Jim Kenyon: Norwich farm backers are milking it

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/27/2021 10:10:51 PM
Modified: 3/27/2021 10:10:49 PM

‘Norwich Farm is the last remaining dairy farm in Norwich. Our fear is that the dairy, agricultural and educational heritage in our community will be lost forever.”

That’s according to the Norwich Farm Foundation website. Indeed, the folks leading the “Save Norwich Farm!” campaign know how to tug on heartstrings.

But can they loosen people’s purse strings?

It’s an open question, especially since calling the property on Turnpike Road a “dairy farm” is a stretch. The cows left nearly four years ago. The property’s footprint has been whittled down to 6 acres, leaving little room for cows to graze and to grow feed.

Then there’s the matter of manure. Or more precisely, where to store it in such limited confines and with a nearby stream raising environmental concerns.

But the nonprofit Norwich Farm Foundation, which was launched last year, presses on. In February, it offered to buy Norwich Farm and an adjacent dwelling for $610,000. It’s no surprise that Vermont Technical College, the properties’ owner, rejected the offer. The town has assessed the properties for $1.7 million.

“It’s not responsible for us to sell this at less than fair market value,” Vermont Tech President Patricia Moulton testified during a state Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on March 18.

That’s not to say Vermont Tech isn’t a motivated seller. The school is part of the Vermont State Colleges System, which was struggling financially even before the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on enrollment.

The sooner that Vermont Tech, which is facing a multimillion-dollar deficit, can unload its Norwich properties, the better.

Andy Sigler, a prominent Dartmouth alum and retired Fortune 500 CEO, gave Norwich Farm to Vermont Tech in 2015. After moving to Norwich in 1996, Sigler sunk a ton of money into what was an aging family farm before he bought it.

Sigler’s gift to Vermont Tech included an adjoining 350 acres, some of which was farm land. With Sigler’s blessing, the college sold the land to the Upper Valley Land Trust for $300,000.

Vermont Tech’s plan to use the farm as something of a laboratory for its agriculture students quickly turned into a failed — and costly — experiment.

Within two years, most of the cows and students were gone. I can’t speak for the cows, but Vermont Tech students never warmed to living on a country road, 30 miles from the school’s main campus in Randolph.

About all that remained of the endeavor was a modern creamery that Vermont Tech built with the help of a $500,000 federal grant. In 2016, the college formed a public-private partnership with Chris Gray and Laura Brown, a couple with experience in running a creamery.

A five-year agreement with the college had them overseeing a dozen students in the farm’s “dairy lab” and paying $500 a month to live in the farmhouse. The couple also established Norwich Farm Creamery, which makes cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

In March 2018, Vermont Tech notified Gray and Brown that it wouldn’t be renewing the agreement. It expires in June.

Although students no longer live at Norwich Farm, Vermont Tech continues to spend $70,000 annually on upkeep, which means Vermont taxpayers are “subsidizing the operation,” Moulton told lawmakers.

The school intends to move the creamery equipment to Randolph Center, where “we have an (85-cow) dairy farm within walking distance for students,” Moulton said.

With no cows on site, Gray and Brown truck in milk from Billings Farm in Woodstock to make their products. Last week, Gray politely declined my interview request. In my previous dealings with Gray and Brown, they came across as hard-working and passionate about the business they started from scratch.

Which makes me wonder if the Norwich Farm Foundation’s efforts are little more than a rescue plan for a small back-to-the-land business that some residents have romanticized. Judging from the refrigerated aisles in Upper Valley grocery stores, I don’t think we’re facing a yogurt shortage anytime soon.

Foundation President Kate Barlow, who lives a mile down the road from Norwich Farm, told me her group is “looking to preserve the past, but we’re also looking at it for future generations. Our hope is the farm will be here long after we’re gone.”

The foundation’s sustainability plan hinges on Upper Valley Land Trust allowing its adjacent 65 acres of fields to be used for grazing and growing feed for up to 20 cows. So far, the land trust hasn’t indicated that it’s interested in partnering with the foundation.

I’ve heard fears that if Vermont Tech doesn’t sell to the foundation, the property could be developed into ritzy housing. In talks with potential buyers, “no one has even mentioned tearing down the farm buildings and subdividing the property,” said Cam Brown, a longtime Norwich resident who is the college’s real estate agent.

The adjacent three-bedroom house, which Vermont Tech turned into a dorm, is under contract for an undisclosed amount. (The listing price was $465,000.)

The foundation still hopes to get Vermont Tech to the bargaining table, the group’s treasurer, Omer Trajman, told me. It’s nearing $200,000 in pledges and is also looking into private financing, but needs to know what Vermont Tech will accept for an offer before it can ratchet up its fundraising, Barlow said.

The college is asking $1.25 million, which shouldn’t hinder the “Save Norwich Farm!” group. It’s playing to the right audience in the right town.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually 2006) that the “Save the Entrance to Norwich” committee raised $325,000 in three months to buy a vacant lot that town officials had deemed a “scenic resource.”

But Simpson Development, the lot’s owner, wouldn’t sell. Despite the hand-wringing by deep-pocketed residents, the brick townhomes that Simpson built on Main Street hardly turned out to be a blight on the landscape.

Something to remember before trying to save a dairy farm with no cows.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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