October 20, 2017

Farmers look to form Upper Valley agriculture hub

Participants get to work at the first meeting of a group planning a food "hub" for the Upper Valley at the King Arthur Flour and Cafe in Norwich on Sept. 26.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VITAL COMMUNITIES

Participants get to work at the first meeting of a group planning a food "hub" for the Upper Valley at the King Arthur Flour and Cafe in Norwich on Sept. 26. PHOTO COURTESY OF VITAL COMMUNITIES

For the past year, farmers in the Upper Valley region have been considering the benefits of a shared food facility.

This shared space might include an array of options, such as dry, cold and frozen storage; food processing; an all-season retail sales room; a commercial kitchen; and a community and education space.

On Sept. 26, King Arthur Flour and Café in Norwich hosted the first Upper Valley food hub meeting, which was led by Vital Communities of White River Junction, in addition to six farmers leading a push to organize: Danielle Allen of Root-5 Farm, Geo Honigford of Hurricane Flats, Peggy Allen of Savage Hart Farm, Suzanne Long of Luna Bleu Farm, Niko Horster of Northshire Beef, and Andrea Rhodes of Sunset Rock Farm.

“This project will (hopefully) do for farmers what King Arthur Flour has done for baking, and provide a place for farmers to sell directly to the community,” said Nancy LaRowe, local first manager and Upper Valley food and farm coordinator at Vital Communities, which hosts a slate of programs aimed at keeping the Upper Valley socially and economically vital.

The first meeting attracted about 70 farmers and community members. More farmers are being sought out to take an active role in the growth of this project.

“We have received our first grant, Northeast SARE Partnership Grant of $15,000 (a grant reserved for agricultural services) to continue this conversation that sparked the interest among farmers within the Upper Valley,” said LaRowe. “From the first meeting we have been working on creating a working group that will work together through the winter. Next summer we hope to have a detailed report from a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis we plan to conduct and determine what this facility that we’re thinking about will really entail.”

According to Vital Communities’ 2014 Local Foods Market Assessment, 56 percent of 116 farmers surveyed seek increased direct-to-consumer sales, yet established channels are no longer ensuring consistent income growth. One recommendation from this assessment was to “explore creative solutions to capital and infrastructure limitations.” In response, farmers have begun to envision a year-round direct-sales outlet with a strong community engagement focus, what has begun being called a “modern grange.” (But has yet to join the national organization, National Grange; as a description of the project is still developing).

“There was definite interest in a commercial kitchen for rent to farmers/food entrepreneurs to create value-added or specialty foods, and lots of interest for a kitchen to be available for community uses (community dinners, summer meals program, etc.),” LaRowe said.

There are currently some shared food preparation spaces in Vermont, LaRowe said, such as a non-meat facility for farmers and food businesses in Hardwick (VT Food Venture Center), and a meat-focused facility in Waitsfield (Mad River Food Hub). There are others under construction (My Farmers Market in Ryegate).

“Many farms have built their own kitchens, but I don’t think any rent-out space,” said LaRowe.

The grange movement brings artisans, community members and farmers together to share ideas about sustainable agriculture and locally grown food.

“At the moment, our plan entails everything but the kitchen sink. We have a lot of players, and we are seeking farmers’ point of view. We have several questions: is it going to be cooperatively owned? What is the legal structure that enables the prices to be kept down for distribution? What will the cost associated with it be? We are truly at the beginning stages of all of this. Therefore, we do not know what the economics are that will enable us to do this yet,” said Peggy Allen, owner of Savage Hart Farm in Hartford.

The root of this vision stemmed from the grange sensibility and the role the national organization played at the turn of the century, according to Allen.

“Yet this (food hub) will go beyond that — with educating the community at large and making people aware of the possibilities. Education and retail will come together, so that it will be a combination of a café and a pantry, where meals are created entirely with local ingredients; education will go above and beyond, with how to butcher a whole hog; to going beyond what is in season to what makes it unique, what is special about it, and all the things it can be utilized for,” Allen said.

A date for the next meeting has not been determined. Information can be found at vitalcommunities.org.

 

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