VT Secretary of Agriculture visits Northshire

By Cherise Madigan, Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER — Northshire Grows has planted the seeds for a fruitful 2018, and on Dec. 11 the organization had the opportunity to highlight Bennington County's agricultural landscape during a visit from Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Secretary Anson Tebbetts.

The visit is one of many recently coordinated by Northshire Grows, which has worked to make connections with different facets of the philanthropic and political realms.

On Dec. 11, Secretary Tebbetts was joined by Northshire Grows Director Liz Ruffa and her Board of Directors, including: Donald Campbell of the Vermont Land Trust, VT State Senator Brian Campion, Jesse Pyles of Danby's Smokey House Center, and Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan.

"These visits help people to understand the variety of things that we're doing, and the energy that's down here," Ruffa said. "I'm always looking for opportunities to tell the stories of Bennington County, and also find opportunities for this food system in other parts of the state."

The visit began at the Village School of North Bennington, which soon segwayed into an exploration of the Highland Hall Community Gardens. That space, utilized by organizations like the Vermont School for Girls, the Vermont Arts Exchange, and the Youth Agricultural Program, provided an example of the growing role of community agriculture in the Shires according to Ruffa.

From there the group embarked to local cheesemaker Maplebrook Farm, which recently re-located to a new facility in North Bennington. The operation continues to grow, says Ruffa, and the farm's apprenticeship program could serve as a model for increased trade-education in the region.

"We had a very interesting conversation about workforce needs, because they've had this apprenticeship program going over the years where kids who are looking for work are trained there," Ruffa said, noting that many of these apprentices come from Mount Anthony Union High School. "Some of them stay and some of them move on, but that's something that addresses a need that the Governor has brought to everyone's attention; the fact that technical and vocational education and training is really important."

Meandering up to Shaftsbury, the Northshire Grows team then introduced Secretary Tebbetts to Studio Hill Farm, which has placed a sharp focus on regenerative soil management. In doing so, the farm has increased the fertility and productivity of their land in "really meaningful ways" according to Ruffa.

"This type of farming has very interesting applications for water quality issues," Ruffa said. "The more you build up your soil, the less run-off you're going to have into your waterways."

Departing the Northshire, the next stop for the agricultural delegation was Manchester's Burr and Burton Academy, which has worked to provide local, healthy, and appetizing food for their students in recent years. Much of that food is sourced from the nearby Dene Farm at Hildene, where Tebbetts ended his Bennington county expedition.

"It was a really fun time," Ruffa said. "One of his closing comments was that he's looking forward to coming back soon, maybe in the spring."

The visit served as a sort of culmination for the organization's 2017, and Ruffa hopes that Northshire Grows can continue to expand in the coming year. Two of their big goals: expanding farm-to-school programs in the region, and constructing a food processing facility along the Route 7 corridor.

"I'm a firm believer that agricultural heritage is a part of our past, but also part of our future," Ruffa said, noting that agriculture and manufacturing have historic roots in the Shires. "I think that food production and food manufacturing is a great opportunity for Bennington county. We have a lot of empty manufacturing space, and we have a lot of industrious growers."

While the amount of food grown in Vermont has continued to expand, says Ruffa, the consumption rate has not kept pace with that volume. Increasing food manufacturing opportunities in the region could help to change that, she says.

"It's all in the research, development, and feasibility phase," Ruffa said, noting that the organization does have some private funding committed and applications submitted for state and federal programs. "Bennington county has a $100 million food economy, of which the local purchasing is a scant part of. We do a good job of growing food, but we're not selling as much of it as we should be to people that live here."

According to Ruffa, the potential facility could also enhance the organization's educational goals.

"I'd really like it to be built with education at its core," Ruffa said. "It could be as much a workforce development and job training facility as anything else."

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.