Vermont Farmers and Community Unite to Save Creamery |
Operators of a value-added dairy in peaceful Upper Valley of Vermont are fighting to save their farming business, with the help of residents who appreciate its fresh, local produce and want to preserve the region’s rich agricultural heritage.
In 2015, the 200-year-old Norwich Farm was donated to Vermont Technical College, based in Randolph, Vermont, which invested heavily in dairy processing equipment and launched an ill-fated educational program. which ceased a year later after a semester.
Chris Gray and his wife, Laura Brown, run Norwich Farm Creamery on the farm under a lease with the school that expires in late June. They are supported by the nonprofit Norwich Farm Foundation which is trying to raise enough money to purchase the 6 acre property, keep the dairy on site, and ensure the farm has a variety of agricultural uses, including a center for training for young farmers.
“But their offers are well below the asking price of $ 1.2 million,” said college president Pat Moulton. “We have a farm of over 500 acres with cows on our main campus here at Randolph Center. We decided that if we were to invest in a farm and a farming business, it should be here on our main campus.
Norwich, an upscale rural-residential area on the eastern border of Vermont, sits directly across the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire, home to the prestigious Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Randolph is about 45 minutes northwest in the heart of central Vermont.
Gray thanks his grandparents and aunt and uncle, Gene and Linda Aleci, for giving him a love for farming during childhood visits to their homes near Lancaster, PA. He and Brown came to Norwich with a vision for the long-term use of the farm, a deal he said was to last for 25 years.
“We are still pursuing this vision,” said Gray. “The idea of value-added dairy products on this site is the perfect idea. With around twenty animals to be milked, we can carry out this operation entirely in cash flow under a non-profit structure for our family and a second family, which would manage the herd. We look forward to sourcing that person and creating an opportunity for a Dairy Professional to start from scratch in an amazing facility with a functioning dairy.
But university spokeswoman Amanda Chaulk said the school’s lease with Gray and Brown was for five years and included two renewal options, for 10 years each. “We informed Norwich Farm Creamery in May 2018 of our intention not to renew the lease and end it in June 2021,” she said.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts is trying to negotiate a deal that would save the dairy and the farm, but also meet the school’s financial needs. Vermont Tech is part of the Vermont State Colleges System, which is reportedly costing $ 45 million in the red, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The clock is ticking,” Tebbetts said. “An important deadline is approaching. The people of Norwich and the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont want to see this creamery succeed because they know the value it has to the community. Once we lose a business like this it is very difficult to get it back. We hope that in the next few weeks the two sides can come together and find a solution. If there is a way to control ownership and keep the creamery in place, then they can take the second step and find other options to use it. “
The foundation is made up of a diverse cross-section of residents, many of whom have no agricultural training, from cardiologists to venture capitalists.
“This collaboration made our business plan even stronger,” said Gray. “Innovation is the key to the future of dairy, so we need people with different perspectives to collaborate with dairy to find models that will work.”
The foundation raised nearly $ 200,000 in pledges and offered the school $ 600,000 – half the school asking price – for the farm and an adjacent 2-acre plot, which is now under contract. with another buyer. Gray said the dairy’s activity doubled from 2019 to 2020. Currently there are no cows on site and milk is brought in weekly from historic Billings Farm in Woodstock, In. Vermont, about 20 miles away. The milk from Jersey cows of this award-winning grass-based herd is high in fat and protein.
The dairy’s main products are whole milk and chocolate milk without additives, fresh ricotta cheese, yogurt and ice cream in small batches, and an on-farm store sells products from 60 local producers.
“We sell everything we make within a 20 mile radius of the Norwich farm,” Gray said. “But we need a more constant and bulk supply of milk. We plan to establish a small herd of similar quality to Billings Farm, small, athletic brown grazing cows capable of handling the hillsides here. “
Foundation chief Omer Trajman, a successful tech entrepreneur, previously lived on the West Coast and placed local farming a high priority when looking for a new home, which he found in Norwich.
“We haven’t asked for donations yet,” he said. “We are still in negotiations with the college on the purchase price. I don’t want to raise a lot of money and not be able to come to terms with college. “
Trajman does not know of any other party interested in the farm. But he would like to come to an agreement with the college quickly so that the school doesn’t have to keep spending money on farm maintenance – $ 70,000 a year – and donors don’t have to wait. . Trajman is confident that the money will be collected once a firm price is agreed upon, he said. Moulton, the college president, said others had expressed interest in purchasing the farm’s dairy processing equipment. The farm has a federal style house, so there is a possibility that someone will buy it for residential purposes as well.
The farm originally included an additional 350 acres, which the college sold to Upper Valley Land Trust, a land conservation group, when the farm was donated to the college. This property has become a community resource for hiking, scientific research, and some agricultural uses such as hay ranching and cattle grazing.
Gray and the foundation would like to gain access to a portion of the adjacent trust property for use by Norwich Farm. But trust won’t allow any kind of dairy activity there.
“The experience of Vermont Technical College has shown that a dairy farm on the 6 acres is not financially viable without massive subsidies,” said trusted president Jeanie McIntyre.
In addition, the past five years have brought about several storms that have caused significant flooding and runoff, and the state recently adopted stricter rules to protect water quality, including nutrient management and compensation for dairy farmers who stop farming in river corridors and flood-prone areas, she said. .
But Tebbetts, the secretary of agriculture, said: “The trust has made it very clear to me, in a meeting and publicly, that they don’t want this dairy to continue. I do not understand that. We have encouraged the people of Vermont to think about value-added dairy products. This is a prime example. The Haute Vallée can support this type of business and they have. There have been investments in wonderful high-end equipment, he said.
“It’s a good installation. The farmers who operate it and everyone involved in it have immense expertise. They are competent, they are good at what they do. So from our point of view, we’re just trying to encourage all parties to come to a place where we can save this business. “