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 [email protected]