• 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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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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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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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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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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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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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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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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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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  • 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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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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