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Jim Kenyon: Until the Cows Come Home

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

“Bring the Cows Back!” That’s the new rallying cry found on stickers and signs in Norwich. With a ukulele-playing musician strumming in the background, schoolchildren chanted the slogan outside Tracy Hall before Wednesday’s Selectboard meeting. There’s even an online petition drive.

I haven’t seen Norwich residents this worked up (except to oppose affordable housing) since the Free Tibet movement. Their intentions are good. All of Vermont could use a more robust dairy industry.

But the focus seems misplaced.

With people waxing on about how much they enjoy seeing cows dot the landscape, I can’t figure out whether folks in this richest of rich Vermont towns want a working farm or a petting zoo.

For whatever reasons, they’re up in arms about what’s happening on Turnpike Road at Norwich Farms, which has been described as the Mercedes-Benz of dairy farms, but hasn’t had cows for a year. In particular, residents are worried the farm’s tenants — a couple who opened a private creamery there in 2016 with the help of federal and state tax dollars — could be forced out.

Some background:

Andy Sigler, a Dartmouth grad and retired CEO of paper-maker Champion International, and his wife, Peg, started Norwich Farms under the auspices of a charitable foundation in the 1990s. The state-of-the-art dairy operation became a farming laboratory for agriculture students from the University of New Hampshire and Vermont Technical College.

In 2015, the Siglers, now in their 80s, literally gave away the farm to VTC. The 350-plus acres, barns and restored farmhouse had an assessed value of nearly $2.5 million.

But VTC, like Vermont’s other state colleges, is vastly underfunded and has been financially strapped for years.

Enter the Upper Valley Land Trust. The nonprofit organization agreed to buy about 350 adjoining acres, which was largely woods, for $300,000. The conserved land was opened to the public for nature walks and hiking.

VTC kept the barns, farmhouse and about six acres. The college planned for a dozen students to live at the farm — using some of the money from the land sale to renovate an old building into a dormitory — to get hands-on experience. A farmer was recruited to manage the herd.

He didn’t stay long. VTC then turned to a young Norwich farmer, Josh Swift, who built a herd of 80 dairy cows. In 2016, VTC entered into a public-private partnership with Chris Gray and Laura Brown, a couple from West Pawlet, Vt., with experience in running a creamery.

They moved into the farmhouse and started Norwich Farm Creamery. They built and equipped a modern creamery adjacent to the main barn. The couple put in some of their own money, but the bulk of the $650,000 project was covered by a federal grant and state tax dollars.

The business plan called for Swift to sell milk to Gray and Brown, who would use it to make their cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

But the relationship between the farmer, the creamery couple and VTC quickly soured. Last spring, VTC bought out Swift, and he left, taking his cows with him. Gray and Brown started buying milk from an out-of-town farm.

VTC also gave up on its idea of students residing and working on the farm. VTC President Patricia Moulton, who became president in September 2016, told me that having students 45 minutes from the main campus in Randolph wasn’t practical. Students who played sports, participated in clubs or wanted to take elective classes were less than enthused about living in Norwich for a semester.

Only six students signed up.

Plus, VTC already has a farm across from its Randolph campus. “Having two farms isn’t economically feasible,” Moulton said.

It was recently announced that VTC plans to sell the farm to the Upper Valley Land Trust. Since 2015, the Land Trust has had an option to purchase the property, if VTC ever ceased operations of the farm for “on-site agricultural education.”

The selling price: $50,000.

Quite a bargain, considering the property is assessed for $1.7 million. But that was the deal that VTC and its bosses in the Vermont State Colleges system made. Before Moulton came onboard, I might add.

Meanwhile, Gray and Brown have their own sweetheart deal with VTC. Their five-year lease, signed in 2016, requires them to pay $500 a month in rent for the creamery building and farmhouse. It also calls for the couple to mentor students and oversee the dorm.

Except there are no longer any students.

The Upper Valley Land Trust — after looking at VTC’s financial information — figures it would have to spend about $100,000 a year to keep the farm running the way it is.

Money the small nonprofit doesn’t have.

The Land Trust talked with Gray and Brown about raising the rent. They say they can’t afford the $2,500 to $5,000 a month that the Land Trust is asking. According to information handed out before Wednesday’s Selectboard meeting, the couple has already invested $200,000 in the creamery.

Since the Selectboard doesn’t have a dog — or more aptly, a cow — in this fight, I’m not sure why “Save Norwich Farm Creamery” backers were out in force at Wednesday’s meeting other than to put heat on the Land Trust to continue allowing the creamery to pay next to nothing in rent.

One resident told the Selectboard that he was “excited to see cows” return to Norwich Farms a few years ago. And now, if a deal between the Land Trust and the creamery can’t be worked out, it will be “hard to watch (another) of these dairy operations just disappear.”

Jeanie McIntyre, longtime president of the Upper Valley Land Trust, didn’t take the bait. “It’s heartening to see how many people in Norwich care about farms and cows,” she told the packed room.

But, she added, the Land Trust doesn’t have the financial means to subsidize a private business.

Later, Gray talked about the need to support “agricultural entrepreneurs.” (I called Gray on Thursday to talk about the creamery’s predicament, but I didn’t hear back.)

According to the information packet that Gray and Brown put together, they have found “professional dairy farmers” who are willing to relocate from the Northeast Kingdom to restart the milking operation. But it hinges on the creamery first reaching a deal with the Land Trust.

Bringing back the cows isn’t as simple as it’s made to sound. Norwich Farms doesn’t have enough fields to grow corn and hay to support even a medium-sized dairy farm, which contributed to Swift’s downfall.

So how did Sigler make it work?

He purchased feed and had it trucked in. He also paid to have manure hauled away to avoid problems with adhering to the state’s strict water quality regulations. (The barns are sandwiched between a stream and wetlands.)

Only a farmer with deep pockets can afford to do those things. “It’s a very challenging site for a dairy operation,” McIntyre said.

By no means, however, is the farm a lost cause. Before giving the property to VTC, Sigler and the Land Trust talked about making it into a “community farm.”

A small farm could provide milk for the Upper Valley Haven’s homeless shelter. It could also be a source of paying jobs for residents at Dismas House, the nonprofit in Hartford that provides affordable housing for people just out of prison.

Willing Hands, an Upper Valley nonprofit, picks up donated fruits and vegetables from supermarkets and large farms that it then drops off at food shelves. It’s been talking with the Land Trust about keeping its trucks and storing vegetables at Norwich Farms. It might be able to grow some vegetables there as well.

All worthy ventures. And since the Land Trust and its partners would be nonprofits, they could raise charitable dollars to support the endeavors.

No one I talked with ruled out the possibility of the creamery staying put. A big obstacle, however, is its equipment. Unless a lease deal can be worked out with Norwich Farm Creamery, VTC will take the equipment that was purchased with federal and state money back to Randolph.

“We just can’t give it up,” said Moulton, referring to federal and state rules governing the use of tax money.

When VTC has the money, which could be a while, it wants to start a creamery of its own to teach students about the business.

Who knows if it will succeed, but the college has one advantage. It already has cows.

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