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Food and Agriculture: The ‘Value-Added’ Buzz: Our Farms, Our Food

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2012-05-03

By Josey Hastings
The Herald of Randolph

The Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, the result of a year’s work by the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership, seeks to create a fund to award grants and loans to start-up businesses making value-added products from raw agricultural or forest materials.

Value-added products are diverse, including confections, wooden furniture, sauces, canned goods, cheese, ice cream...and the list goes on.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill authorizing $2 million for businesses the first year, eventually increasing that amount to $15 million annually. Money for the program would come from the state general fund.

Many Vermonters see valueadded products as an important way to diversify the state’s agricultural base and increase the profitability of agricultural products. According to many, including John Putnam of Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, value-added products are the only way for small dairies to make a profit.

Putnam and his wife, Janine, milk 20 Jerseys and make raw milk Tarentaise cheese.

“In my opinion, value added is the only way forward for Vermont agriculture,” commented Putnam. “Commodity farming doesn’t work. There’s no money in it.”

Jeannine Kilbride of Cobb Hill cheese agreed, “The only way you can make money with a small dairy is by producing a valueadded product. Our main goal is to keep our dairy in business, keep it growing and moving forward. That’s how the cheese business was born.”

Even so, Putnam remarked that “It’s never clear that it’s going to be profitable.” He emphasized the importance of doing your homework. “Learn how to make the product you want to make, learn how to build your infrastructure, know how to survive while you’re learning it, and watch out for debt,” Putnam advised.

While many producers of valueadded products ship their goods all over the country and abroad, local support is also key. According to Killbride, “We have a lot of support from people who live here. Having support from your neighbors makes operating the business a lot easier.”

‘Food Hubs’

Kilbride also noted the importance of “food hubs” in the success of small, value-added businesses. “I’m hoping we can build on the food hub model where everyone brings their food to one location, then distributors go there to pick up orders and move out to all the different stores. That would be a real way to give smaller producers exposure to a wider market,” she said.

At Strafford Organic Creamery, Amy Huyffer’s family milks 50 Guernseys. They started making ice cream and bottling milk 12 years ago.

According to Huyffer, their farm may be doing a little better financially now than when they shipped fluid milk to Organic Cow, but “it’s hard to say.”

Huyffer commented that it’s “certainly not enough to make up for the risk and startup costs.”

She did point out, however, that there are other benefits to being a value-added business – relative market stability being one of them. According to Huyffer, “In 2009, when the national organic milk market suffered, we were worried about what that would mean for us.”

She recounted that they had “way too much milk for about three weeks, and then customers came back. People came back to the quality of our milk.”

According to Huyffer, one loyal customer commented to a Seven Days reporter, “I’m still buying Strafford milk. I don’t care if I have to have Ramen noodles to go with it.”

Value-added businesses can also offer more local employment opportunities. “We support five families through our farm,” commented Huyffer. She also believes that their business offers her children a potential future in farming.

“Our kids talk about where they’re going to build their houses on the farm someday. It doesn’t look so bad to them,” said Huyffer.

Don’t Forget Milk

Steve Judge, CEO of Bob- White Systems, a company selling microdairy equipment in South Royalton, has been milking cows and involved with dairy industry for 48 years.

In his view, “Milk is value-added grass.” He believes that “The easiest way to make money at a microdairy is to sell your milk to friends and neighbors. That has the highest profit margins and is often overlooked.”

Judge added, however, that unless small-scale fluid milk production is part of a diversified farm, it’s unlikely to support a family. “It’s a perfect companion for a CSA,” Judge remarked. “You have to set your farm up so it doesn’t require lots of input of time and money. You have to do your research and figure out how it can be done.”

If you would like to share news about local food and agriculture, please write to joseyhastings@gmail.com.