A Home-Grown Niche

The Vermont Fresh Network has created an outlet for specialty farmers, food producers and restaurateurs to support each other as they feed the community.

by Rosalyn Graham

When Spencer and Mara Welton were looking for the right place to put into practice a small farming business, embodying the philosophy they had embraced during their service with the Peace Corps, they chose Vermont. They based their

As interim director for the Vermont Fresh Network, Meghan Sheradin encourages partnerships among farmers, food producers and chefs as they work to convince the public to "eat the landscape."

decision on two features: the Intervale with its small acreages for special crops, and the Vermont Fresh Network that made connections between farmers and the chefs who would share their love of food. It was the right place for their Half Pint Farm.

When Steven and Lara Atkins came home to Vermont after five years in California, the land of huge food producers and impersonal bounty, they were thrilled to find a network that made it easy to find the small hands-on food producers they could showcase at their new Richmond restaurant, The Kitchen Table Bistro.

When Hank Demuzio was establishing his LedgEnd Farm in Middlebury, raising fallow deer and marketing venison, he needed help starting out in a niche market. "I can raise really good deer but it was a learning curve talking to chefs about what they want," he says. "It was a mutually educating experience."

1. Hank Bissell, Lewis Creek Farm; 2. Mara Welton, Half Pint Farm; 3. Chuck Conway, O'Bread Bakery; 4. Abbey Duke, Sugarsnap; 5. Marcus Hamblett, New England Culinary Institute; 6. Meghan Sheradin, Vermont Fresh Network; 7. Michael Clauss, New England Culinary Institute; 8. Ken Albert, Shelburne Vineyard; 9. Chip Morgan, Wood Creek Farm; 10. Kathy Morgan, Wood Creek Farm; 11. Andrew S. MacDonald, Three Tomatoes; 12. David Bissonette, Cafe Piccolo; 13. Roger Clapp, VFN board of directors; 14. Spencer Welton, Half Pint Farm; 15. Gail Albert, Shelburne Vineyard.

When chef David Bissonette started Cafe Piccolo on Pine Street in Burlington, he brought with him the memory of his close relationship, as chef at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, with Miskell's Market Garden on the Farms. He valued their consultations about what the garden was producing and what the chef would serve that night.

As a small restaurant owner, he was happy to find he could be part of a similar mutually beneficial relationship with specialty farmers a relationship that was nurtured and supported by the Vermont Fresh Network. "Imagine a farmer that asks, 'What do you want us to grow for you?'" Bissonette says. "During the growing season, they call us at 6 a.m. to take our order and bring it to our door by noon."

All over the state, chefs are looking to the small producers in their areas for everything from specialty meats like venison and emu to baby vegetables and picked-this-morning berries. Farmers are realizing that producing specialty foods to meet the needs of discerning chefs can be the answer to viable lives in agriculture.

Key to the growth of these relationships, and an awareness by the dining public of the value of locally grown food on restaurant tables, is the Vermont Fresh Network, the 10-year-old organization whose mission is "to build innovative partnerships among farmers, chefs and consumers to strengthen Vermont's agriculture." With 200 members, Vermont Fresh Network is the first statewide farm-to-restaurant program in the country.

Gardens in Burlington's Intervale are among Vermont Fresh Network's 200 members.

Meghan Sheradin is at the center of the swirl of activity making connections, raising public awareness, and organizing events such as the annual Fresh Network Forum and the Farmers' Dinner Series. The dinner series brings the farmers who produced the food to eat with appreciative diners and share stories of the meal.

Recently appointed interim director, Sheradin has worked with VFN since 2003. She sees her role as encouraging partnerships among farmers, food producers and chefs, providing information to keep the partnerships active and lively, and reaching out to the public with the word that eating the landscape is good for Vermont.

"Eat the Vermont Landscape" was an original slogan of the organization when Pam Knights of New England Culinary Institute and Roger Clapp, then deputy commissioner of agricultural development, sowed the seeds for the farmer/chef cooperation they thought would help preserve Vermont's working landscape by developing direct markets and closer communications.

The organization progressed from being a project of the Department of Agriculture and NECI to being an independent nonprofit with a hands-on working board of farmers and chefs. Now it's engaged in the strategic planning to move the organization to the next level of structure, with the board providing direction to a small, efficient staff.

Roger Clapp of the Institute for Sustainable Development and former deputy commissioner of agricultural development for the state, sits on VFN's board of directors.

