Farm Tours Part II: Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Shiny Mixers

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:

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On Wednesday morning, I met up with the Norwich University crew on SouIMG_4781th 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.

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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’vIMG_4811e 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 IMG_4821that 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 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.

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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!

We’ve Been Everywhere: Summer Tours 2015

How can Vermont First help create connections between Vermont accounts and Vermont producers?  I asked chefs and managers of our Vermont campus accounts that I visited this spring.

“Easy,” Rob MacFarlane, the General Manager of Castleton State College, offered.
“Get people out visiting places.”  I couldn’t agree more.  An excellent place to start.

Each week this July, we have organized tours in the region of each Vermont Sodexo campus.  Our goal is to use this time to strengthen two types of communities:
– Build closer connections between campuses and their farms and food business neighbors
– Community of chefs and managers at Vermont accounts, building awareness within Sodexo surrounding the goals of Vermont First.

Castleton State College, Champlain College, and UVM went to:

Champlain Orchards: It’s hard to leave Champlain Orchards and not feel passioChamplain Orchards group picturenate about everything apple.  Sandi Earle, Executive Chef at Champlain College, met and thanked the crew who make the apple pies she serves in her dining hall.  We watched an incredibly efficient crew pack the remains of last years apple crop into retail bags.  We poked our heads into the newly constructed cidery.  We ended with a stroll up the hill to see the new apple trees.

Sandi at ChamplainChamplain Orchards bins

Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Co.: As we see more and more maple-based drinks enter the market, it becomes increasingly apparent how mu Vermont Sweetwater productsch Vermont Sweetwater was ahead of the curve years ago.  The company began with a Vermont Maple Seltzer in the mid-1990s, made using sap from their neighboring sugarmakers in the Poultney area.  In a retro-fitted dairy barn which houses all of their production and storage, we sampled their creative additions to the product line of natural sodas, with flavors like Rugged Mountain Root Beer and Mango Moonshine.                              Vermont Sweetwater samples
Vermont Sweetwater bottling ling

UVM and Champlain College went to:

Intervale Food Hub: Less than a mile away from the UVM campus, Intervaintervale walkle Food Hub aggregates products from farms across Vermont and distributes throughout the Burlington area.  This was our first visit since Intervale Food Hub became an approved vendor this summer, becoming a gateway for many small to mid-scale farms to sell into UVM.  Our team got to see the packing room where all products get aggregated and packed out to then be delivered to three sites on UVM campus.  Thanks to Bobby Young and Sona Desai at IFH for being great partners!

Intervale - Phil and Melissa Intervale Food Hub - Phil Melissa Paul Caylin

Intervale Community Farm: Manager Andy Jones feels that member-owned Intervale Community Farm has done something right to have a model that has worked for 26 years. I agree.intervale community farm Opening the door to their new greenhouse packed full of tomato vines, Andy explained how they expect to produce over 20,000lbs of tomatoes out of this one greenhouse. As Andy fielded questions, it was apparent how the combination of his experience, technical knowledge, calm manner, and calculated approach to farming were a good example of the “something right” that has dictated this long life of ICF.

Diggers’ Mirth: Part-owner Hillary Martin made it clear to our groupUVM at Diggers Mirth that the word “mirth” in walk to diggers' mirthDiggers’ Mirth is truly a fact of life on this farm.  Quality of products grown at Diggers’ Mirth as well as quality of life seem to hold equal weight.  Since 1992, they have enjoyed slow growth, experienced very little debt, and have enough shared responsibility to not over-tax any of the owners and workers.
A noteworthy model.

Catamount FarmIt seemed only fitting that chefs and managers fCatamount Farm - chef joerom UVM should visit the UVM farm, Catamount Farm.  Our tour guides, Isabella and Amanda, were part of the UVM Farmer Training Program, a 6-month intensive training program for aspiring farmers and food system advocates.  In addition to seeing where our food comes from when we purchase from Catamount Farm, we got to see first hand all that Isabella and Amanda have learned in just a few short months of being in the program.  To top it off, Isabella whipped out a pocket knife to slice off some vegetable samples during our stroll through the fields.

