The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat
Written onMarch 01 , 2011
We usually think of “food” when we think of “farming,” but many agricultural crops are turned into products that humans can’t eat. Such products are manufactured throughout Vermont today using various crops and livestock, and are therefore, like food items, creating jobs for Vermonters, keeping farmland in active use, and leading our state toward greater self-sufficiency.
What follows is a series of articles about nine inedible farm products. It’s by no means a comprehensive survey (for example, we left out biofuels, which require an issue of their own), and there are numerous businesses in addition to the ones profiled here that are growing and manufacturing these items. We’re simply profiling one business per product in order to give you a taste—well, more like a picture—of the diversity in what Vermonters are making from the land.
— Caroline Abels
Flowers: Budding Personalities
Our farm business is built on three flowers. Peony is our spectacular crop, lilac is our demure, though somewhat cranky flower, and snowball viburnum is both prudish and troublesome but very lovely. The tendency of my spouse and I to personify our flowers seems to have crept in ever since we entered the business six years ago and launched Plainfield Flower Company. It doesn’t help that at least half of our peony varieties are named after people—“Sarah Bernhardt” and “Monsieur Jules Elie” for example. (My favorite name—though we do not grow this one ourselves—is the peony known as “Fat Concubine.”)
All together, we have approximately 40 acres of these three flowers, two of which were a legacy of the previous owner of our farm, Ed Pincus. (We added the peony ourselves.) We grow these particular flowers not only for their salability in wholesale markets beyond Vermont, but for their adaptability to the Vermont climate. All of our crops are known as “field-cut flowers,” meaning we do not grow greenhouse flowers, but we are able to use the harsh northern climate to our advantage: our flowers require a hard winter and so are not available in warm climates.
Working with the local conditions has been, historically, a successful strategy for this farm, but recently we have had a real taste of climate change, and we have already begun planning to sell off half of our lilac crop as nursery stock. For the last two years, an abnormally early spring—accompanied by a late frost—has ravaged our lilac. And according to Ed Pincus—who trained us and continues to give us excellent advice (a farm mentor is so important!)—this particular weather pattern is highly unusual.
As for most small farmers in Vermont, one of our biggest challenges is distribution. Because of the quantities of flowers we grow, we must ship the majority of them out of state; the local market is simply not big enough. But with the rising price of gas, our main shipping options keep inching toward unfeasibility. Like almost everyone else, we are constantly re-thinking our farm’s business model. We aim to sell a higher percentage of our flowers locally, to cut down on lilac, and expand our peony fields. And last summer—inspired by a vineyard in California that first tested this idea—we acquired a small herd of Old English Southdown sheep (considered a miniature breed) to help us with “mowing” around the lilac and viburnum. Their eating habits have helped us quite a bit.
And as a small piece of our new business strategy, we have invited a new variety of peony to the farm: “Ann Cousins” (a fragrant white peony). She will make her first appearance here in June.
—Erica Da Costa
More info: plainfieldflower.com
Beeswax: Natural Light
A man-made beehive sounds and looks like a buzzing filing cabinet: a rectangular box in which 10 evenly spaced, wood-framed screens made of wax or plastic are inserted like hanging folders. Using the screens as a base, a healthy bee colony will construct honeycombs made of thousands of hexagonal chambers for storing honey. When a bee fills a cell with its thick, golden sugar, it creates a thin cap of wax over the chamber that acts as a natural lid to keep in the honey.
To harvest the honey, beekeepers gently lift out each full honeycomb screen and use a warm knife to carefully shave off the wax caps and to expose the honey inside. The combs are then spun to extract the honey, and the caps are pressed to squeeze off any amber drops still clinging to them.
Those little wax caps are what beekeepers use to make beeswax for lip balms, hand salves, and, its most popular application, sweet-scented beeswax candles. Ignited by cotton or plant fiber wicks, beeswax candles burn longer and cleaner than common paraffin candles, which are made from a petroleum derivative.
