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Rutland shows it’s support for local food with community support for the new facility

The Vermont Farmers Food Center plans to open at the Mintzer Lumber complex on West Street, Nov. 3; continued support needed

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington, "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." Surely he was talking about local, sustainable agriculture, the kind where produce passes directly from the farmer to the consumer. Today, commercial food production is in the hands of a few large corporations and small family farmers struggle to make ends meet.

Rutland and the rest of central Vermont have demonstrated a commitment to supporting farmers and fresh, local food.

Rutland has the largest and most successful year round farmer's market in the state, but more space, resources and education is necessary. Plans for Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFCC) on West Street grew out of this need and soon garnered widespread support from locals and other organizations.

Greg Cox and his wife Gay own Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland and Bill Clark runs Clark Farm with his wife Sarah in Wells, Vt. They are bringing many local farmers on board to support the center and are joined by current members of the Vermont Farmer's Market.

The goal for the center was always, first and foremost, to provide a place for the Winter Farmer's Market to exist permanently. The current home of the Winter Market is the old Strand Theater on Wales Street in Rutland. That lease is expiring soon and the theater is due for renovation. The market has also outgrown the space. It has been sold out almost every week since its creation.

When Cox and his collaborators began looking for anew location, it became evident that a simple indoor market site was not enough. Local producers needed an education and gathering place for farmers and consumers to learn about producing, cooking and preserving food. A large commercial kitchen would also help farmers process their raw ingredients into meals and products for consumers.

"A commercial kitchen will help local farmers compete with the big businesses that can freeze, process or package their raw materials. Without this resource, we are not as competitive or productive as we should be. This center will be a real economic engine for the area," Greg says. The producers also wanted a space that would serve as a backdrop for festivals and other farm and food related events.

Just about that time, The Rutland Community Cupboard started showing interest in moving to a larger space as well in order to meet rising need. And The Vermont FoodBank expressed interest in developing a Rutland location, something they had been thinking about for many years. Both could be a good fit for the center and partnerships with the VFFC were discussed.

Then, when these groups were together and brainstorming, a unique property surfaced that held tremendous potential and enough space to meet the growing needs and demands of all.

The numerous, large, blue buildings that line the railroad tracks in Rutland are not the city's most beautiful attributes. This is particularly true of the old Mintzer Lumber complex on West Street. There, acres of land are overgrown with weeds while the rotting structures get covered with graffiti. It is one of the city's most visible blighted properties and could only be described as an eyesore.

But when Cox, Clark and their supporters looked at it they saw something different. They saw an opportunity. They saw space in which they could help revitalize the Rutland economy by empowering consumers who have proven that they will support local food and crafts. Fortunately for them, they are not the only ones with vision.

Ed and Al Gartner are the former owners of the property and they have agreed to financing arrangements as well as delayed payments until after the winter market is successfully launched. "It feels really good. Ed and I really want this to work," said Alan Gartner in an article published by The Rutland Herald.

The City of Rutland itself also has a vested interest in rehabilitating such a property. The West Street location is one of the gateways to the downtown region and neighboring properties have recently been renovated.  A tax stabilization program is now being considered for groups that can improve some of Rutland's ailing properties.

After the VFFC purchased the property, the real work began.

With the help of many volunteers who believe in the project, the site has made tremendous advancements. The overgrown trees and weeds have been cut down and the trash that littered the acreage has been removed. Tons of metal, rotting wood, machinery, and various debris of every conceivable variety has been removed. Bathrooms are being updated and renovated.

One of the generous volunteers is Dennis Duhaime, who owns Radical Roots Farm with his wife Carol. Dennis is also a carpenter and he is in charge of making the neglected building comfortable for its new occupants. "It will be a huge benefit for the agricultural community of Rutland County, but that is not all. It will be a real asset for the whole community, both economically and socially," Dennis says. "It's going to have a huge impact. The project proves that Rutland is making some real headway in revitalizing itself, more so than a lot of communities."

Northeast Organic Farming Association sponsored the feasibility study and Cox says other grants may also come through. "Some grants and incentives are in the works, but we might not receive those funds for quite some time," he says. "So far we are operating almost entirely on private donations."

Because the VFFC is a non-profit organization in its infancy, they are relying almost entirely on the many charitable donations they have received so far. Project manager, David O'Rourke is in charge of making sure the building is ready for the first indoor farmer's market, which will be on November 3. He thanks Hubbard Company for donating dumpsters and says that they are just one example of the many local businesses and individuals who have promised time and materials.

"To date we have had 39 different volunteers that have donated 193 man hours. These volunteers have donated approximately $21,000 in services," O'Rourke reported. But there is still much to be done in the 13 weeks before opening day. Cox and O'Rourke estimate that almost $100,000 needs to be raised before the building can operate safely and legally. With the exuberant local support that Cox and company have experienced so far, it is not surprising that they are actually on target to reach the goal.
The future site of the Winter Farmer's Market and Vermont Farmers Food Center encourages volunteers to come and be a part of its transformation. Join in and help Sundays at 10 a.m. on 251 West Street in Rutland.

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Tagged: Vermont Farmers Market, Rutland