Community garden seeks new home

MIDDLEBURY — This summer there will be fewer vegetables growing on Exchange Street.
The steering committee of the Middlebury Area Community Garden (MACG) recently found out that it would no longer be able to use land behind the Otter Creek Brewing plant off Exchange Street for garden plots, due to ongoing construction and renovation at the brewery.
The change came as a surprise to the gardeners, since when Long Trail Brewing Company bought the Otter Creek Brewery in January, the company had told former Otter Creek owner Morgan Wolaver that the gardens could continue to use space on the property.
But as the new owners planned renovation work on the brewery for the coming months, Long Trail Co-owner and President Brian Walsh said he realized that with all the heavy machinery necessary, the property just wouldn’t be available to host the garden, at least not this season.
“We want to further invest in the community,” said Walsh of the renovation work. “This was unavoidable with the construction ongoing and the future construction.”
The news about the renovations on the Otter Creek Brewing property, which garden officials received about a month ago, left the one-year-old community garden homeless after many of last year’s gardeners had already applied to renew their plots. And it left the steering committee scrambling to find another suitable spot quickly.
Then, two weeks ago, after looking at a number of possible locations, the steering committee decided to put the garden on hold for a year. Instead of investing time and effort into hastily chosen space, they chose to take a longer time to find the best possible location, one that the gardens could occupy for an extended period of time.
“The ideal is to find a site this summer,” said Erin Buckwalter, chair of the steering committee. “Then we’ll be able to plow, harrow and cover crop so that next spring we don’t have to do so much in a short time.”
Meanwhile, Walsh said the planned work at Otter Creek is still in the beginning stages, but there are around 25 items on the construction to-do list. The construction will likely last through the end of this year.
“When we purchased the brewery, there was a significant amount of deferred maintenance that had to take place,” said Walsh.
Since Long Trail bought the Exchange Street business, the company has already added two additional truck doors to allow more trailers to deliver supplies.
To accommodate for the increased traffic and operate completely within state safety rules, the brewery will need to expand its parking lot, which could take some of the space that MACG occupied last year.
Additionally, Walsh said the brewery will add two new fermentation tanks and modernize other brewing equipment, which will require crane work. While that happens, only registered personnel will be allowed beyond the parking lot.
And the visitor’s center will also be  revamped — Walsh said the plan is to add tables and chairs and expand the hours.
“We want to make the visitor’s center a truly enjoyable experience, a destination — not just somewhere you go to buy beer and leave.”
The company is eager to capitalize on its brightening financial outlook — during the month of April, it saw increased profits in the low single digits, percentage-wise, Walsh said. He estimated the facility upgrades will carry a seven-figure price tag when all is said and done, but he said the increased capacity would make the company more competitive in the long run.
In addition to the renovations making the brewery operate more smoothly, Walsh said they should significantly raise production capacity. Currently the brewery produces 35,000 barrels each year, but Walsh expects to add more than 50,000 barrels to the yearly output.
“It’s painful for the local gardeners,” said Walsh. “But we really need to do this so we can compete long-term.”
Asked if he would consider reinstating the garden once the work was over, Walsh said, “Absolutely.”
But restarting the garden, said Buckwalter, will raise many difficulties, and the new location will ideally be as permanent as possible.
She worries that a year off will disperse the momentum that the garden gained in its first year, operating at capacity with 20 plots tended by community members and one plot tended by area master gardeners who donated the vegetables they harvested to charity.
And logistical issues will come into play as well. There are the 15 yards of compost that the steering committee had delivered to the site at the end of the growing season last fall, and the small garden shed that members built last season. Buckwalter hopes to find some way to transport all of these to a new site. And then there are the grants that allowed the garden to start up last year, which were not renewable. The garden will have to seek new grants and sources of funding to start up operations again.
“A lot of work and time and money went into that garden,” said Buckwalter. “Now we’re basically going to have to go through the whole process of starting a garden again.”
The MACG steering committee welcomes help in finding and moving to a new location. It can be reached at [email protected].
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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