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Gathering aims to match local farms with outlets

  • Elizabeth Clarke, of South Strafford, Vt., talks about her fruit pate called Nanarella's Fruit Pate during a Vital Communities first local food matchmaker event to help farms and food producers connect with businesses in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Craig Locarno, food service director from the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, talks with Erin Hunter and Jenevieve Johnson of FernLeigh Cellars during a Vital Communities local food matchmaker event to help farms and food producers connect with businesses in White River Junction, Vt,. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. Hunter is owner of FernLeigh and also raises Scottish Highland cattle, which Locarno was discussing with her. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephanie Zydenbos, owner of Micro Mama's in Weare, N.H., passes out samples of her PRO Juice, a fermented vegetable juice, during a Vital Communities local food matchmaker event to help farms and food producers connect with businesses on Tuesday, Nov.19, 2019 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • FernLeigh Cellars is based in Springfield, Vt., and makes maple wine. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/26/2019 5:51:33 PM
Modified: 11/26/2019 5:51:30 PM

It was clear pretty quickly that they probably weren’t a great match. But that didn’t stop Susan Tullar from offering Craig Locarno a drink.

Locarno obliged, and after taking a long swig, he paused, set down his cup and said, “Now that’s milk.”

In the food business, as in love, meeting the right person can be tough. Tullar, Locarno and about 50 other people who gathered at the Engine Room in White River Junction last Tuesday for the first ever Upper Valley Local Food Matchmaker event got a little help with the task.

In a format modeled on speed dating, local farmers and food producers chatted up food buyers and distributors in seven-minute intervals, switching partners at the sound of a bell.

Here, instead of nervous flirtation and awkward questions, there were matter-of-fact exchanges about shelf life and organic regulations over samples of ice cream, chevre, sparkling cider and pickled hot peppers.

“We want to create a feeling of camaraderie between the businesses that are doing this work,” said Becka Warren, food and farm coordinator for the White River Junction-based nonprofit Vital Communities, which organized the event. As the local foods movement contends with the forces of consolidation, “the relationship, in many ways, is the thing that can make a difference,” she said.

Tullar and her mother-in-law, Shirley Tullar, who run Berway Farm Creamery in Lyme, came to the event looking for new markets for their creamline milk — milk that is pasteurized but not homogenized — from grass-fed cows. They converted the 60-year-old family farm to a specialty business in 2009 after running into obstacles in transitioning to the organic market. They now sell their milk to about 30 stores around the region, but are still trying to find their niche. And with a full-time job as a veterinarian in addition to her farming duties, Tullar doesn’t have a lot of time for marketing.

“Networking is really what we need to be doing,” Tullar said.

Locarno, food service director for the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, liked the taste and concept of Tullar’s milk but wasn’t sure he could use it. Locarno has been working on building an independent food program for two WSSU schools and will expand it to all five schools next year. The program aims to get more food from local producers into the schools, but the task comes with plenty of challenges. Federal regulations require that school lunch programs serve skim or 1% milk. Tullar’s milk is whole.

Plus, said Tullar, the milk needs to be shaken to incorporate the cream. That probably wouldn’t work well in schools.

As the matchmaking forum progressed, the Tullars got to chat with other buyers who might be a better fit.

For some attendees, the event wasn’t so much about finding the perfect fit as it was about gaining insights into what buyers want. Eli Hersh recently purchased Killdeer Farm in Norwich and renamed it Honey Field Farm. He told business owners at the event that he hopes to grow vegetables on request for buyers.

The matchmaking blitz was also a chance for farmers and food producers to get direct answers to their questions and discuss the challenges they’re confronting in getting their products to consumers.

In today’s food landscape, those challenges can be pretty daunting, Warren said. As the demand for local foods has grown, small local farms find themselves, curiously, locked out of the marketplace they helped create. It’s much easier for big buyers to get all their “local” foods from one big regional producer than from a mix of smaller farms, she explained.

Additionally, Warren said, big corporations sometimes use misleading or false labeling to make consumers believe they’re buying local products when they’re not.

To combat the trend, local farms need to work together in a variety of ways, Warren said.

Sabra Ewing, of Flag Hill Farm, and Neil Hochstedle, of Side Hill Cider Mill, both of Vershire, just finished collaborating on a new product — an apple balsamic vinegar — which they debuted at the matchmaker event.

In addition to creative collaborations and other grassroots initiatives, small farms need the help of policies that level the playing field, Ewing said. She’s trying to build support for a bill introduced in Congress earlier this year that calls for a temporary halt to agribusiness mergers and the creation of a commission charged with tightening anti-trust laws and enforcement.

They didn’t solve the industry’s problems in one morning, but participants seemed happy with the connections they made at the event.

“This was good for me to just meet the Upper Valley producers and get my name out there,” Locarno said.

Surveys she collected at the end of the event were overwhelmingly positive, Warren said. But the real proof was in the way people kept on talking right through her closing remarks.

“If people weren’t engaged, they would have stopped talking,” she said. “For me, that was just a wonderful symptom of the day’s success.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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