Bennington Food Hub to connect small farmers with corporate buyers, households – vtdigger.org
Bill Laberge, co-founder of the Regenerative Food Network, checks out a freezer that the company uses to store chicken meat at the future site of the Bennington Food Hub on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. Photo by Tiffany Tan/VTDigger
BENNINGTON — Brian Leach and his wife, Breya, have been raising grass-fed cows since 2014. But in all this time they’ve been running Haystack Farmstead, located in Pawlet, the business has been operating at a loss.
Leach, 33, has had to depend on steady work as an electromechanical engineer to keep his family farm going.
Part of the problem he sees is Vermont’s limited consumer market for premium agricultural products. To reach more customers, Leach said, small local farmers like him need to expand into urban areas such as Boston and New York City in the Northeast.
Entering bigger markets would also enable small farmers to sell “value-added products” that turn a bigger profit. Leach’s grass-fed beef, for instance, can add value as smoked and cured meats.
But manufacturing these types of products requires specialty equipment and extra processing space — which small farmers cannot easily acquire.
“These are major investments for farms, especially for young farmers,” Leach said. “It can be tough to make that leap.”
The difficulties Leach has encountered as a small farmer are among the issues that the forthcoming Bennington Food Hub seeks to address. The food hub is slated to open in fall 2022.
The food hub, a project of the Southern Vermont Regional Food System, is being set up as a nonprofit organization that would help small farmers do business with corporate buyers and households. It would work with producers from Bennington, Rutland and Windham counties in southern Vermont.
Southern Vermont Regenerative Food System from Regenerative Food Network on Vimeo.
On top of boosting farmers’ livelihoods, the food hub aims to make healthy food more readily available at affordable prices. The people who would benefit include Bennington households experiencing food insecurity, project proponents said.
The group is an outgrowth of the $1 million grant Bennington College received from the Mellon Foundation in 2019 to address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington County, said Susan Sgorbati, director of the school’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action and co-organizer of the Southern Vermont Regional Food System.
“In some ways, what this is is really a citizen-based response to too often a lack of governmental attention to the southwestern part of the state,” said Kyle Philipp, CEO and co-founder of the Regenerative Food Network, another organizer of the regional food system.
“This ability to bring together these three communities in the southern part of the state is really powerful and necessary,” he said.
Members of the regional food system who spoke to VTDigger for this story include Liz Ruffa, director of institutional advancement at Merck Forest and Farmland Center; Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the Regen by Design research, educational and media group; Shannon Barsotti, the Bennington town government’s community development director; and Tatiana Abatemarco, a Bennington College visiting faculty member specializing in food studies.
The Regenerative Food Network is also helping to fund at least $5 million worth of renovation work on a former car-parts plant, which would become the location for its subsidiary Southshire Meats, as well as the Bennington Food Hub. Organizers are calling that location the Southshire Regenerative Food Center.
This shuttered car-part manufacturing …….