By Katy Savage
Greg Cox wants to increase availability of fresh produce across the country right from the “heart of Vermont.”
Cox, who is co-founder and president of the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) in Rutland, received a $105,000 United States Department of Agriculture matching grant to build a new food hub, which will connect Vermont farmers with major metropolitan areas.
Cox wants to build a shared, climate-controlled storage facility and commercial kitchen, featuring meat cutting and packaging space as well as a baking room for farmers to prepare their products for shipment.
Cox said the demand for Vermont foods in New England and the surrounding area is strong, but getting products to those markets is difficult.
“We realized you can’t grow an agricultural economy without the infrastructure,” said Cox.
The 8,400 square-foot facility, called the “Commercial Food HUB Center” would be located at the Vermont Farmers Food Center facility on West Street in Rutland.
Prior to applying for the grant, Cox said he surveyed all co-op board members in Vermont. He learned their largest area of growth was frozen foods.
Cox said Vermont food, delivered to areas like Boston and New York, would take advantage of Vermont’s reputation for strong agriculture.
“We are not coming up with new ideas,” said Cox. “These are historical markets. We used to do this, but we lost the infrastructure.”
Cox is exploring the potential of delivering food by train. The hub will generate an estimated $2 million in annual sales and $5.2 million in annual community wealth, Cox said in his grant application.
The project is studying farmers’ needs in Rutland and Bennington counties to start, which Cox calls the “ugly ducklings” of Vermont.
The first step will be conducting a needs assessment. Ken Meter, one of the country’s top agricultural economists, will research the best markets for Vermont farmers to grow for.
“That’s the starting point,” Meter said.
Meter, who lives in Wisconsin, said he’s been part of agriculture projects in 40 states, including several in Vermont.
“There is such a large tradition [in Vermont] of people growing foods for their neighbors. Vermont is always the standout state in the country,” Meter said.
Cox, 67, has been interested in sustainable food since he was 25.
“I was bound and determined to be outside and be my own boss,” he said.
Cox co-founded the Vermont Farmers Food Center, a nonprofit organization, in 2012. The grant is in line with the mission of VFFC, which is trying to increase access to fresh produce.
Cox gets passionate when he talks about food. He said the reason for the country’s declining health is poor food sources.
One reason the project is so needed, he said, is that it’s increasingly difficult for farmers to comply with USDA regulatory standards—a growth hindrance for some farmers.
“The regulatory system is getting more and more arduous,” said Cox. “It’s no longer about food safety – it’s about food control.”
This was Cox’s third time trying to get a grant for the project. Cox unsuccessfully sought grants from the Rutland Redevelopment Authority and Rutland Planning Commission. Cox has studied 37 commercial kitchens and put in about 80 hours of work to complete the grant.
“Third time’s a charm,” Cox said.
This year, Cox worked with Chris Siliski, a former alderman, who has extensive experience applying for grants.
“It’s going to create jobs—that’s what’s most exciting,” said Siliski.“It’s going to create small private sector jobs. It’s going to help people who have a dream for a specific product.”
The USDA grant requires a $30,000 match. Cox said it will take about a year to complete the economic study. He estimates it will cost another $3-$5 million to build the facility. Cox plans to apply for another USDA grant to complete the project within the next three years.
“The potential is unlimited,” Cox said.