Pedro Salas, owner of Bee Happy Vermont, is one of many Vermont beekeepers who nurture hives of bees to harvest their thickly sweet nectar and to turn the wax into luminaries. He got started 10 years ago when a local beekeeper was looking for help and Pedro was looking for a job.
“On my first day, we transported the hives from one location to another,” Pedro recalls. “I looked up, and the sky was filled with bees—like a snowstorm. I loved it, being outside working in nature.”
After learning the trade for several years, Pedro now keeps 44 hives in Starksboro, from which he gets most of his wax. Each July, he extracts the honey and wax from his hives, bottles the honey, and then heats and filters the wax three times to remove any debris.
Pedro then forms the wax into blocks and uses it throughout the year to make candles. Color is dictated by what type of pollen the bees have eaten; lighter yellow honey and wax come from sources like alfalfa and blueberry blossoms, while darker tones are produced from hives positioned near buckwheat. Additional filtering will also lighten wax to palettes of pale lemon or ivory.
Pedro, a Peruvian who worked as a mural artist in Guam before moving to the U.S., applied his creativity to candle making by studying how to design his own molds. His collection of more than 20 handmade rubber, plastic, and metal forms now includes slender pyramids, Thanksgiving turkeys, embracing lovers, intricate floral pillars, ears of corn, angels, and graceful tapers.
“Beeswax makes me very happy,” says Pedro, who sells his candles at farmers’ markets and small stores. “I’m like another bee working with the honey. Once I start making candles, I keep working for two, six, up to 10 hours—smelling the honey in the wax, chewing on the comb. I enjoy it.”
More info: beehappyvermont.com
Emu Oil: Fat is Good
Fifteen years ago, Ann Breen was an avid equestrian suffering from terrible back pain. She was researching natural pain relief options when she learned about the oil made from emu fat. She tried it, it worked, “and next thing her husband surprised her with a pair of emus for a birthday gift.”
That’s how Neshobe Farms in Brandon was born, and today, with roughly 100 emus, it’s one of a handful of Vermont farms raising emu for oil (and meat). So explains Barbara Stewart, the business manager for Vermont Prime Emu Producers, a consortium of emu farms selling their health and skin care products under one name.
In addition to the farm run by Ann and her husband, Peter, there’s Riverside Emus in Newbury, owned by Bud and Bunny Scott and their son, Larry, and his wife, Peggy Hewes. Two other emu farms were part of the consortium until recently, when their owners retired.
Emus—flightless birds related to the ostrich, but smaller—are native to Australia, where oil from the bird has been made for hundreds of years. But they’ve only been raised in the U.S. for a couple of decades. “They were a big rage 15 to 20 years ago,” Barbara explains. “Emu meat was going to be the next big thing.”
Indeed, the meat is lean and dark red, tasting like beef. But although Vermont Prime Emu Producers does sell meat, it’s with pure emu oil that the business has found its niche. Emus have a thick layer of fat on their back, separate from their meat (which is why the meat is so lean)—in fact, a bird usually carries 35 lbs. of meat and 20 lbs. of fat. So it makes economic sense to use the fat in some way.
When the fat is rendered, it offers anti-inflammatory benefits to people suffering from muscle or joint pain. The oil penetrates deeply into the skin without feeling greasy and without causing chemical side effects, Barbara notes. Emu oil is also highly moisturizing and can be used on burns, cuts, and wounds.
In addition to pure emu oil, Vermont Prime Emu Producers manufactures shampoo, bath salts, and soaps, as well as a moisturizer with added calendula and chamomile, and lip balms made with olive and almond oils. The products are made by “co-packers”—manufacturers already making a certain product who agree to manufacture the same product using Vermont Prime Emu Producers’ ingredients.
As for the emus? “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re friendly, but they’re docile,” Barbara says. “Ostrich are known to spit, but the emu are not aggressive. They’re also very curious creatures.”
