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Making Connections with the Vermont Fresh Network


by Molly Stevens



Three years ago, Sissy Hicks, the chef/owner of the landmark 18th century Dorset Inn, located on the picture-perfect Dorset Village Green (where the Green Mountain Boys prepared for battle in the Revolutionary War) was looking to buy some potatoes. The problem was Hicks didn’t want to buy just any potatoes; she wanted to buy local potatoes. So Hicks, described by Michael Stern (half of the esteemed Road Food writing team) as “the Alice Waters of Vermont - relying on local farmers and greengrocers, cooking meals that reflect the seasons, and creating a menu that is at once respectful of tradition and yet always surprising,” asked the young woman who worked the Inn’s front desk, Misse Burrows, a farmer in her own right (many farmers work extra jobs to supplement their agricultural enterprises) to help. Burrows immediately sent an e-mail to Meghan Sheradin, the Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, an organization to which Burrows belonged. Sheradin e-mailed back with the message “I know this guy, Donald, that grows lots of potatoes.” Burrows relayed this information to Hicks, Hicks called Donald Heleba, a nearby farmer who grows over 50 varieties of potatoes, and from that day forward, Heleba potatoes (and onions) can be found year round on the menu at The Dorset Inn.

That tale – and countless more like it – is the backbone of the nation’s oldest farm-to-restaurant program, the Vermont Fresh Network (VFN). Founded in 1997 as a joint project between the New England Culinary Institute and the Vermont Department of Agriculture, the effort progressed within a couple of years from a grassroots project to an independent non-profit organization run by a hard-working board of directors (many of them farmers and chefs) and a small one-person staff. Today, VFN carries out its mission with a lean annual budget, much of it grant-based from organizations such as the Merck Fund, and with a growing reliance on sponsors, sustaining members, and fund-raising activities. The staff (AKA Meghan Sheradin, the Executive Director) coordinates a veritable feast of activities and services – maintaining an interactive website, updating membership information, raising public awareness, and planning events – all in an effort to connect the state’s small-scale farmers and producers with the chefs and foodservice operators who cook nearby. Now in its 10th year and with over 300 members statewide, the VFN was sited as one of the things that make Vermont “the coolest food state in the union” according to Saveur magazine.

Despite this praise from afar, the VFN remains “above all about the relationships,” states Sheradin. The network charges a small annual fee for membership to support its outreach and educational programs, but the crucial requirement is that each chef has three “handshake agreements” with local farmers and/or producers. (Farmers/producers in turn must have at least one “hand-shake agreement” with a restaurant.) While these “handshake agreements” are a membership requirement, they are only the start. “It’s a conversation,” explains Sheradin with the zeal of someone deeply dedicated to the success of the organization’s mission. “An ongoing conversation between the chefs and the farmers, between the chefs and the producers; and then between the chefs and their servers, between the servers and the consumer. The conversation is the connection.” While Sheradin spends a great deal of her long work week playing match-maker between chefs and farmers, “in the end, in order for it to work, the partnership must be very personal. We can help by bringing the people together, but unless it works for those two people, it won’t last.”

Talk to any of VFN members, from either side of this conversation, and you’re bound to hear a similar thing. Jon Wright, an enterprising farmer and cheesemaker at Taylor Farm in Londonderry says it much the same way. “I love what the network is doing,” says Wright. “It’s all about making the connection between the consumer and the producer.” Wright sells a lot of his amazingly good gouda cheese from his own retail shop at the farm, where visitors can stop by to watch a batch of butterfat-rich whole milk being transformed into wheels of award-winning gouda, pick up a map to other cheesemakers in the area, or just hang out and chat or pet the bunnies in the pen out front. Wright also sells to retail outlets all over New England and as far south as Manhattan, but he maintains that the sales he makes through his VFN members are paramount to his success, “the exposure of getting your product in restaurants is huge.” And for Wright, the affiliation with the Network adds a lot, too. “Honestly, when you pull up to a place and see that green placard,” he says referring to the recognizable VFN logo, “it means a lot.”

