You may not be aware of the innovative and transformative agricultural work happening in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. But if you understand the importance of supporting local agriculture and food systems, you’ll want to cheer on the Center for an Agricultural Economy.
The organization is based in Hardwick, but its programs and services reach across most of Vermont.
Established in 2004 as a nonprofit organization, Center for an Agricultural Economy has more than 30 dedicated staff. Its visionary founders saw the need and potential in this rural, poverty-prone, agriculture-dependent area for an equitable food and agricultural economy that creates empowered, interdependent communities that are socially and economically thriving, and contribute to a vital ecological future.
Visionary, yes; but also very savvy about being practical. Through fostering connections, partnerships, support infrastructure and outreach programs, the Center for an Agricultural Economy is a living laboratory for a working, interdependent rural food system. Tapping into a range of funding sources, they are able to go far beyond what individual producers, processors, distributors or consumers on their own can in terms of taking risks, initiating change and forming partnerships. And they make sure those producers, processors, distributors and consumers (their stakeholders) have voice and agency within the evolving new food system.
What does that look like?
First, there are some physical facilities in Hardwick:
- Farm Connex is the base of operations for working with farmers and producers who make and sell local food, and with institutions, stores, markets and partners who distribute, sell, and use those products. This warehouse is essential for consolidation and sorting of products which are then distributed to partners throughout much of Vermont and into New Hampshire, via Farm Connex’ extensive delivery service routes.
- Vermont Food Venture Center is a specialized facility where the Center for an Agricultural Economy provides space, equipment and advice for local clients to develop and produce their value-added products.
- Atkins Field is 15 open and wooded acres stewarded by the Center for an Agricultural Economy, offering versatile public space with not only an historic 350-foot granite shed, but community gardens, beehives, community orchard, covered pavilion for community gatherings and events, including regular farmers’ markets, a bicycle pump track and a network of walking trails.
These facilities undergird a wide range of simple but impactful Center for an Agricultural Economy programs. Some of them you may have heard of and supported. They include:
- Just Cut, which for the last 8 years has connected farmers who grow vegetables with institutions that buy, cook and serve those vegetables. Center for an Agricultural Economy purchases, inspects, washes, prepares and delivers Vermont-grown produce to institutional kitchens both large and small. By partnering with local farmers, food buyers across New England, and a regional delivery network, Center for an Agricultural Economy helps ensure the viability of working landscapes and increases access to high-quality produce to a range of markets. Last year, despite the challenges of COVID, Just Cut processed almost 155,000 pounds of produce purchased from 19 farms in the region, and sold it to 20 nearby institutions.
- Vermont Food Venture Center has been helping food businesses grow since 2012, and is a hub for food processing and innovation. Food businesses can rent product storage space and the Center’s commercial kitchens to test or scale up their business before investing in costly equipment and a dedicated production space. Center for an Agricultural Economy also offers business planning, technical assistance, and food safety training.
- Farm Connex Cross Docking and Delivery Service has proven so helpful to distribution that next year it will move to expanded facilities with more warehouse space and multiple loading docks. Working with Deep Root Organic Co-op last year, almost 40,000 lbs. of vegetables were moved from farms to the Center for an Agricultural Economy warehouse, where other distributors picked them up to go to large accounts across the state. This arrangement, known as “cross docking”, allows farms and other Center for an Agricultural Economy partners to share infrastructure, making the most of Center for an Agricultural Economy’s space and distribution routes, which saves miles, fuel and time. Center for an Agricultural Economy works with other Food Hubs in Vermont, as well, picking up from them on behalf of other distributors, providing a crucial link in the system. Farm Connex provides small farms and food businesses with reliable freight service, as well as help to scale up and grow production and access to more local markets.
- Vermont Farm Fund is a nonprofit revolving loan fund for local farmers and food producers. Established in 2011 in collaboration with Pete’s Greens, the farm fund is now valued at over $1 million. By August 2023 (after more than $255,000 in flood relief and recovery assistance this summer) total loans had exceeded $3 million. Literally a revolving fund, as the recipients pay back their low- or no-interest loans, funds are replenished for the next cycle of borrowers. A new producer loan category has been added in response to increasing demand from farmers who need capital to start up new enterprises.
- Farm and food business advising and technical assistance is available to help farmers and food businesses operators assess and manage their complicated systems by offering a friendly outside perspective and access to a variety assistance programs available in the state.
- Community programs designed and led together with Center for an Agricultural Economy partners and neighbors, feature ingredients known to nourish vibrant communities: collaboration, listening, creativity, learning, solidarity and love.
The $3 million annual budget for all this life- and livelihood-enhancing work is supported primarily through grants (approximately 34 percent), contributions (approximately 26 percent) and delivery and rental fees (approximately 30 percent).
Now that you’ve learned about the Center for an Agricultural Economy, you may find you like what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and can see that it’s good for not only the Northeast Kingdom but the rest of us, too. It is a beautiful example of how we are stronger together through collaboration and teamwork.
If you support their vision of a place-based agricultural economy which builds a healthy, regenerative food system by promoting local foods and the people who produce them in a whole-system approach, let them know. They welcome both donations and comments at hardwickagriculture.org/support. And think about how we might creatively apply what they are learning to Charlotte’s agricultural economy.