A New England Coalition of Emu Farms was recently formed to unite regional producers of emu products. And Barbara says that Vermont Prime Emu Producers is always looking for more emu farms to join their fold.
More info: vtemu.com
Natural plant medicine grown from the soil cannot always be taken internally. Some herbs must be limited to topical use because if too much of them is ingested, health problems can occur. Applied topically, though, the results can bring untold relief.
Arnica, the bright-yellow, mountainside beauty, and Lobelia, the blue flower formally known as Gagroot, are two crops that herbalist Dana Woodruff of Montpelier has waxed up into a topical salve for sore muscles. Also known as the “Dandelioness,” Dana incorporates Arnica with Lobelia to create her Tigress Balm, an external herbal rub made to give muscles instant relief from aches and pains. Arnica aids in muscle and tissue repair, while Lobelia brings warmth and relaxation to the applied area. These healing properties make Dana shout, “Herbs work!”
Initially, she brought home Arnica from Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, a premier source for live and dried medicinal herbs. Today, she grows the Arnica and Lobelia on her community garden plot. The Tigress Balm also includes Vermont-grown St. John’s Wort, Dandelion Blossoms, and Dandelion Flower Essence—crops that grow abundantly here. A portion of the olive oil used in the balm comes from a reliable source in Palestine, and the shea butter is purchased fair-trade from Burkina Faso, Africa.
Dandelioness Herbals is rooted in the value of sharing Vermont’s crop abundance with the local and global community. Dana teaches workshops in the Montpelier area to make Global Citizens Salve, a topical-use-only salve made to cure wounds. It consists mainly of Vermont-grown Calendula and Yarrow. Each student makes enough salve to donate a portion of theirs to No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, a humanitarian aid organization that provides emergency first aid to people crossing the Arizona-Mexico border.
In many ways, Dana is like a dandelion herself: bubbly, friendly, outgoing, and wanting to help everyone she can during her day. She sees the dandelion as representing “resistance, resilience, persistence, and abundance.”
You can find Dandelioness Herbals’ healing formulas at the Local Agricultural Community Exchange (LACE) herbal apothecary on Main Street in Barre. They are also available through the Montpelier Commonshare. (Products are sold on a sliding scale, to make herbal healthcare more available to the masses.)
If you’re not in the Capitol area, you can visit Dana and read more about herbal activism at her website. You can also subscribe to her monthly e-mail list, Herbal & Community Health Update, which has information on workshops, events, and accessible health care in Vermont.
More info: dandelionessherbals.blogspot.com
Pet Food: Rawesome
Those of us who have four-legged, omnivorous family members can often be concerned that they’re getting the right kind of food for their dietary needs. And sometimes the right kind of food is the raw kind of food.
Lori Craigan and Shayne Jacquith’s introduction to the raw food diet for pets began in 2003, when they attended a talk on the subject given by Dr. Paul Alfarone of Bear Swamp Veterinary Service in Middlesex. The essence of his philosophy is that pets should consume what they evolved eating, but that their dietary needs may shift from time to time. This made sense to Lori and Shayne, who weren’t quite convinced that processed dry and canned food was nutritionally optimal for their then-4-year-old dog, Ty, who wasn’t a big fan of kibble anyway. When they discovered in 2005 that Ty had cancer, they began feeding him a completely raw diet—and the good news is that Ty will be 12 years old this fall!
“As health conscious individuals who try to support the local food economy, we thought it would be great to try to develop a non-processed and locally supplied food for our dog,” Lori says. “There are many preventable illnesses that have developed in our pets that can be avoided with a diet that avoids processed foods that contain mostly grain and byproducts.”
Lori and Shayne launched Vermont Raw Pet Food in 2005. They met their future business partners, Jennifer and Marc Hammond (and their dogs Tex and Juneau) two years later in Fayston, after some friends informed Lori and Shayne that Jen and Marc “are raw pet food nuts, too.”
