Storage facility hopes to fill role in developing local food systems

SHOREHAM — A cold warehouse is hardly the image that comes to mind as the heart of a local foods movement.
But that is what the owners of Vermont Refrigerated Storage and members of the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) envision for the 35,000-square-foot cold storage facility in Shoreham.
Currently, 90 percent of the produce that the former Shoreham Apple Co-op stores each year is apples, but with the building’s large capacity — 220,000 bushels of apples can fit inside the climate-controlled storage room — owners Barney Hodges Jr. and Gregory O’Brien are hoping to develop new opportunities for diversified storage and processing of local foods.
Hodges and O’Brien this fall received two grants to examine and carry out food storage opportunities. The first, a Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA, provides $63,000 through the town of Shoreham for a feasibility study of opportunities to expand services, which will be carried out over the next 18 months. The second grant, from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, contributes $20,000 for infrastructure improvements at the plant that will facilitate the selling of Vermont produce to institutional buyers.
Hodges said he hopes the grant will provide additional business opportunities both for area farmers and for the storage facility itself. After he, O’Brien and Seedway LLC purchased the business in 2004, it became clear that the VRS building was underused.
Further, Hodges’ family business, Sunrise Orchards, has faced two years of low yields due to weather — as the largest customer of VRS, Sunrise was failing to fill enough of the facility to keep the business stable. It became clear that the solution was to diversify VRS operations.
“The agriculture industry is always challenged to be profitable,” he said. “It’s a way to stabilize something that is not stable.”
David Dolginow, a recent Middlebury College graduate hired to carry out the feasibility study, said that once VRS begins providing additional services to area farmers, the improvement will bolster the local agricultural systems.
“We want to provide Vermont farmers with an opportunity to extend their season beyond Oct. 1,” he said. “This is first and foremost about the grower, and creating viable business opportunities that will help make family farms in Vermont sustainable.”
While Dolginow is not yet sure what the eventual plan for a food storage facility will look like, Dolginow said that lengthening of selling season is what he will have in mind as he begins to survey area consumers, wholesale buyers and growers and size up existing market opportunities.
“There’s the storage component — whether or not there are opportunities to store fruits and vegetables beyond apples,” he explained.
The facility’s controlled atmosphere system lowers levels of oxygen in the air and pumps up the nitrogen, delaying the ripening process. It’s this technology that allows us to buy crisp local apples in the late winter months — apples stored using controlled atmosphere systems can last up to a year. While the technology was originally developed to preserve apples and doesn’t work for crops like lettuce that have limited shelf life, Dolginow said that over time, the technology’s uses have expanded.
“You can do any type of fruit, kiwi, pear, cherry, and broccoli, garlic, cabbage,” he said. “What makes it very exciting is that (the produce) maintains its nutritional quality.”
Then, said Dolginow, there are food processing possibilities to look at. This is where the Agency of Agriculture infrastructure grant could come in handy, for equipment.
“We could be talking about root vegetables that are grown, processed and stored on a large scale,” he said.
Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC), said the feasibility study will have benefits for both local producers and institutional buyers.
Scheu said she will be administering the grant money over the course of the study. The funds will primarily go to hiring consultants and analysts, which she said these types of grants are specifically geared toward.
“We’re hiring consultants to do market research, plant layout and design, and financial analysis,” she said, “Looking at things like, ‘Is it financially feasible?’ ‘Do the economics work?’”
The grant money, she said, comes through the town of Shoreham, since the ACEDC was unable to secure the grant the first time the application went through, in the spring. After the grant proposal failed to receive funding through the state, the Vermont branch of the USDA recommended that the town of Shoreham file the application on the national level, as it would be guaranteed preferential treatment as a first-time grant applicant. On the national level, Scheu said, the grant was a home run.
“It had a better chance there, because here in Vermont so many people are doing value-added processing,” said Scheu.
Scheu said that while putting together the grant application, she saw a great deal of support from institutions like Fletcher Allen Health Care and Middlebury College. While many institutional buyers in Vermont are looking to purchase local foods, they come face to face with the problems of brokering deals with farmers one-on-one, including unpredictability of supply. Thus, institutions stand to benefit from a local storage and processing facility, since it would guarantee a predictable supply over a longer period of time.
Jonathan Corcoran, president of ACORN, said that Vermont Refrigerated Storage will serve as a focal point as the county’s local food systems develop in the coming years.
“It’s a really important asset we have here in Addison County,” said Corcoran. “It presents an opportunity for storage and, down the road, for food processing.”
And to him, this development plays into a larger plan for the growth of a local food infrastructure — one outlined by the recent strategic plan of the Addison County Local Foods Collaborative, which Corcoran authored.
The group hopes to launch the ACORN Wholesale Collaborative, a network that would address another main problem that institutional buyers face in looking to purchase local foods: It would act as a centralized broker for the smaller, disparate local growers.
Dolginow said that with an expansion of services, the Vermont Refrigerated Storage site would be an aggregation site for local produce that could, in turn, serve as a convenient staging ground for the ACORN Wholesale Collaborative.
But change won’t be immediate, he said. Currently, the plan is to launch a small-scale pilot project in 2011, and to go online on a commercial scale in 2012.
And Hodges is setting his hopes a little further down the road, to a time when the new pieces of the business are up and running.
“The perfect picture, five years down the road, is that we have a facility that is meeting the needs of apple growers, but creating opportunity for other farmers in the region,” he said.
Scheu said she hopes that the study, as well as its results, will serve as an example for other areas seeking to bolster local food infrastructure.
“The hope is that we can take what we’ve learned and use it in other places,” she said. “We all feel intuitively that this should be able to work.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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