By CYRUS LEVESQUE
SHOREHAM/NEW HAVEN — A $22,250 grant to the Lincoln Peak Vineyards of New Haven this week epitomizes the state’s efforts to aid struggling Vermont agricultural enterprises by encouraging local production of value-added products with Vermont agricultural output.
Chris and Michaela Granstrom, owners of Lincoln Peak Vineyards, received the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program grant during an event in Shoreham on Monday at which Vermont and U.S. government officials doled out $400,000 in grants to aid Vermont agriculture.
The Granstroms have grown grapes on at least part of their roughly 11 acres for five years, but until now they have been selling the grapes to a winery elsewhere. However, they would like to change that, and the $22,250 planning grant they received should help the process by helping create feasibility, marketing and business plans for adding a winery.
Although vineyards and wineries may never become a major part of Vermont’s agricultural industry, Chris Granstrom believes they have potential. “Grape-growing isn’t going to overtake dairy farming, but it’s certainly a viable thing,” he said. There are two other vineyards in Addison County (one run by Bruce Mina in Addison, and another in Orwell), Granstrom said, but it is still a new and relatively rare practice in the area.
Five of the seven grants announced on Oct. 16, including the one for Lincoln Peak Vineyards, were Value Added Producer Grants. VAPGs are intended to help individual farmers or small businesses get more money for their product by producing a finished product themselves instead of selling a raw material to a processor. “The basic idea is for farmers to take a commodity and add value to it,” explained Granstrom.
He expects his family will get more for their grapes by making a finished product themselves.
“Selling the grapes to other wineries was a break-even process at best, but (making wine) increases the value by a factor of 10, so it is something we had to take a look at,” Granstrom said.
There are two types of grants under this program: planning grants, such as the Granstroms received, and working capital grants. Planning grants are only available for research and consulting, so Granstrom said he will probably apply for a working capital grant once his needs to establish a winery are more well-defined.
He does not know yet how much money will be needed to make the move to becoming a value-added producer, but said that the maximum grant is $150,000 for businesses like his vineyard. “There’s a lot of different aspects to consider to take this business forward,” he said. “This is an expensive business to get into … there are many variables of how best to structure it.”
Grants also require a one-to-one matching investment by the recipient, though that can be in-kind. Most of the matching for his planning grant will come from Lawrence Miller, the consultant Granstrom said will be working with him on the plans and who will donate half his time.
OTHER GRANT RECIPIENTS
The largest of the grants announced Monday at the Shoreham event was awarded to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which received a $200,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant to support the Farm Viability Enhancement Program (FVEP). Founded by state statute in 2003, the grant is intended to support the FVEP’s goal of providing one-on-one technical assistance to Vermont farmers to help with business and financial planning and marketing.
“We are thrilled to receive these rural development funds,” said Gus Seelig, executive director of VHCB, calling them the result of a “conspiracy of goodwill.”
A Rural Business Enterprise Grant for $50,000 was also awarded to the Northeast Organic Farming Association to help start farmers’ markets in Island Pond and provide marketing and development support to 28 other farmers’ markets around Vermont.
The five Value Added Producer Grants ranged from $4,500 for the Thompson Farm in Colchester, to $100,000 for Dairy Farmers of Vermont (DFV), a Montpelier-based group devoted to organization and political activism on behalf of more than 300 member farmers.
Founded in 2003 by Vermont Progressive Party Chairman Anthony Pollina, DFV announced the creation of the Vermont Milk Company on Wednesday with the acquisition of a milk processing plant in Hardwick.
Pollina could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman said that the grant announced earlier in the week would facilitate the start of the company. They have also announced the intention to pay dairy farmers a minimum of $15 per hundredweight of milk, a significant increase over current market prices. The Middlebury price for Boston Blend milk, for example, is $12.78. They also plan to make Vermont dairy products more profitable by improving the name recognition and prestige of Vermont dairy products.
“We’re working with local farmers and paying fair prices, because we want to do more than talk, to see Vermont’s dairy farmers thrive,” Pollina said in a press release. “A stable minimum is the first step, and building a market for Vermont-only milk will make it sustainable.”
The grants were announced at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham on Monday. Bill Suhr, who has owned the orchard since 1998, was one of several farmers who was helped significantly by the Farm Viability Enhancement Program in 2004.
The program provided only $5,000 in direct funding, but it also provided consultation with experts who helped Suhr formulate a business plan and improve how he did business, such as new accounting practices. “It was a significant $5,000,” he said. “At the time, it was very helpful.”
Recent efforts to help farmers have taken other forms as well. According to Suhr, the state has been encouraging farmers to break the mold of traditional dairy farming in several ways. “There’s a trend away from standard dairy,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the grant to the Thompson Farm, which is assessing the feasibility of producing yogurt on the farm.
Granstrom said he hopes the grants will give his family’s vineyard a chance to prove that vineyards and wineries have a place in Vermont and can work well. “This is a (new) thing and I hope it catches on, because it’s a form of agriculture that ties in closely with tourism,” he said.