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Farmers find buyers for their wares

By Howard Weiss-Tisman | Brattleboro Reformer

WESTMINSTER WEST -- At the end of the growing season, Howard Prussic had a problem.

Prussack, who is co-owner of High Meadows Farm, had a bumper crop of winter squash. He had more than 15,000 pounds before the last frost killed what was left in the field, and he was ready to make some deals.

So when he heard that the Vermont Agency of Agriculture was holding an event where producers had a chance to meet distributors, nonprofit groups and institutional food buyers, he signed up.

After he got home from the meeting Wednesday, he had unloaded some of his produce and helped move the local food movement a little further along.

"It was amazing. There were a lot more people there than I thought would show up," Prussack said after returning to his farm. "We had a great year and they were looking for produce. We made great connections."

Farmers and prepared food producers from around Windham County traveled to Windsor on Wednesday for the Agency of Agriculture’s second annual Local Food Matchmaker Event.

The agency invited farmers from all over the state to sit down with local and national food buyers and distributors to explore the possibilities of opening up new markets for their produce.

Retailers like Wal-Mart and Hannaford sat next to nonprofits such as the Vermont Food Bank and distributors such as Black River Produce for the chance to meet with the farmers and food producers for 10-minute "speed dates."

Prussack was joined by farmers from Dutton Berry Farm in Brookline and Scott Farm in Dummerston, as well as other specialty food producers form the region.

The number of farmers was capped at 60 to give everyone the opportunity to meet, Agency of Agriculture food policy administrator Helen Jordan said, and some farmers in the end were turned away.

"Farmers are used to farmers’ markets, and farm stands and CSAs, but the idea here is to see if there are more business to business opportunities for farmers," Jordan said. "There are many things that make the local food movement special, and the most important part is developing a relationship with the farmer when buying. That is what we’re trying to encourage here."

Prussack said it would be nearly impossible for a busy farmer to meet as many buyers as he met Wednesday.

After growing organic produce in southern Vermont for almost 40 years, Prussack said an increased interest in local food is finally being shown by commercial buyers, and institutions like schools and hospitals.

"This gave us a chance to meet face to face, and more importantly, we met the people who can make buying decisions," he said. "Instead of me lugging onions and squash all over the state, they were able to see what I had. It was a great way to start relationships."

The increased attention on local food in Vermont is also being played out across the country as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to step up its focus connecting communities with their farmers.

Consumer demand for locally grown food is expected to rise from about $4 billion in 2002 to approximately $7 billion by 2012, according to USDA estimates.

The 2008 Farm Bill includes flexibility for USDA to meet that demand and agency officials are traveling around the country to promote the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative.

"Americans are more interested in food and agriculture than they have been in several generations and by better connecting consumers of food to their producers, people across the country will have a greater understanding of the challenges in agriculture today and the effort it takes to put food on their table," Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said at an event in Georgia this week. "We can revitalize rural communities and spur economic opportunity by strengthening the link between local production and local consumption."

For Prussack, who has been talking about the importance of building a strong local food system for almost 40 years, the meeting in Windsor on Wednesday, and the national localvore movement, are both indications that the concept is becoming more mainstream.

There are barriers, he said, and locally grown food is still just a fraction of what the country consumes daily, still, with every squash he sells the movement gets stronger.

"People are very involved here in Vermont, but we are all trying to figure out how to move beyond," said Prussack. "It’s not just economics. Its global warming and keeping the working landscape and food safety issues that have people thinking about this. Buyers are more receptive to that now. These things take time, but we’re definitely moving forward."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at [email protected] or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.

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