perks up and grows again. By March there will be enough heat from the sun inside the greenhouse to start more vegetables.
He agreed with Ms. Judd that there is growing demand for local food.
“There’s a consciousness — people are more conscious about what they eat,” he said.
Dairy farming has for years been the driving force in agriculture in Vermont, but in recent years dairy farms have struggled to survive. According to a report recently released by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the Farm to Plate Stategic Plan, the number of dairy farms in Vermont has decreased by nearly 91 percent over the last 60 years. The value of milk and other dairy products in Vermont is $493,926,000, according to the report, and the total value of Vermont agricultural products is $673,713,000.
Dairying is not gone but it’s changing. Large farms have bought up smaller ones or leased their land. Some have installed methane digesters as a way of making their own electricity.
The fact that dairy is still a big part of the economy is evidenced by the recently-released list of the top 100 businesses in Vermont, compiled by Vermont Business Magazine.
St. Albans Cooperative Creamery is number ten on the list with revenues of $320-million. Poulin Grain is number 41 with $68-million.
Green Mountain Coffee, which has recently bought a coffee company on the west coast and one in Canada, is the second largest business in Vermont and the second one to have more than a billion dollars in revenues at $1.3-billion. The largest company listed in Vermont is National Life Group with $1.5-billion.
Alternative dairying and artisanal cheese making is a growing area of the dairy economy in Vermont.
The Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA) is running an advertisement looking for someone to “provide outreach to farmers in the Northeast Kingdom region about the benefits of a fluid goat milk producers’ association.”
The position is half-time, for two years, funded by a Rural Business Opportunity Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture “working closely with the Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery.”
Vermont Butter and Cheese is also looking for a quality control and lab worker, and two other small cheese and yogurt makers in Vermont are hiring as well. Bob-White Systems in South Royalton just announced a new line of equipment and supplies for farmstead cheese makers.
The potential for growth in Vermont’s food economy is good, according to the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan just released by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. After a series of meetings and research into Vermont’s agriculture and food systems, the report was created.
“Vermont’s food system is a significant part of the state’s economy, with total economic output of $2.7-billion annually, employing over 55,500 people at nearly 11,000 private sector businesses across the state. And the state can expect 1,500 new private sector jobs over the next ten years if Vermonters double their consumption of locally produced food from just 5 percent to 10 percent of their total food purchases,” according to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s web site, where the full report is available.
Brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro — and their families — are part of the changing face of dairying.
“If we want things to remain the same, then something’s going to have to change,” says Mateo Kehler.
Dairy farmers who ship to the commercial market — not organic — are getting a better milk price than they did in 2008, but the basic price paid under the antiquated federal system is still just under the average cost of making milk in Vermont.
Organic dairy farmers get about $31 for a hundred pounds of milk (about $2.66 a gallon). That is about $13 a hundredweight ($1.12 a gallon) more than the conventional price.
Meanwhile the Cellars at Jasper Hill — a system of cheese caves where the Kehlers age their own cheese, along with Ploughgate, Cabot, and others — is a business that has seen dramatic growth. Jasper Hill makes 80,000 pounds of cheese a year.
In 2010, Mr. Kehler said, the company grew 50 percent from the year before. By the end of the first quarter the company will have 29 employees. Four years earlier it had four.
Jasper Hill cheeses do not all sell locally. But the word “local” could include Vermont to consumers from Boston or New York.
Mr. Kehler said the cellars are about 40 percent full, and they could fill them right now with cheeses from all over the U.S. and Europe. But their mission is to fill them with Vermont cheeses and help more local farms add value to their milk in hopes of keeping more working farms on the land.
In a region in France called Comté, 3,000 dairy farms are producing a type of cheese named after that region. Their price is based on a team of experts who taste the product of each farm and decide on pay based on quality. Mr. Kehler would love to see something like that happening in Vermont.
Jasper Hill has agreed to lease a section of the new Food Venture Center under construction in Hardwick. Jasper Hill has already hired five employees to work there because they had to be trained. Mr. Kehler said Jasper Hill made a commitment to this project when people were first discussing it, and he is excited to see it coming together.
Louise Calderwood is the interim director of the venture center. It will have five production cells and a warehouse. The meat and cheese cells will each be leased for five years, and there will be cells for people packing wet products such as salsas and jam, a cell for vegetables, a bakery, and possibly dry mixes.
Before construction is complete, demand is exceeding space available.
“I recognize that neither the meat cell nor the dairy cell are going to meet the needs of everybody,” said Ms. Calderwood, who will step down once the facility is up and running. “We already see that the needs are broader than the existing facility.”
The venture center is advertising to find a permanent manager and an operations manager.
More information about the venture center will be available at a meeting at the North Country Union High School Career Center on Saturday, January 22, at 10 a.m.
Another local food project in the planning stages is a Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, which would offer retail spaces for local farmers and food producers and be a tourist destination. This project, led by Eleanor Leger of Eden Ice Cider in Charleston and Gloria Bruce of the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association, is currently under study for its economic feasibility.
The power of the Vermont brand is well known by Bill Stenger at Jay Peak. He said consumers expect Vermont products to be “clean, healthy, safe and authentic.”
The new restaurants at the mountain, Alice’s Table and the Tower Bar, feature Vermont apple cider, Cabot cheddar, Vermont bacon and burgers, and a beer made especially for Jay Peak by Long Trail called Jay Peak Tram Ale.
The chefs have started a garden just outside the new restaurant, and plan to expand it.
He said Jay Peak has always supported the area’s farmers, recently through the Green Mountain Farm to School program, and Jay Peak will continue to look for more ways to do so.
“The relationship with the farm community is pretty indelible, and it goes deep.”
Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury has seen steady growth. The barn fire at his farm on Wednesday, January 19, was a huge setback. But it’s clear that Mr. Johnson will rebuild and his customers will see him through this difficult time.
Mr. Johnson has more than 350 CSA members. His business has seen 15 to 20 percent growth in gross sales in recent years, he said in an interview last fall. Earlier the growth was faster. That’s plenty of growth per year. He doesn’t want it to grow so fast he loses control over quality.
“It’s not like you’re just making widgets,” he said. He has seven full-time employees and 13 in the growing season. He raises 40,000 pounds of beets, 70,000 pounds of potatoes, and 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of greens.
Andrew Meyer has seen growth in both of the agriculture-related businesses he’s got in Hardwick. Vermont Soy sells its products to local independent stores and around New England and New York City. He also sells to food services, including the University of Vermont and Middlebury College.
“We’re starting to introduce products with a longer shelf life,” he said. The company grew 50 percent in 2010 and employs six people.
Vermont Natural Coatings, which makes paints and stains of whey, doubled its sales in 2010.
Mr. Meyer, who is one of the people who started the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick, sees potential for more growth in the agriculture-related economy if and when more infrastructure can be added.
For example, he would like to see a system for farmers who sell at farmers markets and who have extra produce. A distribution system could be established to sell the rest of their produce in a larger market by getting some farmers together, he suggested.
He’d also like to see a central facility where soy beans and other Vermont-grown grains could be stored, milled, cleaned, and distributed. That way each farm would not have to buy the expensive equipment needed for those tasks.
Curtis Sjolander, who raises vegetables and trout at his farm in Wheelock, is one of the managers of the Caledonia Farmers Market group.
Mr. Sjolander said despite the fact there are more farmers’ markets around than there were in the past, the Caledonia market (St. Johnsbury and Danville) has 50 vendors and is approaching a gross annual sales figure of $350,000. It has been increasing by 10 percent a year.
“Each one of us does better than we ever would alone,” Mr. Sjolander said.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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