All this week VPR is focused on how important the food industry has become to the state’s economic development initiatives.
In Rutland, organizers of the city’s newly expanded winter farmers’ market say they’re thrilled with the community support they’ve gotten. The larger location has boosted attendance and sales for participating vendors.
But many believe the winter market is just the beginning of a new wave of food and farm related economic development for the region.
Greg Cox, a farmer and one of the lead organizers of Rutland’s winter farmer’s market spoke in front of a small crowd on a recent Saturday. "Good afternoon folks – welcome to the Vermont Farmer’s food Center and the Vermont Farmer’s Market. Today we have a little celebration," said Cox. "Whitney Lamy" from Castleton Crackers, as you all know, has developed quite a business over the years. She started at the winter farmer’s market and has been growing ever since."
For vendors at the farmer’s market, Whitney Lamy’s success is the stuff of legend.
She explains how she began her company in her Castleton kitchen in 2008. "I started this just in my four-burner gas oven with two racks and a couple of cookie sheets," says Lamy.
Since then she’s watched her sales grow by 30 percent a year.
"You know a farmers market is the ideal marketing situation," says Lamy. "You go every week, you get to get first hand feedback from customers tasting your product. Is the price point right? How does the flavor sit with customers, are you getting repeat customers." Lamy says, " To me there’s no better marketing resource."
Middlebury Maple, Ruland Rye and Lamy’s other cracker varieties are now sold coast to coast and will soon be available in Australia. And Lamy’s not the only one benefiting.
As she outgrew her four burner oven at home, she tried using a number of commercial kitchens instate and out. She says she was thrilled to find a commercial bakery not far from her Castleton home that could meet all her growing needs.
Norman Levitz co-owns Aardbark Inc – a Manchester-bakery and co-packing facility that now makes Castleton Crackers. He says, "It helped our business in terms of providing additional cash flow. We were able to employ more people and also bring some of the people we had from a part time to a full time status."
Levitz smiles as he watches about eight of his staff bake and package crackers. "Her business is growing very well," he says, "and it’s keeping us really busy."
With production under control, Lamy says she began looking at companies she could collaborate with on other specialty foods. She says the Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company, based in Woodstock, seemed like a natural fit. Just this month, the two year old artisan cheese company announced it was buying Castleton Crackers.
Whitney Lamy wouldn’t say for how much but says she’ll head up the company’s new Castleton Foods Division. Her crackers will still be made in Manchester and Lamy says she’ll continue to use area farmers markets to test new products.
Back at the Vermont Farmer’s Market in Rutland, Ana DiTursi sells hand made empanadas. Like Lamy, DiTursi also launched a successful business at the farmer’s market. The Argentina native founded Ana’s Empanadas five years ago and now sells her savory pastries in several locations, including a new restaurant in Killington.
"My recipes are my mom’s recipes," says DiTursi. "Buenos Aires beef, gaucho chicken. I learned empanadas when I was four."
DiTursi says she uses as many local ingrediants as possible to benefit Rutland county farmers. She estimates her company has sold about 100,000 of the hand made pastries this year.
Not far from Ana’s Empanadas, Carol Tashie, of Radical Roots Farm watches people walk past her farm stand. "This farmer’s market is a really great example of how food really can be an economic driver especially in Rutland city."
Tashie says being able to sell year-round at the market is a huge plus for local farmers, many of whom, she says, used to have to get non-farming jobs in the winter. And with attendance up so much at the new location, she and other vendors say sales are way up, too.
Farmer and market organizer Greg Cox agrees. He stands behind a colorful assortment of rutabagas, beets and carrots and smiles as he makes another sale.
Cox says in the summer, when the farmer’s market moves to its outdoor location a few blocks away, the indoor space will host a variety of agricultural events. "So we’ll have garlic festivals, wine and cheese, wool and fiber, wood symposiums." Cox says "We want to highlight everything Vermont has to offer in agriculture."
And he says those events will bring in business for area shops, restaurants and hotels.
Cox says they still have a lot of fund raising to do for a planned commercial kitchen next door, but he’s optimistic that will be up and running in two to three years and provide even more support for start up food businesses.
Meanwhile a local developer is working on plans to renovate a ten-acre parcel of land across the street from the market. Chris Fucci says his firm is in talks with two food manufacturing companies and a possible brew pub for the space.
At the same time, he says his partners are assisting the nonprofit farmer’s market with business and fundraising expertise. "Our goal," says Fucci, "is to make them as strong as possible in order to facilitate more traffic in this section of the city which until recently has been a blighted area and we hope to reclaim it and make Rutland better.
Visit the Rutland winter farmers’ market Website here.