Starksboro farm making hay in Brooklyn

STARKSBORO — Before this year, Eric Rozendaal had never been to Brooklyn, N.Y. Now, he’s visited a dozen times — not as a tourist, but as a vendor of authentic Vermont food at an increasingly popular New York City market.
Rozendaal and his wife, Keenann, own Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro. Every weekend, he travels to “Smorgasburg,” a weekly outdoor food market held in Brooklyn. Smorgasburg hosts 75 to 100 food vendors every week at two locations in the city’s second-most populous borough.
“Smorgasburg is a rock and roll show — open grills, billowing smoke, everybody’s playing music, massive crowds,” Rozendaal said. “It’s special to be a part of it.”
Rockville Market Farm’s inclusion in the market — which The New York Times called “the Woodstock of eating,” was a bit of a fluke. Until this spring, Rozendaal had never heard of Smorgasburg; after searching online for more markets his farm could attend, Rozendaal found Smorgasburg and in January decided to apply to be a vendor.
“It’s very competitive — they only take 8 percent of vendors that apply,” Rozendaal said. “I think what really got us in was that we were producing what we were intending to sell.”
Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby said more than 500 businesses apply every year. Beginning in 2011 with a market every Saturday in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the event has since expanded to Sundays and added a second location.
The first day of the market, which is held from spring until late fall, was April 6. While loading his Toyota Tundra for the 300-mile trip to Brooklyn, Rozendaal realized his menu was incomplete.
“We packed up the truck with the grill and at the last minute realized we needed a drink,” Rozendaal said. “My friend Paul Limberty sells maple lemonade at the Burlington Farmers’ Market — we called him up and asked if we could sell it.”
Limberty said yes and gave Rozendaal the recipe. Rozendaal said Limberty told him the most he ever sold in one day was 19 gallons, so Rozendaal prepared 20 gallons. That supply didn’t even last through the morning of their first day.
“We sold $1,000 worth of lemonade in 90 minutes,” Rozendaal said.
What started out as an afterthought is now Rockville Market’s best-selling item. So Rozendaal now comes fully prepared.
“The most we’ve done is 1,600 cups of lemonade in a weekend, at $4 a cup,” Rozendaal said. “We sell 500 donuts per market.”
Rockville Market Farm was an immediate hit. The New York Post ranked their maple lemonade as one of the six best new things at Smorgasburg, and “New York Magazine” featured the farm’s butternut squash donuts.
“We’ve been much more successful selling sugar than real food,” Rozendaal joked.
Rozendaal and an employee alternate trips to New York every weekend, driving a pickup truck filled with goods down to New York.
“I leave at 4 o’clock in the morning and get there at 9,” Rozendaal said. “I set up, rock it out from 11-5, crash, get up, do it the next day and be back by midnight Sunday.”
Many of the vendors are based in the greater New York City area — not the northern half of Vermont.
“None come from nearly as far as Vermont,” Demby said. “Some come from upstate New York, a few from Pennsylvania, but most are from Brooklyn and New York City.”
While it may seem to be a disadvantage to have such a long commute, Rozendaal said it is actually a benefit.
“It’s funny, people always ask me if it’s worth it — and it is; it’s a lot cheaper to be based out of Vermont and travel far than to be based out of New York City.”
Despite the 11-hour round trip, Rozendaal said it costs him little to travel to New York. He eats from other vendors and uses the website airbnb.com to rent an apartment for the weekend.
Once he secured a temporary food establishment license from New York state, he was good to go.
“I’ve stayed in some amazing places,” Rozendaal said. “And it’s wicked good food.”
With few overhead costs, the return on his investment has been steady.
“We have zero infrastructure,” Rozendaal said. “We started the booth with $1,000, and we’ve made a lot of money on that $1,000.”
Rockville Mountain Farm attends the 27 Burlington Farmers’ Markets in addition to Smorgasburg.
While the farm is primarily a wholesale business, selling to co-ops like City Market, Healthy Living and the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op, food and farmers’ markets are becoming a large source of revenue.
Rockville Market Farm was recently accepted into the new winter session of Smorgasburg, which will be held indoors at 4th Street and Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn. In 2014, Rozendaal will be selling his goods in New York at 100 markets.
“When we’re at 127 markets a year it’ll be more like 50/50,” Rozendaal said, referring to wholesale vs. market sales as a percentage of his business.
Rozendaal said Rockville Market Farm has not yet reached out to restaurants and grocers in the New York City area, but that is a possibility in the future.
“Both Smorgasburg markets — Saturdays at East River State Park and Sunday at the Brooklyn pier — have a lot of really great potential,” Rozendaal said. “Once you go to New York City 50 weeks out of the year, anything is possible — there are a lot of carrots dangling in front of you.”
Rozendaal, who grew up in Burlington, founded Rockville Market Farm in 1996 after serving three years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.
“It was just fate,” he said. “I heard about the Intervale Center in Burlington; they were just starting up and needed people, and I wanted to do it.”
The Intervale Center, founded in 1988, helps new and independent farms get off the ground through education and business planning assistance.
Rockville Market Farm is located on Cemetery Road in Starksboro and has 108 acres of farmland on two parcels. The farm has 2,500 egg-laying hens, pigs, and a butternut squash peeling operation. The poultry division does business as Eric’s Eggs.
Depending on the season, Rozendaal employs 1-3 Guatemalan migrant workers under the H2A visa program. This federal program, administered by the Department of Labor, permits foreign nationals to work in the United States on a seasonal basis. The only Guatemalan national currently working on the farm, Walter Pec Ticun, will go home for the winter.
“It’s great because they live here on farm, and allows me to go to New York City,” Rozendaal said.
While business is booming in Brooklyn, Rozendaal said he doesn’t plan to increase production in Vermont, or bottle the popular maple lemonade. For Rozendaal, the old adage rings true — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“I don’t want to take something that’s simple, fun and profitable and mess it up,” he said.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Rockville Market Farm will sit back and enjoy its success.
“I think we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves for winter Smorgasburg, and come up with a new product line,” Rozendaal said.

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