What started out as an economic analysis of agriculture in Rutland County has become a movement to preserve and grow a sustainable food system.
More than five years ago, as an employee of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, India Burnett Farmer collected a group of people passionate about agriculture in the area to get a read on the industry. At the time, a pervasive melancholy attitude about the future of farming in the Rutland area had settled into the soil.
The group was made up of representatives from a local college, a commercial farm, a land trust organization, the regional planning commission, and consumer advocates. Each brought different perspectives to the table, but their common goal was to connect regional consumers to their local farms and create a food system that could withstand fluctuating oil prices and world markets.
“We have a really diverse agricultural landscape here,” Burnett Farmer said recently, referring to geography that extends beyond Pawlet to Chittenden and from West Haven to Middletown Springs. But, she added, “some of our first projects were just [about] promotion.”
The organization was named the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), and although it became cohesive in 2004, it took a couple of years to develop a robust board of directors. In 2006, it became an incorporated nonprofit. RAFFL defines “the Rutland area” as extending a bit beyond Rutland County to include parts of southern Addison County and western New York.
“We recognize our economic borders don’t stop at the county line,” said Burnett Farmer, who worked for a number of years as the part-time coordinator of RAFFL.
The idea for a local guide to farms and foods sprouted first, and at the start of the 2005 season, RAFFL developed and published its first Locally Grown Food Guide. That year there were approximately 10,000 copies printed and distributed.
The publication highlights several aspects of the Rutland-area agricultural community, including farms, farm stands, farmers’ markets, and restaurants and inns where local foods are used. It also features information for farmers looking to breed or sell livestock, as well as resources for people in search of natural fibers to make textiles. (Other organizations in Vermont have developed locally grown guides, too, including Valley Food & Farm, whose guide serves the Connecticut River Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire.)
Since the first edition, more than 100,000 Locally Grown Food Guides have been printed and dispersed throughout the Rutland region. Each year, at least 40,000 copies are published and mainly distributed via local newspapers, as well as through local markets, grocers, and eateries.
“We wanted to make sure that folks who hadn’t heard of us were being exposed to what we do,” said Burnett Farmer. “We are serving, through our Locally Grown Guide, a growing population. It seems like there are a number of new farms that have come on board since RAFFL formed.”
Ideas about how to increase access to farm-fresh foods have grown as well. In addition to getting fresh foods to farmers’ markets, cooperatives, and natural food markets, RAFFL has increased community connections between local schools and farms, started a winter farmers’ market in Rutland, and implemented farm tours to bring people to the places of production.
In March, the board of directors opted to appoint one of its longtime members as executive director. Tara Kelly, who also comes from the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, has taken on the task of continuing to connect and educate Rutland-area communities about their local food system.
“They brought me on because of my community development experience,” said Kelly. “I don’t even know how to grow a flower, so I’m not into giving farmers advice. I’m into growing community.”
In order to grow community, RAFFL is trying to get local foods into areas that typically have less access to them. On average, people tend to spend about 3 percent of their food budget on local foods and the other 97 percent on foods coming from out of state or out of country, said Kelly.
“There’s a huge growth potential in that market,” she said. “If we shift that to 10 percent, that would be millions of dollars” remaining in the local community. RAFFL is looking to provide a place where local foods can be processed appropriately to meet supermarket regulations, as well as increase distribution.
The main ingredient of that plan is the development of the Rutland Regional Food Hub, where processing and distribution of local foods would take place on a larger, more efficient scale. The hub would be a location for processing—such as cutting, canning, freezing, and preserving—that would make products more attractive to schools, families, and organizations that want to spend less time preparing local food and more time indulging in their local bounty.
“So they’re not being asked to completely change their way of operating,” said Kelly, referring to school and health center kitchens.
RAFFL recently initiated planning for the Hub by teaming up with Rutland city officials and applying for Vermont Community Development Program grant funds to research the feasibility of such a facility.
Shortly after its inception, RAFFL also began striving to create an incubator farm for people looking to begin producing food at the local level. Following a philosophy similar to the Intervale in Burlington, the RAFFL incubator would be a common property on which small-scale farmers—hoping to produce on their own swath of property at some point—would have access to mentors, equipment, and land in order to grow their skills and products before establishing a larger, independent farm.
“It’s almost like we have all the pieces lined up except the land,” Kelly said of RAFFL’s work with the Vermont Land Trust to secure land for the incubator project. The Trust has agreed to help RAFFL purchase the land, connect them to funders and, once it’s purchased, to put a conservation easement on the land so that VLT has the first right to purchase it if RAFFL ever wants to sell it.
RAFFL has come close to finding property a number of times, but while the search for a permanent setting for the incubator farm continues, properties within the Rutland region have been made available to new farmers.
The Rutland Regional Medical Center also started working with RAFFL recently. Community Supported Agriculture shares, or CSAs, have been made available to employees of the medical center to increase that connection and to initiate a greater collaboration for the future.
While RAFFL’s efforts to strengthen its local food industry, one seed at a time, are concentrated on the Rutland area, similar movements and organizations are gaining speed and energy throughout the state. What began as a planning project has become an example to others in Vermont of how a community can come together and highlight all that it has to offer while providing a sustainable food market for its members.
Check out RAFFL’s website at www.rutlandfarmandfood.org.