Written by Sarah Bhimani, City Market, Onion River Co-op
City Market, a community-owned food co-op in Burlington, VT, has a list of Global Ends that guides their business and all that they do. One of their Global Ends is “strengthening the local food system,” which is met through a myriad of activities and programs including highlighting and selling local products (37% of sales in fiscal year 2015 were local and made in Vermont products), planning farm tours and crop mobs for the community, their Co-op Patronage Seedling Grants Program and their Local Farm and Producer Investment Program.
The Local Farm and Producer Investment Program is one tool that can be used to meet the Farm to Plate goal to increase access to capital. Each year, City Market uses a minimum of 5% of the previous year’s retained earnings to invest in local farmer or producer expansion projects. This investment is a no-interest loan that the farmer or producer can choose to pay back over time either in cash or with product.
To help inform the Local Farm and Producer Investment Program, City Market has a local product gap list that is kept updated to advise farmers and producers about local products that are still needed in the store as well as saturated product categories. Local corn tortillas had been on the gap list for a long time until the Co-op started talking with Joe Bossen of Vermont Bean Crafters about how to fill that gap.
From those initial conversations, All Souls Tortilleria was born in 2014 as a new venture of Joe Bossen, Sam Fuller of NOFA-VT, and Hubert d’Autremont of Cycles d’Autremont with the purpose of creating certified organic corn tortillas made from locally-grown corn. The tortillas are made using a Mesoamerican recipe of corn kernels cooked in a solution of ground limestone and water, which creates traditional nixtamal, and then ground into fresh masa with hand-carved volcanic stones.
Nixtamalization is a type of alkaline processing that allows the corn to be ground more easily, increases the nutritional value of the corn, and reduces mycotoxins (the toxins of molds that commonly infect maize). Nixtamalization increases the nutritional value of corn because cooking corn with lime converts corn’s bound niacin to free niacin, making it available for absorption, and improves the balance of essential amino acids. Corn can also absorb minerals from the lime, which can increase available calcium, iron, copper, and zinc.
The partnership between City Market and All Souls Tortilleria is a perfect match, as both companies believe in strengthening the local food system and supporting the health of their communities. All Souls Tortilleria’s mission is to “nourish neighbors through the art of crafting accessible foods using locally-grown organic crops,” and by partnering with City Market, All Souls Tortilleria was able to leverage the necessary resources in order to bring their project to reality.
Joe, Sam, and Hubert applied for a $52,000 Local Farm and Producer Investment Program loan to finance the purchase of custom built tortilla equipment from Campbell Machine in California. All Souls Tortilleria is able to share Vermont Bean Crafters’ space at Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren, VT and shares the costs of the commercial kitchen and necessary equipment (for example, their seed cleaning equipment can clean both beans and corn). The business partners had already established a supply of local corn thanks to Vermont Bean Crafters’ network of diversified organic growers who produce dry beans for the company’s local bean burgers.
The farmers in their network grow dry beans in a multi-year rotation in which cereal crops, such as corn, precede the dry beans. All Souls Tortilleria will create a market for the corn that is being grown by these farmers, adding value to the crop and further encouraging farmers to build and nurture their soil with beneficial rotations and organic practices. Additionally, All Souls Tortilleria hopes that their need for organic, local corn will create the “ability for more acreage in our foodshed to be planted in organic staple food crops, linking ecological sustainability with rural economic sustainability.”
The partnership between City Market and All Souls Tortilleria fits a number of the Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Plan Goals, including Goal 20: Increasing Access to Capital, Goal 7: Local Food Production and Goal 13: Local Food Availability. Both businesses are mission driven to fill an unmet need for this local product. By using local ingredients and creating demand for locally-grown corn, All Souls Tortilleria is helping to keep Vermont land in agriculture and providing farmers a way to add value to the corn as part of their annual crop rotation. By providing access to capital for these types of projects, City Market furthers their impact on Vermont’s local food system; these projects not only benefit the immediate partners, but create positive change throughout Vermont’s wider food system.