Local News

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link faces funding gap

By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger

RUTLAND — Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, a nonprofit organization that works to promote local agriculture and educate the public on its value is said to be in limbo.

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link’s last executive director departed this past spring, prompting a call for a meeting of the organization’s partners and stakeholders as it looks to move into the future, said Larry Courcelle, RAFFL’s board president, on Tuesday, July 18.

Those stakeholders and partners are members of the agricultural community as well other local and regional leaders, he said.

The organization was founded in 2004. Tara Kelly was executive director from 2009 to 2016, when she left to become Rutland’s zoning administrator.

Elena Gustavson took over as executive director in August 2016. She joined RAFFL in 2015, managing the organization’s community programs and communications and coordinating Everyday Chef, its food and cooking program, according to a news release issued at the time of her hiring as executive director.

Gustavson stepped down from the full-time executive director post this spring. The executive director is the organization’s only full-time employee.

“Due to a funding gap we have not hired an executive director yet,” Courcelle said. “We’ve been waiting for the stakeholders meeting.”

He added, “The funds that we have, they were not rewritten or reapplied for, or new ones were not sought, so we have this gap. The board is looking at how do we get to the next round of funding.”

The work of applying for those funds, Courcelle said, was the responsibility of the organization’s executive director.

“We just weren’t aware it wasn’t being done,” he said.

Asked if that’s why Gustavson is no longer executive director, he replied, “It was kind of a mutual agreement to resign.”

Gustavson could not be reached for comment.

The stakeholders meeting could take place as soon as next week, Courcelle said, adding that the organization hopes to gather input at that meeting about what programs the community feels should continue.

He said some “funders” have offered to step in and offer assistance, including financial help. After the stakeholders meeting, Courcelle said, the organization will have a better idea of how much money it needs to offer the programs the community wants to see continue.

“There definitely are big changes happening,” Mara Hearst, RAFFL’s farm business adviser, also said Tuesday. “Things are in limbo.”

She added, “We’re looking for sort of what the next stage is for RAFFL and all of our programs.”

According to the organization’s website, RAFFL “addresses food insecurity and access, gives technical, marketing and business assistance to new and developing farmers as well as works to expand market and consumer access opportunities for local food.”

RAFFL also has a “Glean Team,” which gathers surplus or blemished crops that are left in the field after a harvest and often more labor intensive to collect. The team includes scores of volunteers and works with about 25 farms in the region.

Last year the team collected more than 36,000 pounds of produce, which is distributed to area food shelves, schools and shelters.

Without a full-time executive director, the organization currently has six part-time employees and a couple of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers.

The IRS Form 990 disclosure for RAFFL from 2015, the most recent year available, shows total revenue of $359,307, with expenses at $362,389.

About 80 percent of that revenue comes from contributions, with most of the remaining coming mainly from program services.

In 2014, RAFFL’s Form 990 shows total revenue of $288,992, with $276,175 in expenses.

Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland is president of the Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland. He is also a founding member of RAFFL.

He said Tuesday he has not been “on the inside” of RAFFL for years but does see value in the organization continuing.

“They do have some very good programs, and I’d definitely like to see some of them continue,” Cox said, pointing to initiatives that include a guide to locally grown produce it publishes. “They’ve done a lot of good over the years, and there’s still a lot of good work to be done.”

He said any organization needs to be focused on its mission and how best to use time and money to achieve that.

Photo by Adam Federman/VTDigger

McKenna Hayes (left) and Jaya Davis harvest arugula at Dutchess Farm in Poultney.

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