Catamount Farm - tour guides
Catamount Farm - beet sample

Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, Champlain College, and UVM went to:

Vermont Soy: I have to be honest here – the places we visited with this group had a degree of interconnectedness that I had not planned for.  As we entered VermVT Soy group photoont Soy, Michael Carr, Business Manager, asked if we were indeed going to Boyden Valley Winery later that afternoon.  Yes, I confirmed.  Michael went on to say how the Boyden’s had just planted a large crop of soybeans for Vermont Soy, and circled around to explain that the okara, a by-product from tofu production, then went back to the Boyden’s to feed their cow herd.
Since 2007, Vermont Soy has worked closely with Vermont farmers to grow soybean to be used in Vermont Soy products. Tom Fondakowski, General Manager at Johnson State College, explained how he likes using the tofu scramble product from Vermont Soy in residential dining.

VT Soy Michael and Sandi
VT Soy production

Center for an Agricultural Economy: Just across the street from VermoConnor and floor plannt Soy sits the 15,000 sq ft facility of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, the home of the Vermont Food Venture Center.  For full disclosure here, this is where I worked before coming to Sodexo!  A lot has happened since my last day back in February, from new products being made to new equipment coming in the door.  In addition to the community building, market development for farmers, and food business incubation work they are known for, what’s clear in walking away from a tour with Connor, Sarah, and Alissa is that they’re a great team.

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VFVC beets and Sandi

River Berry Farm: A backbone of organic farming in Vermont, River Berry Farm knows what they’re doing.  In Fairfax since 1992, they chose their spot for the river bottom soil.  After we arrived, co-oRiver Berry Group Photowner Dave Marchant pulled up in a golf cart, having been harvesting greens in a distant field.  I think one thing I deeply admire about experienced farmers is their ability to quickly calculate what “makes sense.”  When asked about the history of the farm stand that we stood in while talking with Dave, Dave simply responded it was the result of needing a place to send folks who stopped by looking for a head of lettuce.  So he built them a farm stand that operates with an honor code system.  Create your own market that requires very little management to run – makes sense.

River Berry farmstand
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River Berry in the fields

Boyden Valley Winery: Going on their 5th generation of ownership andbridget at boyden business management, the Boyden’s are a staple of Vermont’s farming economy.  Operating at least five different businesses under the family name, from maple produboyden wineryction to a winery to an event center to growing soy beans for Vermont Soy, they have discovered a way of creating business opportunities between and within generations on this, rather large, plot of land.

For more photos from our travels, check out the UVM Dining Facebook Page.

…still to come:

Chappelle’s Potatoes

Long Wind Farm

Freedom Foods

Meet Molly and Eva.

We are always looking for innovative ways to bring local food to our campuses.  In a state like Vermont, we have the opportunity to use our small scale and strong relationships to test out new models.  Molly Willard and Eva Loomis run Vermont Technical College’s Market Garden, an educational farm that partners with our produce distributor, Black River Produce, to bring Market Garden produce to four of our Vermont college campuses.  We think that bears repeating.  The Market Garden model is two-fold:

  • An educational farm to train the next generation of farmers on sustainable growing practices.
  • Uses existing infrastructure for distribution to college campuses.
    Read on to learn more about the people who make this happen.

What is your role in the Market Garden?

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Market Garden bounty.

Eva: My role as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Vermont Tech’s Market Garden is to work with Molly to manage the handful of wonderful market garden staff and volunteers to produce and distribute organically grown produce and provide the crew with educational opportunities. We discuss the projects that need attention each week and the crew and I work to get it done. It’s a good combination of learning how to grow produce, sharing that knowledge with others, and learning how to manage people. Molly’s farming experience and knowledge are absolutely critical to the vegetable production and we all look forward to her educational lessons. Being a College-run garden, learning is central to so much of what we all do here.

Molly: My main role is to oversee and guide the manager (this year being Eva) to produce high quality produce for the VSC and other institutions. I also develop vegetable farming related curriculum for courses that can potentially utilize the fields for hands on educational opportunities.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

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Market Garden tomatoes

Eva: For just over a year, I lived and milked on a small organic dairy farm in Waterbury Center where I fell in love with Vermont and its working landscape. From there, I took half a year to travel in Asia. During part of this time, I volunteered at an elephant sanctuary, living and working outdoors with minimal utilities. My experience there inspired me to reassess what I wanted in my life, and one of the top priorities is physically working outside. The food piece came about from the (at least) thrice-daily necessity of needing to find quality and affordable food to eat. I’d initially joked that I was just going to eat my way across the continent, but this is pretty much what happened. The combination of a love of good food and being outdoors seemed to naturally point to farming, so I applied for my current position and headed off to WWOOF in Japan to get a better taste for it. I’ve tried to immerse myself in as many food-related activities as possible, including volunteering with the Randolph Area Food Shelf and the Vermont Foodbank’s VT Fresh program, and my overall experience has solidified my desire to continue to be a part of Vermont’s vibrant food systems and agriculture world.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