Today, Vermont Raw manufactures non-processed, raw pet foods made from locally sourced ingredients. Depending on the recipe, Vermont Raw contains 70–100 percent local ingredients that are available in one-, two-, and five-pound frozen tubes. The two plain meat varieties are Chicken and Turkey, with the meat (including bones and organ meat) coming from Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven. The two fruit and veggie varieties are made with either chicken or turkey, plus the addition of kale, sweet potatoes, celery, carrots, apples, pears, eggs, kelp, alfalfa, salmon oil, and vitamin C.
According to Lori, “The apples and eggs are always local [and] we try to source the rest locally, as well. A recent switch from oranges to pears and sweet potatoes has resulted in increased use of local products.” She also adds, “All four recipes are suitable for dogs that are omnivorous. The plain meat recipes are ideal for cats that are more carnivorous and very particular about what they eat.”
Vermont Raw’s production facility is located in the Irasville Business Park in Waitsfield, a small business incubator project. At the moment, the company’s products are available primarily in central Vermont and South Burlington, but distribution will soon be expanded to southern Vermont and neighboring states.
The friends who met four years ago (and bonded over talk of their dogs) still own and manage Vermont Raw. Like many entrepreneurs just starting out, each maintains a full-time job outside the company. “Between the four of us we put about 60 hours per week into the business,” Lori says. “Of course, as with any small business, sometimes it can be more and sometimes it’s less. We simply do what needs to be done!”
More info: vermontrawpetfood.com
Goat’s Milk: Not just forcheese making
What do luxurious shampoos, silky soaps, and goats have in common? For Peter and Bunny Merrill, owners of Elmore Mountain Farm in Morrisville, quite a lot. The couple began to craft an array of handmade bath and body products using goat’s milk in 2006. They had started experimenting with the rich milk from their two goats by first making soap and cheese. “Our chevre cheese was unremarkable—think wallpaper,” Peter says. “But people loved our soap.”
They began to give the soap away to family and friends, and then sold it in a few local stores. The soaps, which the couple made in their kitchen and cured in their garage, grew in popularity. Soon Peter was loading up his truck for sales trips, seeing how many stores he could visit within one or two days. “Two years ago we renovated space in our barn and moved the business there,” Peter says. “What used to be a part-time hobby for my wife is now more than full-time for both of us.”
In addition to soap, Elmore Mountain Farm also produces shampoo, bubble bath, body oil, lotion, face cream and a variety of balms for fingers, lips, feet and hands. “Some people think we put goat’s milk into all of our products,” Peter continues. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be wild about a goat’s milk-based lip balm!” In reality, the farm’s soaps and lotions are the only products that contain goat’s milk.
All of the products are made on the farm, however, and the goat’s milk soaps and lotions use milk from the farm’s “working girls,” Clarise, Helen, and Lucy. They’re Oberhasli and Oberhasli/Alpine crosses. (According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, there are 13,500 milk goats in New England, although the data does not reflect how many of those goats produce milk used strictly in body products.) From just three goats, Elmore Mountain Farm makes approximately 25,000 bars of soap in a year.
As Elmore Mountain Farm continues to grow, Peter says it’s important that the farm does not lose its down-to-earth image. “Despite the fact that we still have no real sales effort to speak of, the business continues to grow, and our products are now available in stores throughout New England and beyond.”
Still, the couple believes the business has probably gone as far as it can under the current configuration, and they’ve recently begun thinking about expanding both the product space and staffing, including hiring someone to handle distribution. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” Peter says. “We’d like to be able to continue to grow without losing the ‘farm-based’ feel of the business that we enjoy so much.”
—Joy Perrino Choquette
More info: elmoremountainfarm.com
Whey: From Waste to Wood
The term “milk paint” has an entirely different meaning when one looks at what Vermont Natural Coatings has done with recycled whey protein.
