One if the wonderful aspects of serving in the Legislature is the opportunity to meet incredibly talented, hardworking, creative people. I had just such an opportunity at the Vermont Farm Show this week. Traditionally, the House Agriculture Committee attends a couple of events at the Farm Show. In the past, there was a milking contest, known as the “Political Pull,” however, last year the venue changed from the Barre Auditorium to the Champlain Valley Expo Center in Essex and the milking contest was no more. In its place we now have the “Capital Cook-off,” which is a chance to showcase local products and have a little good-natured competition amongst the House, Senate, and Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.
This year, the House team was made up of three new members, including Rep. Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro. Given that Tristan is a truly gifted, New England Culinary Institute-trained chef, it was clear who would be doing the cooking! It was my job to collect a local food/farm story so I set off into the crowd of Vermont-based producers to find a story that made a “worthwhile, captivating connection with local farmers.”
While there were a myriad of farmers/producers to choose from, I decided to do our story about Joe and Laurie Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm in E. Montpelier. Joe started his career studying cooking at a school in Paris for 3 years. He returned to the United States and worked at the Ritz Carlton in New York City and Austin, Texas for 25 years. He then made the decision to move to Vermont to teach at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI), where he worked for nine years, the last four of which he also farmed. Five years ago, he gave up teaching at NECI altogether and started just farming.
Joe found that he needed a value-added product to keep him going in the winter so he took to making soup, which is a great way to use up extra vegetables. Too much zucchini? Either process it for the freezer to be used later or put it in your Lemon Ginger Chicken soup.
As with many things, Joe’s business journey was an evolution. He started in his own commercial home kitchen, but outgrew that and moved to Lace in Barre, which was the first licensed commercial kitchen for rent. Most recently he has been working out of the Mad River Food Hub, a facility in Waitsfield which offers the first commercial kitchen where meat-based soup can be legally produced for wholesale. “Joe’s Soups” are being sold at the Hunger Mountain Coop and Capitol City Farmers’ Market in Montpelier and the Adamant Coop, as well as in the Boston area.
Two years ago, Joe and Laurie, who does the marketing, started a CSA, which stand for Community Supported Agriculture. People buy “shares” in the CSA up front, which enables the farmer to buy seed and other necessities. Then throughout the summer (or winter) customers receive a box of produce and/or products from the farm delivered to their workplace. In Joe’s CSA, customers might be the recipients of vegetables, bread, cheese, sauces, eggs, meat, and, yes, soup! In fact, Joe designs a menu around the ingredients with recipes posted on the internet.
An exciting development for Screamin’ Ridge is a partnership with the Central Vermont Hospital and Blue Cross/Blue Shield as part of their wellness plans. Payroll deductions from their employees’ paychecks enable their workers to belong to the CSA without a large, up front outlay of money. Screamin’ Ridge has 200 summer members and 70 winter members, 90% of whom had never belonged to a CSA before. The reasonable financing arrangement combined with a convenient workplace drop off make this a very attractive option that improves health, increases worker productivity, and creates more economic stability for Joe.
This is one of many stories from all around Vermont – stories of entrepreneurs who sometimes have a business plan, sometimes just evolve to where they are, but who are willing to work hard to not only create a business that earns them a living, but a business that gives them great satisfaction.
Getting back to the Capital Cook-off, we were very proud to have the House team win, thanks in great part to Tristan Toleno’s talents. Many in the Windham County region already know Tristan through his catering business and Rigani Pizza (www.riganipizza.com). He, indeed, represents another one of these inspiring stories. In fact, all on our team have a similar story. Rep. Kristina Michelson, a lawyer from Hardwick, was one of the founding members of local foods-oriented Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick, Rep. Dan Connor of Fairfield heads the Beef Council in Vermont, and I have a sheep/goat farm and yarn business, The Good Shepherd (www.goodshepherdyarn.com).
As a final note, for those of you following the bill (H.112) regarding the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, testimony will begin in the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.