Buying local is the premise championed by many Upper Valley residents, small businesses, and organizations. Keeping dollars close to home, knowing the people producing what one buys, and supporting those that live and work in the community are all benefits of buying local. When economic conditions are impacted as they have been over the past year by the epidemic, supporting local small enterprises is even more important for those business owners.
Local farm products are an important source of food for many area residents. Knowing that the food you are consuming was grown locally, by farmers using healthy farming practices, drives many local consumers to the many area farms and food producers found in the Upper Valley. It seems the heightened health concerns of the past year have only boosted the desire for locally grown and produced food products.
Chuck Wooster operates Sunrise Farm in Hartford. The farm grows a wide range of vegetables, and also sells locally raised meat, eggs, cheese, and other products at their farm stand. During the busy growing and harvesting season from May until October, his farm focuses on their CSA (community supported agriculture) customers, who come directly to the farm to pick their CSA shares of the produce. “We’re lucky enough to sell everything right from the farm,” says Wooster. About 75% of his sales are from CSA shares, with the remainder from direct sales from the farm stand, or sales of produce to local restaurants.
The trend of restaurants using more and more locally grown and raised food products “has been a major change over the last twenty years,” says Wooster. That trend prompted Sunrise Farm to move forward with winter growing of produce, he adds. “Winter growing is driven by restaurants.”
In marketing the farm’s products, and assisting the local farming industry, many organizations devote energies to that effort. Among those are the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), of which Vermont has a chapter, the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, and the Vermont Farm Bureau, which primarily works with lobbying efforts in the legislature. Closer to home, Vital Communities, headquartered in WRJ, maintains a very active role in assisting local farms with marketing their products. “They do a great job,” says Wooster of the farm support offered by Vital Communities.
Beth Roy is the Food and Farm Program manager at Vital Communities. Along with assisting marketing efforts of local farms to consumers, Vital Communities’ efforts include bringing farmers and consumers together through education. Her organization works closely with area schools to enhance young people’s knowledge and appreciation of nutritious, locally produced foods. Some of these efforts include having schools’ breakfast and lunch programs buy and use foods from local farms, and encouraging outdoor classrooms, where students learn about growing and preparing produce, and care for on-site gardens.
Roy says she also works closely with the area farmers markets, to enhance the experience for both consumers and the vendors. In this effort, Vital Communities established the Upper Valley Farmers Market Collaborative, working with numerous farm market managers, including those from Lebanon and Norwich, to help grow these markets.
Of course, the response to the Covid epidemic has altered efforts in building the relationship between local farms and the community, both positively and negatively. One particularly important event hosted by Vital Communities was the Flavors of the Valley. Held annually in April, this event brought together thousands of UV residents, and dozens of area farmers and food producers. Because of the epidemic, the 2020 event was cancelled, and Roy sadly reports Flavors of the Valley will not take place this spring, either. In response, Roy says, “Our team is in discussion on what we could do to highlight all the great food producers in our region. We may do a special media campaign or possibly hold some community forums, online, to discuss local food.”
Though events that promote local farms may have stopped in the face of Covid, many farms, locally and nationwide, have reported increased interest in, and sales of their products because of the pandemic. Consumers, wary of being in busy, large grocery stores, and more health conscious than ever, find getting their produce directly from the farm an enticing alternative. Mark Robie, who operates Robie Farm in Piermont, NH, and markets their products throughout the Upper Valley and beyond, says, “The ‘buy local food’ movement has really picked up speed in the last twenty years.” Could it be this virus turns out to be the catalyst to further the movement?
Buying food products locally benefits more than just the farms. Increasing sales means Wooster buys more from area businesses, such as North Country Organics (Bradford), West Lebanon Feed and Supply, and Green Mountain Feeds (Bethel). Growing sales also means farmers can reach a wider audience. Danielle Allen, who operates Root 5 Farm of Fairlee, has established a wide range of distribution locations throughout the Upper Valley for her CSA customers, including at Jake’s Quechee Market for her Quechee area customers. Speaking of Jake’s, General Manager James Kerrigan says his busy store sources many locally produced farm products, such as jams, syrup, cheese, granola, along with seasonal produce.
Supporting local: it’s a movement that uplifts communities.