• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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Neighborhood Investments

Local Vermont Restaurants and Markets Follow the CSA Model

Sharon Deitz of the Bees Knees

Written By

Sylvia Fagin

Written on

December 01 , 2008

My family has been here for 50 years. I’ve been in and out of that store all my life. I miss it being the center of the community.”

—Dan Kinoy, Williamsville resident

What’s a community to do when an essential institution goes missing?

The village of Williamsville, northwest of Brattleboro, lost its historic general store two years ago when its owner decided to close its doors. Residents missed the store, and when they convened a meeting to discuss the loss, more than 40 people attended—a big meeting for tiny Williamsville, according to resident Dan Kinoy, who participated.

“People want to have a store because of the convention of getting a newspaper and a cup of coffee, and there needs to be a place for the kids to wait for the school bus in the morning if it’s 20 below,” Kinoy says. “But most importantly, it’s the social hub of the village—where you see neighbors and catch up with people.”

At the gathering, the Rock River Community Store Committee was formed to explore the establishment of a new store, and one of the options it’s been considering is the creation of a “community-supported” store—a business model that’s catching on in Vermont.

Community-supported businesses (CSBs), which in Vermont tend to be markets and restaurants, look to local residents for financial support when they are opening, expanding, or renovating. Typically, the business solicits loans from community members (to be paid back with interest) and/or they sell “shares” that buyers can redeem over time for food or other items sold by the business.

The idea is modeled in part after community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which people pay a lump sum to a farmer at the start of a growing season and receive meat and/or produce throughout the season. Similarly, the CSB model allows businesses to receive a chunk of capital at the beginning of a significant project, when it’s needed most; in return, community members get to invest in their community in tangible ways and to contribute to the success of a local resource they consider valuable.

Every CSB is unique—as shown by the three businesses profiled below—but all of them establish and strengthen local relationships, the very existence of which forms the foundation of true community.

“I grew up in the suburbs. Having a place to gather in a community is a place I never had in my life.”

— Ellen Waldman, Morrisville resident

When Sharon Deitz opened The Bee’s Knees in Morrisville, she envisioned a place that would be like “going to a friend’s house—you never know exactly what’s in the fridge, but you know it will be good.” Five years later, the cozy cafe (there are only seven tables) has become Morrisville’s living room.

But about three years ago, The Bee’s Knees had gotten almost too popular—and crowded. Folks stopping in for a beer after work rubbed elbows with families enjoying a comforting meal and those waiting for the live music to start. The kitchen got crowded, too; due to space limitations, much of the food was cooked upstairs in a tiny kitchen meant for an apartment, then shuttled downstairs to be reheated and served.

Deitz felt the exhaustion of the crowds and the stairs, and put the cafe on the market. But when regular customers heard of her plans to sell, they got worried and decided to help her expand. One by one, people volunteered to paint, lay bricks, lend money … and soon Deitz was researching eateries that had used community-financing models. Adapting the model used by Claire’s restaurant in nearby Hardwick, she began offering shares ranging from $500 to $1,000, and solicited loans of $2,500 to $5,000.

“Community financing wasn’t the only option,” she says, “but emotionally it was about how much work I’d put in and how exhausted I was. Having people say ‘we’re in this with you and we’re risking with you’ changed it for me. When you really feel a part of a community, it gives you more strength.”

Ellen Waldman, who’d moved to Morrisville in part because of the Bee’s Knees, was one of the “community lenders” who came to Deitz’s rescue. Waldman and her husband made a cash loan that will be paid back, with interest, within five years. During those five years, they’ll also receive 10 percent off their food purchases.

“When the opportunity came to invest, my husband and I decided this was just vital,” Waldman explains. “We take risks by putting our money in the bank; this seems like a better bet right now. This is where money should be—local. It’s going to come back in many ways: in relationships, in community.”

“There was a real need for a place like Claire’s. We wanted to be a part of it.

—Kristin Urie, co-owner, Bonnieview Farm, Albany

In 2003, about 50 Hardwick residents met to discuss bringing a new restaurant to their downtown. Three years later, four of those people—Linda Ramsdell, Kristina Michelsen, chef Steven Obranovich, and Michael Bosia—formed two different companies: the Hardwick Restaurant Group, a small group of large-scale investors responsible for securing a location and equipment, and Claire’s, a larger group of people intent on making smaller contributions that would fund the opening inventory and operating capital of the new local-foods eatery.

