Farm group marks 3 years

By Dan Colton  |  Correspondent.

Things are about to change at the Vermont Farmers Food Center.

A long-discussed local food aggregation center at the West Street property is expected to be up and running by 2018, organizers said Sunday.

The VFFC hosted a party to celebrate its third anniversary Sunday. Using local farm food and live music to entice attendees, Greg Cox, VFFC’s president, said the organization has come a long way since it was first established.

Laying out the VFFC’s future, he said the organization’s mission has remained the same — to provide an efficient way to promote agriculture, creating an “engine” to drive the local economy, Cox said.

Designs and ideas have been added piecemeal over the years, Cox said, and now, the final product is ready to take shape.

Community leaders behind the plans to overhaul the 2.93-acre West Street lot were on hand to explain their progress. The big Farmers Hall building was open to the summer air, with about 50 people listening in and munching on burgers and watermelon.

Addressing the crowd, Cox said his team of engineers and architects are designing an aggregation facility where farmers can rent storage space to reduce their infrastructure and energy costs. There are other plans to build an industrial kitchen, where food producers can work directly with the farmers on site. And he said he wants to see the farmers market continue to grow.

To complete the upgrades, the location’s current buildings would be refurbished and utilized, Cox said.

The lineup of speakers included a civil engineer, an architect and an agriculture engineer, each taking a few minutes to explain their pro bono role to transform the dilapidated buildings into a center of food and agriculture economy.

Kevin Smith, a contractor who ran the initial survey of the old buildings on the property, said some of them were constructed more than a hundred years ago.

Some structures Smith deemed valuable, and other structures unnecessary, including an addition shed on the property’s north side where road contractors currently rent parking space for equipment.

The shed was the location of an apparent joy ride and vandalism Friday night, Cox said. A contractor’s paint truck was hijacked late in the night, he said, driven through the side of the shed and abandoned in a parking lot across the street.

“Lucky we don’t need it,” Cox said of the shed.

Rutland police were not available to comment on the vandalism report Sunday.

Blair Enman, a civil engineer working with the VFFC project, said his work at the VFFC is done behind the scenes, dealing with issues like underground water pipes. Another major task for Enman is to ensure smooth regulatory sailing. Not having to file an Act 250 permit makes the case much easier to handle, he said.

Because Enman and his family have shopped at the Rutland farmers market for years, he said donating his service to the VFFC extended his support for local agriculture.

Chris Callahan is an engineer who doesn’t shop in Rutland, but he said he wants to see the VFFC model work for a very specific reason. Callahan is an agriculture engineer with the University of Vermont, focusing on energy-efficient crop storage. He said current plans to build rentable storage facilities will equip the VFFC with capacity to store 200 tons of crops.

Cox said the organization is on the lookout for input on what else the community could use.

“We’ve been asking, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’” Cox said. “This will allow them (the farmers) to access efficiencies to help them grow their business.”

It would revitalize the local food movement in Rutland, said Cox, with the potential to reopen trade routes moving Rutland crops to New York City and Boston.

Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, said he agreed.

“This is a great attribute for Rutland City,” Cupoli said. “This is going to be a great contribution to the community.”

The VFFC is behind Rutland’s winter farmers market, and a partner organization in the summer market. Cox reported the organization is about $500,000 in debt, but said the upcoming upgrades would make the organization self-sustainable.

An official VFFC campaign will be launched in August to raise remaining funds, Cox said.