The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Jim Kenyon: No bad guys, just bad ideas in Norwich Farm Creamery dispute

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/7/2021 4:13:33 PM
Modified: 4/7/2021 4:13:30 PM

Despite what the Norwich Farm Foundation would have you believe, when it comes to the fate of what it calls the town’s last dairy farm, the Upper Valley Land Trust isn’t the villain.

The foundation is trying save the farm and an on-site private creamery. In a VtDigger story last week, Kate Barlow, the farm foundation’s president, characterized what’s happening in Norwich as a “profit-making scheme” for the land trust.

But I’m not sure there is a bad guy in the ongoing saga about what the future holds for the property on Turnpike Road.

The land trust, which has been around since 1985, has built a solid track record of working to conserve natural areas in the Upper Connecticut River Valley while ensuring public access.

Meanwhile, financially strapped Vermont Technical College, the farm’s owner since 2015, is just trying to unload the property ASAP.

On Tuesday, one of the farm’s two parcels — a three-bedroom house, which the college had converted into a dorm — went under contract for a third time. Two earlier deals fell through. The house is listed for $465,000.

For the main parcel, the college is asking $1.25 million, which seems like a lot for a farmhouse, a barn and a few outbuildings squeezed onto 6 acres.

But Vermont Tech, a public institution, can’t be blamed — particularly in the current frenzied real estate market — for trying to maximize its profit for state taxpayers’ benefit. (Andy Sigler, a Dartmouth alum and retired Fortune 500 CEO, donated the farm and adjoining 350 acres to Vermont Tech in 2015.)

In February, the Norwich Farm Foundation, a nonprofit started last year, offered $610,000 for the two properties combined, which the college rejected.

From what I can tell, the foundation consists of folks with good intentions. I just think they’re a bit Pollyannaish to believe a dairy farm that hasn’t had any cows for nearly four years can be resurrected. I haven’t met anyone yet from outside the foundation’s circle who thinks the property could support a modern dairy cow operation. The footprint is too small.

The land trust is stuck in the middle. The Hanover-based nonprofit owns 350 acres, including 65 acres of agricultural land, adjacent to the farm. In 2015, it bought the land from Vermont Tech for $300,000.

The school, with its main campus in Randolph, needed cash to complete a hands-on laboratory, of sorts, for its agricultural students.

A Vermont couple with experience in running a creamery was brought in to work with students. Under a public-private partnership, Chris Gray and Laura Brown also started Norwich Farm Creamery, which makes cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

But within a couple of years, Vermont Tech, which is part of the Vermont State Colleges System, decided Norwich Farm wasn’t working for its students and had become a financial drain, said President Patricia Moulton, who came aboard in September 2016.

When Vermont Tech sold the 350 acres to the land trust six years ago, the two sides had reached a side deal. If the college ever decided to shut down its educational program at Norwich Farm, the land trust could buy the property at a bargain basement price of $50,000. In September 2017, the college notified the land trust of its intentions to bail.

That’s where it got sticky.

In 2016, Vermont Tech signed a five-year lease with Gray and Brown that has the couple paying just $500 a month to live in the property’s renovated farmhouse. They also have use of farm buildings, including the creamery, which Vermont Tech outfitted with the help of a $500,000 federal grant.

In March 2018, Vermont Tech notified Gray and Brown, who buy milk from a Woodstock farm, that their lease won’t be renewed. It expires this June.

In 2019, more than a year after Vermont Tech indicated that it wanted out of the farm, the land trust and the college still hadn’t finalized the sale. At that point, the land trust went to court to recoup its legal and business expenses, arguing the college had “defaulted on a contractual obligation.”

The land trust had hired a business consultant to help evaluate proposals from people who wanted to use the farm for, among other things, raising beef cattle or sheep. Given the farm’s limited acreage, dairy cows didn’t seem like a good match.

“Much of the non-forested land surrounding Vermont Technical College’s 6 acres is wet and mapped (by the federal government) as appropriate for agriculture, only if drained,” Jeanie McIntyre, the land trust’s president, wrote to me in an email.

In May 2020, Vermont Tech and the land trust signed a “nonpublication” agreement, which the Vermont State Colleges System tried to keep quiet.

Last week, the State Colleges’ chancellor’s office in Montpelier finally released a copy of the agreement, which showed Vermont Tech paid $75,000 to the land trust last summer. In exchange, the land trust dropped its lawsuit and gave up the right to buy the farm.

Vermont Tech also agreed to pay the land trust an additional sum of the “net sale proceeds” after the farm is sold. How much that could be was redacted.

“We know the (land trust) already has $75,000 in its pocket,” Barlow, the farm foundation’s president, said when I called her Tuesday. “It seems to me that there’s more going on here, if other parts of the settlement had to be redacted.”

Keeping the agreement from public inspection was Vermont Tech’s call, said McIntyre, who has headed the land trust since 1995. “It is disheartening to see Upper Valley Land Trust described as a big institution that cares only about money, given the (land trust) is a small charitable organization and is the party that was damaged by the contract default.”

Confidential agreements involving public institutions raise red flags. Barlow is right to question what the school — and state taxpayers — are giving up.

After declining to give specifics, Moulton told me Vermont Tech “will stand to benefit from this sale.”

Which is the way it should be.

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




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy