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Grocery service builds the Vermont brand

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Posted on July 25, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



cheeseturner4405.jpg
KEVIN THOMPSON FLIPS ash-rubbed, soft-ripened cheese in the cheese cave at Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury last week. Blue Ledge is one of several Addison County food producers that supply product to Graze, a new Bristol-based business that delivers Vermont groceries and prepared foods to customers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

BRISTOL — For hundreds of years, Vermont has been a name known regionally, nationally and even internationally for its food products — butter, cheese, milk, maple syrup and apples. But out-of-state residents couldn’t get their groceries directly from Vermont.

Now that’s changing with the help of businesses like Bristol’s Graze, which delivers farm-fresh food from Vermont to homes in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

It is a prime example of commercial and government efforts to enhance the Vermont brand name and improve the local economy by selling products intimately connected with the Green Mountain State to consumers living elsewhere.

Julianna Doherty, a Monkton resident who founded Graze last September, said that for her out-of-state customers, the Vermont name means good, fresh food.

At grazedelivered.com, customers can choose to get weekly or more sporadic deliveries of Addison County and Vermont products. Among the Vermont foods to choose from are cheese from Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, milk from Monument Farms in Weybridge, baked goods from Bristol Bakery, greens from Rockydale Farm in Bristol, and prepared foods from Sugarsnap in Burlington.

Doherty said for her company, the farms are a selling point. Customers like to know that Misty Knoll Farms is producing chickens on a farm right in New Haven and that Monument Farms milk is produced and bottled right in Addison County.

“Our slogan is, ‘Food as it should be,’” said Doherty, who runs the company with three friends based in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “We feel strongly that people want good food, and they want to feed their children good food.”

Jon Rooney, vice president for plant operations at Monument Farms, said Graze has been regularly buying Monument Farms milk for the past year — especially the chocolate milk.

And though most Monument Farms milk is sold locally and in northern Vermont, Rooney said as Vermont’s diversified agricultural output increases, broader regional markets are prime areas for Vermont producers.

“Vermont does have a good name,” he said. “While buying local is a big deal, I think a lot of the growers and Vermont food (producers) need to look outside the state — there needs to be a more regional approach.”

Doherty, originally from Massachusetts, said she and Christy Colasurdo, Ellen Ryan and Marcy Pomerance got the idea for the business when they came to visit just over a year ago. Doherty headed to the farmers’ market to prepare for their arrival.

“I put out a spread, like any Vermonter would,” Doherty said.

Her friends were impressed at the array of local foods.

Cheese, meats and specialty produce from the area formed the original basis for the business, and in the time since it has expanded to a wider array of offerings.

The four partnered with Greenling, a Texas company that delivers local produce to the Austin area through its website. Colasurdo, Ryan and Pomerance became regional representatives in their respective areas of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and Doherty began approaching local producers about buying their products.

From an initial handful of subscribers, the business has expanded — using only word of mouth — to several hundred subscribers. Doherty said the business has four full-time employees in Vermont and offices in the new Bristol Works complex, and is looking to expand to new regions within the next year. She is also always looking for new products to sell.

Jolinda LaClair, deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said she hopes to see substantial increases in demand for those foods both locally and regionally in years to come, bolstering the further growth of farming and food operations.

“Huge market opportunities exist out-of-state,” said LaClair. “Certainly the hope for the future is to dramatically expand the Vermont products that we grow, manufacture and create, and to create new markets out of state.”

She cited the Farm to Plate plan, released this year, which sets out a 10-year plan for developing Vermont’s food system. The first goal the plan lists is to measurably increase consumption of Vermont-produced food in both statewide and regional markets.

Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which authored the plan, said businesses like Graze and Farmers To You, which delivers food from Calais to neighborhoods in Boston, represent new growth on the Vermont scene — businesses that aggregate products from small farmers and producers and package them together.

“This is very new,” she said, “but it’s the kind of thing that’s done over in Europe.”

Kahler said the direct-to-door businesses are new, but there are already a host of farmers and aggregators who ship only to the New York restaurant markets, and some of the larger farmers in the state sell produce directly to Whole Foods, a national high-end supermarket chain. Companies like Cabot and Ben and Jerry’s also ship their product internationally.

While it’s virtually impossible to track every item that goes out of state, Kahler said what’s clear is that regional distribution is increasing.

“It’s evolving very quickly, responding to market demand,” said Kahler.

GOING THE DISTANCE

For a small-scale operation, the geographical distance adds a cost and logistical challenge. But Doherty said that although the products are being trucked a long way, the prices are competitive with what consumers would find at any Whole Foods in their neighborhood.

“We don’t want to price people out of the market,” said Doherty. “We want to be a weekly delivery, not a specialty delivery.”

And the direct-to-door service offers another advantage: personalization.

“It’s the old milkman model,” she said.

Kahler said pricing is an advantage in bringing Vermont foods into out-of-state markets. While produce may not bring in Whole Foods prices at the farmers’ market, for example, the distance adds value and new opportunities for expanding production.

But she said Vermonters need not worry — a move toward selling more food products outside of the state won’t reduce the in-state food supply.

“The overall market is going to be expanding, with more and more farmers and producers producing larger quantities of produce,” said Kahler. “We’ll always have a certain number of farmers only interested in selling locally.”

She added that an advantage of the larger regional markets like New York and Boston is that, because of their sizes, Vermont farmers make up such a small percentage of the market that they don’t compete against each other.

And though home delivery won’t be for everyone, she said companies like Graze will be one of more and more companies joining the push to market regionally.

“What we will hear is more examples of different models that are being successful,” she said.

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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