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Allison Hooper Opinion: Connect people, places and food

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2015-01-22

Published in the Burlington Free Press: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/opinion/my-turn/2015/01/22/opin...

In Paris during my junior year of college, I spent the summer working on an organic farm. The French know where their food comes from, and they are connected to the working rural landscape. There I learned the intrinsic value of terroir — the connection between place and people and food.

This formative experience was the beginning of a winding road to starting a business making goat cheese in Vermont.

Thirty years ago, Americans didn't even eat goat cheese. Bob Reese and I started our business in Vermont at a time when it seemed a little bit crazy. Market research at that time would have told us there was absolutely no market for the products we were making, but we had a passion and we had a hunch that cheese made in this place could be great. From the start, we were scrappy, building our business from scratch. We cajoled 4H members to produce goats' milk for us. We were six years into our business before we made a profit and more to see any significant growth. We kept at it, and for the past ten years, we have been keeping up with the demand.

Thirty years ago, why would a chef buy goat cheese made in Vermont when he could buy the real thing from France? Today, people want to know where and how things are made. In 1987 at the New York Fancy Food show, the distributor admonished not to tell people we were making cheese at the farm. Today, it is the first thing we say. Local, sustainable, non-GMO transparency is expected. Customers want to feel connected to the place their food comes from and the people who make it.

As our business has grown, we have encouraged Vermont farmers to produce goats' milk for us to make our cheese. We started a farm so we could model best practices, develop good genetics and entice other farmers to milk goats. We don't pretend to be the best farmers out there, but we are figuring things out and supporting the other farmers who are producing the milk we need. One thing we have realized is how difficult it is to make a go of farming, especially for young people who may not have access to capital needed to buy the land and equipment needed.

Terroir means "taste of place" — everything is connected between the producer, the maker and the consumer. To have terroir as a possibility, we must have a working landscape. Here in Vermont, we are so lucky to have the culture and the people and the place that can produce some of the best food in the world. At Vermont Creamery, we know firsthand how important it is to support the enterprises that will use our natural resources responsibly to build thriving businesses. A modicum of state support helps these enterprises to keep our working landscape viable.

The Working Lands Enterprise initiative is a welcome program to help businesses like ours to grow and to help others to grow. I hope the administration and the Legislature will continue to fund this important initiative with $1.5 million for fiscal year 2016. It is a great example of the state investing in businesses that use the bounty of our land to grow our economy and preserve our culture.

Allison Hooper, of Websterville, is co-founder of Vermont Creamery.