Like many things in the world, it turns out that even when it comes to organizing farm tours, there is a certain order to things. Order things the wrong way, and you’ll find yourself promptly zipped into a hazmat suit on the hottest day of the summer. Like so:
On Wednesday morning, I met up with the Norwich University crew on South Hill in Williamstown at Chappelle’s Potatoes. Bob and Barb Chappelle are known for their 50-acres of potato production, but what many don’t know is that the Chappelle’s are also one of the (if not “the”) largest seed potato suppliers in Vermont. Walking around the potato warehouse, you can see signs of Bob’s past career as an engineer. Everything is efficient and calculated, perhaps also as a result of the benefits of specializing in growing one crop – a rarity in a state like Vermont where many vegetable producers are highly diversified.
From Chappelle’s, we drove southeast to Long Wind Farm in Thetford. We were met at the farmstand door by owner Dave Chapman, holding an armful of white plastic bags.
“You just came from a potato farm, and you’re at a tomato farm. You’re going to have to put these on,” he said has he passed out full body, white plastic suits to our team. As much as we giggled negotiating skirts and limbs into one-size-fits-all suits, the reason for this safety measure was quite serious. Dave apparently had just recently heard about a case of blight at another farm in Vermont, a plant disease that can destroy entire crops. With a disease like blight that affects crops like potatoes and tomatoes, one case of blight can easily become hundreds…in other words: Hazmat suit on. Duly noted for next year – we will not visit the potato producer and tomato producer in the same day.
I’ve heard tales about Long Wind Farm’s 2-acres of greenhouses that produce tomatoes almost year-round, but this was my first time actually seeing it. Row after row, the tomato vines are encouraged to grow taller and taller, using a vine-wrapping system that winds throughout the rows. Looking at one tomato plant, Dave estimated that from the base of the stem to the top of the plant strung up it was 35 feet tall.
The heat pipes that run along the base of the plant also double as tracks for their harvesting shuttles to run on. Long Wind has plants producing from March through December, giving the soil and plants a rest for a few of the winter months.
The final leg of our tour brought us to Randolph to visit Freedom Foods. Freedom Foods is a food processing facility for specialty food producers, just south of the village of Randolph. Owner Kathy Bacon touted that with little to no marketing, they receive over five inquiries a day from food producers across the country looking for kitchen space to rent. Our group of chefs didn’t know what to expect as we wandered from kitchen to kitchen, each full of new-fangled mixers and bottle fillers and dish washers and baggers. Each piece of equipment was introduced as a calculation of time – “this filler can fill in 5 minutes what it used to take us to fill in an hour.” I could see the mental wish list of each chef growing as we rounded every corner.
As I got back on I-89 north headed home, it dawned on me how each of our hosts that day illustrated models of specialization and scale: Bob, Barb, and Dave immersed in the high efficiency, yet high risk of producing a single crop; Kathy being 18 months into operating a new facility that more than quadrupled the size of her previous production space. Quite a group of fascinating innovators to spend a day with!