By Evan Johnson
RUTLAND—Rutland’s farmer’s market started, Greg Cox said, “with four vendors and no customers.”
On Thursday morning, Jan. 19, after four years of steady growth fueled by local interest and volunteer work, Cox, the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) board president took the opportunity to show how far the center has come.
Cox’s audience was a group of nine Vermont senators from Senate committees on agriculture, and economic development, housing and general affairs.
The site visit was part of a round of visits to locations around the state. “This is a perfect place for both committees to see,” said Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who chairs the Senate committee on economic development. “There’s a lot going on here that could be replicated throughout the state.”
The presentation included a walk around the 2.93 acre property on West Street, starting in the 15,000-square-foot Farmers’ Hall that houses the winter farmers’ market, exhibition hall for agricultural events and symposiums and a learning kitchen. Rutland’s winter farmers’ market opened in 2007 with a handful of venders. In 2015, the market passed $2 million in sales. Today’s winter market occupies a space that had housed 19th century iron works. Small local food producers including Castleton Crackers, Hathaway Beef and others have had their beginnings in the space.
Visitors on Saturdays and Wednesdays wander among up to 100 venders, sampling everything from cheeses to spirits while shopping for fresh, local produce before having a seat in 1939 Santa Fe rail coach seats for lunch in the mezzanine overlooking the market floor below.
There’s also a Wednesday-evening bocce league on a court in front of the building. Cox said the markets have become a year-round gathering place for the community.
“The mayor is in here every week buying strawberries,” he said.
The VFFC has expanded to other initiatives as well. The VFFC’s Health Care Share, now in its second year, provides families and individuals who struggle with chronic health issues and food insecurity with access to local food. Patients are referred to the 12-week program by their doctors and receive a free farm share. Participants can take part in food-related demonstrations including cooking and nutrition classes.
“You can even shop with the chef at the farmer’s market,” Cox said. Last year, the program expanded to provide 125 free farm shares to local families and individuals.
Thursday’s tour also included some of the plans for the future. Behind the Farmers’ Hall, a food storage and aggregation building is planned. The structure will function as shared-use, climate-controlled food storage for new and local farmers; seed saving storage; and a distribution center for exporting regional agricultural products. In the neighboring blue warehouse that once housed a marble company, VFFC plans to construct meat cut rooms, dry and wet kitchens, office space and rentable storage. The building will be open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
VFFC is applying for a Rural Business Development Grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help with a planning and economic study of the area.
As a way of making kitchen space available to vendors who might not have access to commercial facilities, last year VFFC constructed a commercial kitchen with grant money. The kitchen will be available starting Feb. 1 at a rate of $10 per hour. Cox said they already have 36 hours per week reserved. The space will also be available around the clock.
Wrapping up, Cox attributed the success of the market to the work of the volunteers and companies that have donated, time, money and hours of work.
“We’re farmers, we know how to make do with whatever we have on hand,” he said.
Photo by Evan Johnson
Greg Cox explains VFFC projects to legislators.