Reaching out to the dining public is a key role for VFN, Sheradin says. The highly recognizable logo that clearly puts Vermont agriculture on the dining table is displayed by members on menus, farm stands and literature. The annual VFN Forum combines a foodie's dream of grazing the best work of member chefs and a dialogue with a nationally known chef expert in "regionally reliant cuisine," and several Vermont chefs and farmers.

Farmers' dinners all over the state bring the public to dine at member restaurants and meet the farmers and food producers whose bounty is on the tables. The VFN is also raising awareness with creative partnering for example, providing the picnic for the Vermont Public Radio annual member picnic in July.

Smoothing pathways among farmers, food producers and chefs is another important role. It has developed an interactive website that offers product information, prices, quantity and availability. Farmers can update the information from their computers, and chefs can get to the information around the clock.

VFN charges a small membership fee $30 for farmers; $50 for restaurants/chefs; $100 for corporations, institutions or organizations and requires what's called a "handshake agreement" between members. Currently, farmers must have a handshake agreement with one restaurant member; restaurants/chefs need agreements with three farmer members; and food producers need agreements with three farmers and three restaurants/chefs. VFN does not regulate these relationships, and assumes its members will work with their partners directly.

Sheradin brings years of experience that, in retrospect, seems to have pointed toward the Vermont Fresh Network. Agriculture has always been a big part of her life.

Her father ran the feed mill in the heart of Delaware County, a rural county in the Catskills of New York state, and she grew up visiting the dairies with him.

As a teenager she combined working for local dairy farms with a serious commitment to competitive horseback riding, and that love of animals took her to the State University of New York at Cobleskill to study animal science.

During her two years there, searching for her role in the agricultural world, she met many other young people who came from farms. "They were all saying they couldn't go the thousands-of-cows route of big dairy," Sheradin remembers, "but Cobleskill is a Cornell feeder school, and that is definitely the Cornell model."

She agreed with her friends and, at Cornell, focused on international agriculture, an area that included environmental concerns and creativity. She graduated knowing that she wanted to do something for the health of American agriculture and the American food system.

In the following years, she added a veritable smorgasbord of items to her resume. She worked on a horse farm and then, she says, "as a cowboy" on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. She went to Las Vegas, where she did inspections for a contractor building casinos, then returned to the East.

Chip Morgan of Wood Creek Farm in Bridport raises Black Angus beef.

Two semesters as an apprentice in the education department at Shelburne Farms gave her a chance to try "a little bit of everything." She taught sustainability of natural and agricultural resources to children on field trips, helped out in the cheese department, milked cows at the dairy and was a runner in the inn's dining room.

"I knew a lot about the farm, and the other people on the wait staff would ask me to explain to the guests about the food we raised. That was the beginning of it all."

Working for a vegetable farmer in upstate New York added another piece to the picture. "We took the vegetables to green markets in New York City," she says. "The communities around those markets were very ethnic, older people who were so involved with the food they were looking at. It got me thinking about how far we've got from our food."

She spent two years working in a New York City bar, day manager, bar manager, sometimes chef while she pondered what to do next. Working for the Citizens' Environmental Coalition disseminating information about toxics convinced her that she wanted to get back into work for the food system. She also knew she wanted to come back to Vermont. When she found that the University of Vermont had a community development/economics program, she knew this was it. " It was the perfect fit," she says.

She returned to Vermont in 2001 with her new husband, Matthew Bianconi, loving the two-year program that involved traveling around the state interviewing people, and enjoying being so connected. In 2003, through her adviser, she learned about a job that seemed a perfect fit.

Spencer and Mara Welton of Half Pint Farm raise baby vegetables in Burlington's Intervale.

Vermont Fresh Network was looking for a part-time person to do outreach. She has been with the network ever since, learning from Amy Trubek, the former executive director. Sheradin describes Trubek as an articulate spokesperson for the Network, "a foodie and a wonderful resource." Trubek left this summer to work for the University of Vermont while maintaining her strong connection to Vermont Fresh Network. Sheradin is still working on her thesis, but hopes to complete it soon.

Sheradin's home office and that of her advertising consultant husband who works for local businesses at the ski resorts is in Chittenden, where they live with Sheradin's horses, her cat and their new Bernese mountain dog.

As interim director, Sheradin works on organizing special programs, developing networking opportunities with other nonprofits, such as NOFA, the Vermont Cheese Council, Shelburne Farms, the Department of Agriculture.

"It's a small state and we all have something to contribute to the success of us all," she says. "We are so lucky to have so many independent restaurateurs and so many independent farmers here in Vermont, people who love their food, embrace the seasonality, are dedicated to the local economy and have made a choice to figure out how those partnerships will work." •

Originally published in August 2005 Business People-Vermont