Farmers are uneasy about the sale of one of state’s biggest local food distributors

ADDISON COUNTY — Any businessperson will tell you that it takes more than just a great product to make a success; you also have to get the product to the buyer.
Many local growers and meat producers are wondering what will happen now that ownership of their primary distributor — indeed one of the biggest food distributors in Vermont — is changing hands.
Addison County growers hope the sale of North Springfield-based Black River Produce to national giant Reinhart Foodservice will still mean business as usual. But with Black River being so critical to the way that many of Addison County and Vermont’s vegetable, fruit, cheese and meat producers get their product to market, farmers have responded to the news with a mixture of concern and wariness.
“I’ve dealt with businesses that changed hands before,” said Hank Bissell, owner of Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro. “And they always say, ‘Nothing’s going to change.’ And then everything changes, and they don’t do whatever they used to do, especially when it’s something unique.
“I’m a little shaken up by the news,” Bissell said of the Black River Produce sale, which is due to close Oct. 24.
Black River Produce works with more than 600 growers and producers — including at least 19 in Addison County — and delivers their wares to more than 3,000 wholesale customers in Vermont and around the region.
Bissell has worked with Black River Produce for at least 20 years. And unusually for a wholesaler/distributor, Black River comes right to his farm about three times a week, or as many times as is needed, and picks up fresh vegetables.
Not having to truck that produce to a distribution center is significant to Bissell, and that kind of flexibility and farmer friendly service is what’s made Black River Produce unique.
“I’ve sold to other wholesalers,” said Bissell. “And they have trucks on the road, and they’re going right by here, and they won’t pick stuff up. You have to put it on your own truck and get it to them.”
Bissell runs his own delivery route to Burlington and Middlebury, but the difference there is that those grocery store and restaurant sales are by the case. When Black River drivers come to the farm, they take pallets.
“They buy a pallet of carrots, a pallet of cabbage, a pallet of Swiss chard.”
For its part, Black River says that the sale to Reinhart will make things even better for Vermont farmers.
“We have been talking to all our vendors, our farmers, our growers, and producers,” said Black River co-founder Steve Birge. “And it’s actually good news because we’re going to be needing more product from them. Reinhart has a big distribution area. And they want to get more Vermont products to their other distribution centers, first starting in New England and then outside New England.
“Everything stays the same. Except we’re going to ask them to grow more, to produce more. It’s good news.”
Birge and Mark Curran founded Black River Produce in 1978 as “two ski bums … selling produce out of a van.” It has grown to become a cornerstone of Vermont’s local food network.
“For 38 years, Black River Produce has been successful at finding new customers for local products by opening and providing resources for producers to enter new and bigger markets,” said Erica Campbell, Vermont Farm to Plate Network Director.
In 2005, Black River expanded into a 65,000-square-foot facility in North Springfield. And in 2014 they added a 50,000-square-foot meat processing plant.
Birge explained that he and Curran, who are both in their mid-60s, would continue to be hands on — but wouldn’t say for how many years.
“Mark and I aren’t ready to retire, but we did want to set the business up for success to continue with the Black River Brand,” said Birge. “We’ve been looking for a plan, an exit strategy for many years. This is a great fit for everybody.
“Reinhart wants to see us stay. Mark and I still love doing what we do. Reinhart sees us as being a very important trend in the markets now with fresh, local, organic specialty. And they want to replicate what we do throughout their distribution area.
“Reinhart is a very good broad line distributor, but they’re not a specialty house like we are. And they want to get into that market more.”
Reinhart, based in Rosemont, Ill., is the nation’s fifth-largest food distributor.
Birge explained that although Reinhart has also purchased the Black River Meats brand, they are not interested in meat processing. Birge said that he and Curran will continue to own the meat-processing facility in North Springfield, and that the processing facility will continue to be run by Vermont Packinghouse.
Still, concern among Addison County producers continues to run high.
Peter Stone of Stonewood Farm in Orwell and Hannah Sessions of Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury are also concerned about the delivery side of their arrangement with Black River Produce. Both sell to Black River as a wholesaler/distributor but also use Black River’s delivery service to get smaller sales to other customers around the state.
Sessions said that with a product like Blue Ledge’s goat cheese that’s so perishable, it’s been key to the farm’s success to have refrigerated trucks that reliably deliver product the next day.
From a business viability perspective, farmers emphasized how challenging it is in a rural state with a small population to reach a large enough market to farm successfully. Black River, all said, has been key to addressing that continual challenge.
Farmers also spoke about how personable Black River staff have been to work with and how invested the company has been in working individually with local farmers. Many wonder if food giant and nationally focused Reinhart will take the same interest in a Vermont farm’s success.
“In our business we kind of take a multipronged approach to marketing,” said Sessions. “And I’m glad that we do when things like mergers and buyouts happen because I don’t know what the future holds for Black River and will they still be good to work with. Because they’ve been great to work with up to this point. They’re willing to pick up anything, anywhere.
“I even left a pair of skis up at Jay Peak one winter, and they picked them up for me and brought them back on their regularly scheduled pick up day. They’ll do things like that.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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