Community members responded warmly to the opportunity, either by making a $5,000 loan or by purchasing a $1,000 share. The loans were to be repaid in five years, with interest; the shares are redeemed with monthly coupons, usable at the restaurant for five years.

Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop, just down the street from Claire’s, explains that she and her partners borrowed from the model of Robert Fuller, owner of the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol. In 2002, Fuller solicited community loans to support the cafe. The loans have been repaid, and the Bobcat is now a model for community-supported restaurants, as well as a fixture of the community.
Ramsdell acknowledges that $1,000 was a steep commitment for many people in the Hardwick area who wanted to support Claire’s. “Some people wanted a half or quarter share,” she says. “In a way, I wish we had been able to offer that, but at the time, what we were doing was overwhelming and complex enough.”

Claire’s advertises “local ingredients, open to the world,” and to make good on that promise, they exchanged CSR shares for local food from farmers Bruce Kaufman and Judy Jarvis of Riverside Farm in East Hardwick, and Neil and Kristin Urie of Bonnieview Farm in Albany. The farmers paid for their $1,000 share with their own products, rather than cash, and that food, in turn, was served at the restaurant.

“We heard about the shares,” Kristin says, “and we thought about doing it as they were designed, but we weren’t in a position to put up that amount of cash at once. We talked with them about doing it as a product exchange—we wanted to be part of it.”

Claire’s has long since served that first $1,000 worth of lamb and raw sheep’s-milk feta cheese, and continues to buy from the Uries. For the busy farmers, the monthly restaurant coupons are an “extra nudge to go out,” Kristin says. “We feel invested in their success. It’s become our place, too.”

“A neighbor came in and said, “How you are running this store is changing the way people are interacting in this community.”

—David Stenber, board president, Craftsbury General Store

David Stenber bought the Craftsbury General Store in 2003 and ran it as a sole proprietorship for several years. A seasoned business owner, he was aware of a pattern plaguing general stores: “There’s a new owner, the store does well, the owner gets burned out, the store does badly, the store gets sold, repeat.”

The desire to avoid that pattern, the wish to grow, and the need for financial support prompted Stenber to consider a community-supported model. When he presented the idea to the community, there was overwhelming interest, so he decided to reorganize the store as a corporation, selling shares of stock to support the store’s growth.

Like every community-supported endeavor, this one had its own challenges. The new corporation, with its board of directors and bylaws, had to figure out how to let people invest small amounts without exceeding the legal restriction of 50 new investors per year. Many people wanted to invest $100, but with the 50-person limit, those small amounts weren’t guaranteed to raise what was needed to expand the store.

Eventually, with the help of both large and small investors at many levels, the store raised $175,000 toward a $250,000 goal in less than a year. It was enough to turn a back storeroom into a commercial kitchen and deli counter—raising the store’s sales by 20%—but not enough to attract a start-up loan to construct a restaurant upstairs. The fact that the board wasn’t able to meet its goal gave its members pause.

Today, the board is again soliciting input from the community and considering changing the corporate structure so that a larger number of people can participate, or participate differently. “There’s hundreds of people who would love to support the store,” Stenber says. “We need to create opportunities for everyone.”

At a time when so many businesses are owned by decision makers from far away, the direct participation of neighbors in their local businesses is more than just refreshing—it is revitalizing downtowns and communities. Exchanging one’s hard-earned dollars for the chance to co-create a community institution increases the institution’s value in a way that merely buying dinner or a gallon of milk can never match. It gives individuals a chance to prove their commitment to their local economy, and provides the deeper connection to community that many people crave.

Perhaps the eagerness to “co-create” a general store will change the Williamsville community in far-reaching ways. If residents do end up working together to fill the space left by the historic store, they would be writing the next chapter in the story of community-supported business in Vermont.

“No one is an expert on community-supported business,” Craftsbury’s Stenber emphasizes. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Photo of Sharon Deitz by Sylvia Fagin

About the Author

Sylvia Fagin

Sylvia Fagin

Sylvia Fagin writes about food and agriculture from her home in Montpelier. To make sure that Vic, Marianne and the Bobs were making wine correctly, she recently took a tour of the Calchaquíes Valley winemaking region of northwestern Argentina. She is happy to report that they are right on track. Contact Sylvia via Twitter: @sylviafagin.

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