While traditional milk paint—water-based paint made with milk and lime—has been used for centuries, its uses are somewhat limited. And while oil-based commercial wood stains and varnishes remain a popular choice for furniture finishing, these typically contain chemical ingredients such as formaldehyde, plastics, and polyester resins. Whey, however, is a natural byproduct of cheese making—the liquid that remains after cheese has been curdled.
It was an interest in whey as a possible ingredient in woodworking products that led Andrew Meyer, now president of Vermont Natural Coatings (VNC), to work with a team of researchers at the University of Vermont. In 2001, a Vermont-based economic diversification project led to the invention of the trademarked product PolyWhey under the leadership of UVM’s Dr. Mingruo Gua, co-inventor of the product. “VNC took the concept from the labs at UVM and perfected the formulations by working directly with Vermont furniture makers and woodworkers,” Andrew says.
Seven years later, the Hardwick-based VNC began selling its whey-based wood finishes to Willey’s General Store in Greensboro. Since that time, the company’s dealer network has grown to more than 200 locations in 36 states, and VNC employs six at its Hardwick facility. Because cheese makers in Vermont don’t have the expensive equipment necessary to filter their whey to the high-protein specifications required by VNC, the company currently sources its whey from a dairy company in Pennsylvania. However, VNC is working on a pilot plant that could filter whey from small, local cheese makers and is talking to Cabot Creamery about possibly installing filtering equipment at the creamery that would filter Cabot’s whey.
“We are a small company with a big mission,” says Andrew, who also owns Vermont Soy in Hardwick. “If more people knew we were available as an alternative to chemically based products, we could make a bigger difference in the market and make homes healthier while improving the lives of our customers.”
In addition to the PolyWhey Natural Floor and Furniture finishes and nontoxic wood cleaners, VNC offers Concentrated Tints, a series of wood-tone colors for staining interior wood surfaces with zero Volatile Organic Compound and no flash point.
Andrew calls VNC products “a new generation of water- based wood finishes.” He says that the technology the company has utilized has created a product that feels and works much more like traditional oil than the water-based wood products of the past.
“Keep it local” is a popular tagline in the food industry today in Vermont. To Andrew, along with many other Vermont-based business owners, the phrase is equally fitting for their commitment to keeping their businesses and employees stationed here in the Green Mountain State. “As we develop more products in 2011,” Andrew says, “we’ll continue to manufacture premium coatings in Hardwick by looking to our agricultural roots to seek better, cleaner, safer methods and material.”
—Joy Perrino Choquette
More info: vermontnaturalcoatings.com
Touching noses with an alpaca is an unforgettable experience. Their long eyelashes, deep brown eyes, and warm, fuzzy nose are a unique combination to take in all at once. On a very cold January day I found myself nose-to-nose with one at the Vermont Alpaca Company farm in South Strafford. Owners and farmers Brian and Bethany Cole have been raising top-quality alpacas for fiber and breeding stock for the past six years.
“I learned about alpacas from the internet,” says Brian, who grew up raising chickens and pigs but had only thought of alpacas as “interesting.”
Alpacas are members of the camelid family, along with camels and llamas, and produce fine fiber. Their wool has a hollow core and is an extremely efficient insulator. According to the Alpaca Breeders of Vermont, there are 29 alpaca farms in their association and alpaca yarn is growing in popularity.
The Coles raise Huacaya alpacas, the fluffier of the two alpaca breeds, and presently have 49 of them on their 55-acre farm. The animals are shorn each year in the spring by professional shearers who are booked well in advance.
Processing the wool, however, is a challenge. Wool production once fueled the Vermont economy, but today the number of processing facilities has waned significantly. This means that alpaca and sheep wool producers can wait as long as four to six months before seeing a finished product.
The Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney is the only spinnery of its kind in Vermont. The Spinnery produces approximately 11,000 pounds of processed fiber per year and works directly with more than 50 New England farms for custom processing. Farmers can sell their raw fiber to the Spinnery or have it processed for their own use.