As a testament to how closely linked Network members can be, you only need to drive 16 miles west on curvy Route 11 from the Taylor Farm and you will indeed see that familiar green placard posted on The Perfect Wife Restaurant & Tavern. At this popular and lively spot just outside busy Manchester Center, chef/owner Amy Chamberlain serves what she describes as “freestyle cuisine” (remember, it’s the skiing and boarding that draws more than a few up north), and of course, she’s always got Jon Wright’s Taylor Farm gouda on the menu. “VFN helps us connect,” Chamberlain explains, echoing what others say. “It stands for something very good. It’s a lot of people working hard. It’s real, it’s good food.” Chamberlain, who changes her menu every six months to reflect the seasons, relies heavily on the VFN website to source new local products. “I’d rather get rabbits from a member than from someone who’s not.”

Getting the rabbits may not be the hard part, it’s finding the small farmer who produces them, explains Paul Paulson who helps run Vermont Quality Meats, a cooperative of 34 small farms that raise top-quality lamb, goat, pork, beef, veal, venison, rabbit, chicken, free-range turkey, and game birds in and around Vermont. “It’s hard for farmers to get the attention of chefs,” Paulson states. In a food system in which it’s still much easier for a chef or purchaser to pick up the phone and order meat raised on a no-name feedlot some thousands of miles away, than it is for them to develop a relationship with the small producers nearby, it’s tough for the small farmer to make his or her way. Vermont Quality Meats, a VFN member since 2002, understands this all too well. Paulson himself raises lamb on a nearby farm and knows first hand the challenges farmers face when dealing with restaurants. “The chefs won’t know until the weekend what they want for next week,” explains Paulson citing a real problem when you’re dealing with meats that take months to come to maturity. The idea behind the co-op is creating an infrastructure to facilitate this link between the chefs and the farmers, so the chefs can get what they need when they need it, and so the farmers have a reliable market for their products. “Everyone wants it fresh and they want it on Thursday,” a demand that’s often too great for any one small farm. While Vermont Quality Meats supports the VFN mission and serves a number of its chef-members by delivering meats within the state, their success relies a great deal on selling to top chefs in New York and Boston. “The majority of farmers don’t find it reasonable to deal directly with restaurants in a big city.”

One in-state chef who relies on Vermont Quality Meats to get first-rate center-of-the plate cuts and to keep it local is Rick Gencarelli, the man behind the stove at the elegant Inn at Shelburne Farms, located on the shores of Lake Champlain. Gencarelli earned his cooking chops working for Todd English at Olive’s in Boston. In English’s kitchen, Gencarelli had first-hand experience with the caliber of meats and game coming from Vermont Quality Meats. When he moved to Vermont and took the job at the prestigious Inn at Shelburne Farms, chef Gencarelli brought along his deep devotion to getting the best, local stuff onto his menu, and so he called Vermont Quality Meats. “If you’re ever looking for something and don’t know where to find it or how to get it, they’re the guys,” he explains. “I was looking to not have to go out of Vermont for any of my meats,” which for Gencarelli could mean anything from woodcock to rabbit to beef to lamb to venison and so on. He’s also focusing more and more on buying whole carcasses – which Vermont Quality Meats can bring him – and breaking them down in the kitchen. “We’re really into using the whole animal, it makes you a better cook. The more comfortable I get with using whole carcasses, the more I’m able to use it,” he explains pointing out the rilettes, fried lamb’s tongue, and liver pate on the menu. “It’s all about the connection, and it’s very cool to be a part of it.” This connection and conversation are just what the Vermont Fresh Network is all about – and yes, it’s very cool indeed.

To contact the any of the farmers, producers, or chefs mentioned in this article, click on “Search for VFN Members” on the VFN website

(www.vermontfresh.net)

Molly Stevens is a cookbook author, teacher and editor living in Northern Vermont. She currently serves as the chair of the board of the Vermont Fresh Network. www.mollystevenscooks.com

 





           

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