Eva: There are so many things I love about my job. I am grateful for being able to feel the weather so acutely, especially the welcome breezes and the flawless days. I’m stoked that the Garden is able to supply not only our partnering campus cafeterias with fresh produce, but our community as well. Last year we donated produce to the Randolph Area Food Shelf, and I’m happy to report that this year we’re expanding distribution to the Bethel Food Shelf as well. It’s great to know that we’re able to contribute to food security efforts and that we’re providing healthy and delicious food options for people who may not have access to it otherwise. Another really exciting part of my job is that this year I was responsible for grafting the tomatoes. Though it was a stressful process initially since I didn’t know if they were going to take, I now feel like a proud parent every time I step into the tomato house and see it filled with strong plants climbing their way toward the ceiling on their trellis lines. In fact, I just ate my first perfectly ripe Sungold today!

Molly: I studied botany as an undergrad and knew I wanted to work with plants. I have strong agricultural ties to VT on both sides of my family so there has always been a draw to agriculture as well. I have worked and managed dairy, maple and horse farms. When I started vegetable farming I knew this is what I wanted to do. Every day is different, each growing season bring new challenges and there is never a dull moment. I have never said I’m bored or sick of sitting in front of this computer as a vegetable farmer. To me it’s a way to make a living, follow my passion and provide a quality of life that fits for me.

What are you excited about when thinking about the future of the Market Garden?

Market Garden
Produce ready for delivery to St. Michael’s College, Norwich University, Champlain College, and Vermont Technical College.

Eva: We’re not exactly sure what the Market Garden’s future looks like, but we’re fine-tuning it as we go. For instance, this year we had thought of focusing on greens, but after the first succession of salad mix germinated we decided it’s not feasible because of the weed pressure in our fields. However, other crops, such as head lettuce, do really well there and we have a strong market for them so they’re definitely a keeper. This learn-as-we-go method over the last few years is continually shaping the Garden, and I enjoy taking lessons from daily, weekly, and monthly experiences with tasks and projects and thinking about how to do them differently or more efficiently in the future. Continual improvement and education is at the core of the Garden, that much is certain.

Molly: I get excited about the idea of growing food that reaches large institutions that feed many people.  Providing fresh, local, healthy food to folks that eat at institutional cafeterias makes me feel like we are making a difference. I love that the market garden is created in a way to provide educational opportunities to those interested in vegetable production. With Sodexo as a partner, VTC’s access to equipment and professional savvy in all aspects of agriculture we give students a real farming experience. Students can leave knowing how to work the fields, the importance of securing a market and figuring the finances for that given market. Above all, I love watching future generations learn skill around agriculture and food production.

Sodexo’s Vermont First is Underway

On March 25th, Sodexo held a soft kick-off for moving forward on the Vermont First Pledge at Vermont Technical College.  Vermont First, as some of you may know, is Sodexo’s commitment to support the production and purchase of local food across Vermont.  Vermont First was presented to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture in September 2014 in the form of a pledge, specifically committing Sodexo to :

  • Hire a local food coordinator

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    Bonnie Kelsey and Jennifer Wood of Best of Vermont visiting with Abbey Willard of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
  • Develop a plan to meet the production needs of Vermont producers
  • Enable Sodexo Vermont accounts to buy local
  • Create a steering committee of Vermont stakeholders
  • Sponsor an annual summit meeting and two working group sessions

In early March, we happily announced that we have successfully hired a local food coordinator, Annie Rowell, who is tasked with moving the remaining commitments in the Vermont First Pledge forward.  Learn more about Annie and Vermont First from our interview on Vermont Public Radio’s Morning Edition with Mitch Wortlieb on March 23rd.

As we think about goals for the future, we look back to all that has been done this past year.  In 2014, Sodexo purchased $3.2 million of local products across Vermont accounts, just under 15% of the total Vermont account purchases.  Now we look to that 85% of non-local dollars spent and think critically about how we can convert those dollars to local in a way that is both responsible to all parties and creates lasting relationships.

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Hue Wetherbee and Millie Heidenreich of Sodexo
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Delicious local lunch provided by Vermont Technical College dining team after the morning meeting.
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Vermont Technical College students lining up for sugar on snow, using Vermont maple syrup.