All fiber is sorted by hand and evaluated for quality before being scoured to remove dirt and to break down the fleece’s oils (called lanolin). In the next phase the wool is ready for picking, during which fibers are blended in order to make a specific yarn. (The Spinnery uses 50 percent fine wool and 50 percent alpaca fiber to make its Alpaca Elegance.) The fibers are then carded on large machines dating back to the early 1900s and blended into pencil rovings. These are then twisted in the spinning process to make yarn. Finishing the product involves steaming, and for some yarns, like Alpaca Elegance, hand washing again to maintain softness.
Aside from making an array of beautiful yarns, the Green Mountain Spinnery has designed dozens of patterns, marrying art with agriculture, and encourages people to learn the craft of knitting through their workshops and retreats. Similar to slow food, garments made by hand have created a “slow clothes” movement and are causing people to look more deeply into their closets to start asking: Do I know my fiber source?
Behind the counter at the Green Mountain Spinnery’s store there’s a sticker that sums it up quite nicely: Knit Local.
More info: vermontalpacaco.com
Wood: Forest Finery
What good is local food if it’s chopped, sliced, and diced on imported cutting boards from China, eaten with utensils purchased at Pottery Barn, or rolled with a rolling pin that rolled out of a faraway factory? Is that truly eating local?
Maybe it’s a bit much to suggest that Vermont food should be prepared and eaten with Vermont-made cutlery and kitchen tools, but it sure adds to the localvore experience. And if we use cooking implements made with one of Vermont’s most significant crops—wood—we can support two of Vermont’s most significant industries: farming and forestry.
At the Vermont Butcher Block and Board Company, 30 percent of the products are made with Vermont-grown wood—mostly the cutting boards and knife blocks. David Glickman, owner and president of the kitchenware company, says a number of customers request that their purchases be made with local woods such as cherry, bird’s-eye maple, and tiger maple.
Even so, it’s impossible for David to source all of his wood locally—he has to turn to Georgia, South Carolina, Costa Rica, and countries in Africa for the wood that’s necessary to make all the products in the company’s Williston factory.
“Some of it has to do with availability, because some woods don’t grow here,” David explains. “Some woods we’ll never get from Vermont, like walnut.”
Still, the Vermont forestry community is trying to strengthen the connections between forest owners and wood-product manufacturers—all the artists and entrepreneurs who turn wood into furniture, toys, sculptures, flooring, cabinets, bird houses, canoe paddles, and much more. Four forestry consulting firms in Vermont recently launched The Forest Partnership, which will aggregate wood supply from Vermont’s numerous small forest parcels in order to make it easier for manufacturers and craftspeople to buy local wood.
Ben Machin of Redstart Forestry and Consulting in Corinth, one of the firms, says the effort is similar to getting food from numerous small farms to one central place. “We won’t own a facility, but we’ll make it happen through coordination among existing players in the market,” he adds.
Nearly 80 percent of Vermont is covered by forests—sugar maple, red maple, and hemlock are the most prevalent species by volume—and of that land, roughly 80 percent is owned by individuals, according to a 2007 report by the North East State Foresters Association. (The government owns 19 percent of Vermont forests; businesses own 1 percent.) Forest-based manufacturing accounts for 16 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Vermont, excluding logging. (There are estimated to be 700 to 800 loggers in the state.)
Loggers, mill workers, and wood-product manufacturers may be dependent on forests, but no brief survey of Vermont wood products would be complete without mentioning Christmas trees. On Christmas tree farms, conifers are planted years in advance for eventual sale in cities such as Boston and New York, or for sale to Vermonters here.
Yet not all Vermonters rely on tree farms for their holiday boughs: each December, the Green Mountain National Forest sells popular $5 permits that allow individuals to cut down a tree in designated places in the Green Mountains.
More info: vermontbutcherblock.com