NEW HAVEN –– A line of farmers waded through waist-high wheat in a New Haven field last Thursday, looking closely at the plants, determining if it could be harvested soon and asking questions about everything from the effects of dry and wet weather to the types of wheat that are doing the best this year.
This was part of a University of Vermont Extension Field Day at Olivia’s Croutons in New Haven, where about 20 farmers gathered to discuss local foods businesses and growing wheat, and learn about the process of producing croutons as an example of a value-added good.
The Extension Service runs these events to facilitate networking and learning among farmers, explained agronomist Heather Darby.
“The first goal is to create a means for the agricultural community to get together on a farm, see what another farm is doing and network,” she said. “The second goal is to take some of the information from our research program and be able to deliver that to the farmers.”
These goals were evident at the Field Day, as the farmers asked each other and the Extension team questions on a wide range of topics and shared their own knowledge. They toured some of the wheat fields and the factory, stopping in between to enjoy a brick-oven pizza lunch catered by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
The event focused on the processes involved in growing, harvesting and milling wheat as well as creating a value-added product.
Inspired by homemade croutons that she enjoyed at her brother’s house, Francie Caccavo started Olivia’s Croutons in 1991. It began as a small business in her home, graduating to a small production kitchen with a bigger oven and ending up on their 50-acre farm with two 18-acre wheat plots.
“We just kept sort of taking these baby steps, increasing the product line, increasing the market for the product,” she said.
Olivia’s Croutons are now sold in grocery stores and markets across the country. Local stores like Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op carry the croutons, as do larger chains of supermarkets, such as Hannaford and Shaw’s.
Caccavo credits the success of her business not only to making a quality product with many local ingredients, but also to the company’s ability to work with and enhance its surroundings.
“I think other things (that make us successful) besides the actual value of the food that we put into our products to sell, what we also do is preserve the landscape,” she said. “This is a small Vermont farm and we’re able to, because of the wheat, keep the land open, keep it pastoral. Saving the barn was huge for us and being able to keep that a part of the landscape by putting a modern business in it.”
Darby agreed, adding that a symbiotic relationship has developed between consumers and farmers, especially in the midst of a continually growing localvore movement.
“Here you have this perfect combination of farmers that are really interested in working with consumers, and consumers that really want to buy from the people they know,” she said. “That’s what makes it successful. Farming’s not easy, producing crops isn’t easy. Just having the farmers and the consumers willing to work with each other, that’s what makes it go.”
Darby added that Caccavo’s choice to grow her own wheat and use local products contributes to the success of Olivia’s Croutons.
“She doesn’t have to grow wheat and she doesn’t have to buy local wheat,” Darby said. “But in a lot of ways that’s just an important mission for her business, to grow some of their own product and to support local agriculture. Her commitment to agriculture is a reflection of their business’ personal values. As a result of that, they’re very successful.”
Caccavo echoed Darby, citing local support as a significant factor in her business’ success and likely that of other local companies’ as well.
“Local support of a company like this is really important,” she said. “Everybody has to be on board to let an operation like this exist. Everybody can do their part even if they’re not the business owners.”