Local Words: A “Dating” Service for Food Producers

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Posted: March 21, 2012

Annie Rowell is the Center for an Agricultural Economy‘s Farm-to-Institution Program Associate and began working for us last summer shortly after her graduation from Middlebury College. 


A multi-generation Vermonter, Annie has been the driving force behind our pilot Farm-to-Institution program at the Vermont Food Venture Center, funded by the John Merck Foundation and the Vermont Agricultural Innovation Center where in a typical work day, she goes from writing reports, researching and creating labels to donning a hair net and rubber boots to work the equipment in our kitchens, processing anything from applesauce for the local pantries to cubing root vegetables for a retail pack of winter vegetables.


In February, the VFVC hosted a group of forty or fifty enthusiastic specialty food producers and local farmers to network and make some local connections between value added production and locally grown food. What a success! Annie shares the story below. 


-Elena Gustavson, Program Director


Annie lugging squash from a local farm




In the White Room

By Annie Rowell

When passersby stop in to see what the big, new green building behind Aubuchon Hardware is all about, we talk about how we are an incubator, a resource for small food businesses, a new piece in the puzzle for the Vermont food system, but never about the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC) as a matchmaker – that is, until recently.  Turns out, the VFVC has become a bastion for collecting names and trading digits.  Thanks to our ever eager food producer clients, we witnessed our matchmaking potential on an evening in early February when fifty foodies congregated in the back corner of the VFVC.  

Since the launch of their businesses, two VFVC clients had struggled with their mission to source all or most of their product ingredients locally.  To Sumptuous Syrup’s Linda Fox, any words associating ginger, berries, and herbs (basil in particular, if you happen to know anyone) with local growers grab her attention faster than the word “fire.”  She and her business partner, Don Horrigon, never tire of finding new ways to find local ingredients for their cocktail syrups, which are perfect for anything from an evening tonic to a delicious ice cream drizzle.  For Michelle Guenard of Michelle’s Specialty Foods, she knew she wouldn’t be satisfied with her spicy kimchi until she knew the entire immediate family of the farmer she bought her raw ingredients from.  

After several months of run-ins and small talk in the warehouse, Linda and Michelle came to the conclusion that other area food producers must share their frustrations.  In the innovative spirit of true problem solvers, they took matters into their own hands.  Before we knew it, our staff were receiving emails of confirmed RSVPs for a matchmaker event between farmers and food producers to be held at the VFVC.  We were energized by the enthusiasm of our food production clients and hopped on the bandwagon to help out where we could.   For an event captained by two go-getters, we didn’t have to do much. 

In the potluck-y spirit of most Vermont gatherings, the VFVC doors opened after hours to area farmers and food producers on a Thursday evening in early February.  While I’ve always thought that the overhead panel lights in the office felt austere and institutional (hence my desk lamp), the spotlight brightness seemed to highlight a premier event as attendees trickled in.  I steered attendees along the warehouse cow-path that weaves around client storage racks, between the freezer units, and into the tucked away back corner.  The back corner (also known by its other very literal name: the “white room”) is the unfinished space in the warehouse; an empty 5,000 square foot room is quite the novelty in the Northeast Kingdom where gatherings generally occur in town halls and the occasional school gym. 

At Linda’s beckoning, we quieted our chatter and congregated in a large circle in the large empty space, a room where all who enter will soon be required to don hairnets and sanitized foot wear once it is finally fit-up for food processing. 

I’m a new vegetable farmer and will grow whatever you need.”
  
This common one-liner proved to be the best pick-up line of the night.  Food producers, ranging from current VFVC clients in production to those on the treasure hunt for the magical million dollar recipe, scribbled contact names and zealously confirmed phone numbers as introductions traveled  around the circle.  Before Linda called “break” for the real one-on-one networking to begin, I couldn’t help but notice the collective focus in the room.  No clatter, whispers, or fidgeting in the crowd.  Everyone present was exactly that – present, thinking deeply on the goal of the intimate gathering and calculating how he or she could best contribute to the conversation.  While to an observer we may have looked slightly hunky dory (we had a rather high percentage of hand knit sweaters, clogs, various Carhartt items, and creative casserole dishes as part of the potluck spread), there was certainly a lot going on upstairs, so to speak.


Matchmaking is a tricky business, but with the right combination of persistence, spunk, and perhaps a stellar shepherd’s pie, the VFVC community looks forward to setting you up.  


The “sharing circle”




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