By Dan Colton
When the Vermont Farmers Food Association purchased Farmers Hall in February 2012, the project to establish a multi-layered, Rutland-centered food economy was daunting. Yet with the help of thousands of dollars in contributions and countless volunteer hours, the $200,000 effort to renovate and establish the winter farmers market was complete in four months, and the initial dream of establishing year-round Rutland markets was realized.
Phase one of an ambitious, multi-year project, which focuses on local economic revival and food security for the Rutland area, was completed with two more phases to go.
Phase two will equip the premises with a large-scale industrial storage facility. To begin, a team of engineers and builders recently surveyed the Farmers Hall plot. All who work on the plans seem truly dedicated to bringing life to a project that still hangs in the early stages of development.
Organizers imagine that Farmers Hall will one day be a hub of business activity, an entreprenureal environment filling 2.93 acres. It would spur the discovery and revitalization of markets and promote growth through symbiosis, shared resources and workspaces. It would also foster job creation and industry innovation.
Similar things are happening in places all over the country, causing ripples within various industries, such as technology manufacturing and software design. In Rutland, that developing sector could be local agriculture.
The Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) is leading the way.
When the farmers market began operating a strong 52 weeks out of the year, an entire community began to realize that more needed to be accomplished so that agriculture could become an engine to drive Rutland’s overall wellbeing.
“We’re responding to the expressed needs of the local producers,” says VFFC President Greg Cox. “That means bakers, meat people, vegetable people, fruit people—they’re always asking, ‘Why don’t we have this?’”
According to VFFC planning documents, farms will aggregate their produce at the Food Center to save on transportation time to and from market. The Food Center is envisioned as a veritable collaboration of economies and the connective tissue for local industries to develop in tandem. The development of a centralized facility is also hoped to awaken a network of communication between farmers, vendors, and consumers, spurring market diversity and vibrancy.
An organic farmer for 38 years, Cox sees farming framed as a “big picture,” and a solution to many of Rutland’s issues. His passion is contagious. In fact, the engineering and building team offered their services pro bono, inspired by the community spirit. Many have followed suit, understanding that the VFFC, a non-profit organization, works with limited funding—federal and state grants, fundraisers, and donations. Such folks also understand that the project’s ultimate goal is to increase business activity and investment in the entire region.
The project’s directors, benefactors, and partners all envision agriculture’s central role in paving a rebound in Rutland following the economic recession and subsequent loss of jobs. In the event of local agricultural growth, the team believes the area will experience a rise in employment—and not only within the farming sector. More vendors will sense opportunity, open up shop in Rutland, and hire workers, both skilled and unskilled, in a variety of capacities.
By 2017, the VFFC says, Farmers Hall will be adjacent to a state-of-the-art crop aggregation facility. Today, the site doesn’t look like much. The structure for the storage facility partially exists, but it hasn’t yet received any of the extensive additions, repairs, or retrofits it requires. Though still undergoing design, once complete, it is estimated “a great number of area farms” will be able to store their produce in this regionally central location. Cox says the individual 4’x4’x4’ storage units are a main attraction to new farmers interested in minimizing infrastructural startup costs.
Application of alternative energy for the storage units is a high priority for the VFFC. Solar panels, funded with a Green Mountain Power grant, are already planned for the roof. Thermodynamic cooling, an option which utilizes cool subsurface air for temperature control, is at the forefront of consideration. The team will consider and research multiple alternative energy systems to implement. The best and most effective options will then be installed.
Phase three of the project will see construction of a commercial kitchen to draw in the business of value-added vendors. The addition of a commercial kitchen on the premises will afford easier production of various other merchandise, such as salsas, breads, and jams.
Another goal of the project is to eliminate food waste. At the Food Center, farmers with over-abundant harvests will have the ability to easily donate food to social programs to help feed the underprivileged. Instructional classes in the commercial kitchen are also being discussed to educate citizens on the benefits of healthy local food, preparation, cooking, and preserving.
Already, community garden beds garnish Farmers Hall ,with several local organizations “tending the growing vegetables and teaching the valuable skill of growing food—all with the help of local farmer mentors who provide plants and seeds,” Cox says.
Focusing on expansion within the Rutland region is top priority, but the VFFC directorship expresses interstate interests, too. Reestablishment of Rutland’s historic market ties in the New York City boroughs and in Boston are appealing. But those prospects still require a round of capacity and cost efficiency studies, plus the revival of lost regional links to networks of restaurants, farmers markets, specialty groceries and cooperatives. Railway reestablishments to the more distant markets have been considered, since contact between the Vt. Farmers Food Association and the Vt. Rail Action Network.