The Mountain Times

°F Sun, April 20, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Our Neighbors Table: Rutland community seeks to grow 10 tons of produce for charity

A couple of years ago here in the village of Wells, folks came together and created our first local weekly food shelf. Our Neighbors Table was the unique name that they picked for it. I think it says a lot about the sense of community. Farmers Markets have been around Vermont for 35 years and they have changed a lot over those years. Today, they are everywhere, both large and small and now both summer and winter. Farmers Markets provide good, mostly organic locally grown/produced healthy, fresh foods. However, organically grown is more expensive to produce and higher prices have to be charged, than for conventionally grown foods. It's great to know that here in Vermont and especially in the Rutland area there is now a year around supply with the creation of winter markets.

We growers like to think all of our neighbors now have access to this bounty. The truth is not everyone can afford the cost of locally grown, as much as they might wish to. As a Farmers Market organization we realize this. We strive to create circumstances so that all of our community neighbors can sit at the same table. Larger Farmers Markets are now equipped to handle EBT, electronic food stamps. For years Rutland has offered the most "Farm to Family Food Coupons," from June to October of any county in the state. Yet, even for all of that, there were neighbors not sitting at our table. Hence, the reason for this story.

On a cold April morning in 2009, as I was going through my mail, there was this letter from the Rutland Women's Shelter. I thought it was strange they were writing to us. Upon opening it, there was one page explaining how they take in women and children from abusive home situations and house and feed them temporarily. Like most food pantries they offer mostly nonperishable foods. Their quest was for these folks, especially the kids, was to help them get much-needed fresh fruits and veggies. Could you farmers help us out? Could you grow one extra row just for us?

What a challenge. We farmers have some kind of a challenge almost every day. One extra row? And they only asked for one. That sounded pretty easy. The Vermont Farmers Market discussed this request and decided to do it. We knew we were good at growing but how about distribution and handling. Our next conversation was with RAFFL (The Rutland Area Farm and Food Link.) This miracle organization had been around a mere five years and was already doing great work bringing farmers and communities together. Tara Kelly, Exc. Director of RAFFL assured us they would set up a handling and distribution system. RAFFL also assured us there were many food pantries and senior centers that needed fresh produce as well. We farmers decided if we were only going to grow one extra row that it would have to be "the longest row ever grown in Rutland County, to be measured in miles, not feet. Hence, "The Longest Row Project" was born.

Vermont Farmers Market growers and others grew extra produce, some was 100% direct picked, other places were gleaned. RAFFL had an every Saturday, end-of-day pickup at the downtown Rutland Farmers Market. Thomas Dairy of Rutland donated free coolers for over the weekend storage and RAFFL was able to distribute to 26 food entities in Rutland County.

2009 saw 10,000 pounds of produce (5 tons) collected by November, a great start! Our goal for 2010 was 20,000 pounds and we almost made it. We tried again in 2011. However, the tragedy of Tropical Storm Irene greatly cut fall produce for that year. We did pretty well again in 2012, (somewhere around 15,000 pounds) but not good enough. With a lagging economy and food and fuel prices ever higher, we need a much greater effort in 2013.

It's time now when folks are thinking about planting for 2013 to consider getting involved. If you are Farmers Markets around the fringe of Rutland County (Brandon, Ludlow, Pawlet, Fair Haven, or Castleton) please contact RAFFL to find out how you can get involved. If you are an ambitious home gardener, we want to hear from you too. The goal is for all of our neighbors to be at the same table. Let's make it 20,000 pounds plus in 2013. RAFFL can be reached at 802-417-7331 or rutlandfarmandfood@gmail.com