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Peaceful Harvest Mushrooms: VCLF Borrower Cultivates Health & Wellness Vermont Community Loan Fund Lends $1,371,936 So Far in 2020

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Karen and Brian Wiseman carefully cultivated their careers. Both spent years at Boston-area bio-tech and pharmaceutical companies, dedicated to the advance of health, wellness and medicine.

“I was a chemical engineer, working on the early development of protease inhibitors,  now used to treat HIV,” Karen recalls. At another point, she managed multi-million-dollar projects for the pharmaceutical giant where she met fellow employee Brian.

But, as the  Wisemans’ Peaceful Harvest Mushrooms website explains it: “…we wanted to weave the fabric of our lives back together in a different way; one that was truly in line with our values.” So it was that in 2010, Karen recounts, that they left their big jobs and home in southern New Hampshire to become mushroom farmers in central Vermont. “Our friends thought we were crazy.”

With their backgrounds in pharmaceuticals, they knew of the health benefits associated with mushrooms. “Statins,” Karen notes, “which are used to treat high cholesterol, were based on components from the Reishi mushroom,” one of the varieties Peaceful Harvest grows. Mushrooms and herbs used for thousands of years in eastern medicine have in fact been synthesized to provide the bases of many successful western pharmaceutical brands, she explains. “Lion’s Mane mushrooms are known for neurological benefits, and Cordyceps mushrooms support lung and immune functions. Nature works in this amazing, complex way.”

They cashed out their retirement funds and purchased a property in Worcester, fitting up the home and outbuildings with a commercial kitchen, sterile lab space, and a climate-controlled, humidified room. “Mushrooms need about 90% humidity to grow,” Karen says,  “and the space has to be sterile so other organisms won’t develop.”

Brian set to work growing mushroom varieties, while Karen handled marketing, distribution and more. “I’d drive for hours, making deliveries to Stowe, then Middlebury, Montpelier, and Burlington to sell just three to five pounds of fresh mushrooms.” 

If selling fresh mushrooms presented certain market obstacles, the Wisemans, undaunted, began to cultivate another idea: dried mushrooms. Easier to transport, less spoilage and, from a marketing perspective, there were few competitors producing dried mushroom tinctures and powders, a clear competitive advantage.

After careful development of an introductory line, Karen packed up her Peaceful Harvest medicinal mushroom supplements, and hit the road. At a single retail site, a small food coop, she sold out her entire stock. “We’d found a niche,” she says. Deliveries were quicker, shelf life was longer, demand was fast growing. “We developed a following and it was profitable.”

Karen and Brian continued to immerse themselves in the study of herbalism, anatomy & physiology and more. They also learned that federal regulations mandated a larger space for their operations.

By the time they’d located the ideal property just minutes down the road in Worcester, they’d already considered various financing strategies. “We weren’t a viable business model for angel investors who wanted to see rapid growth,” Karen recalls. “We knew of businesses that failed after growing too fast. And we weren’t interested in taking on debt we couldn’t pay back.” On the advice of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, the Wisemans reached out to the Vermont Community Loan Fund.

 VCLF’s SPROUT loan program serves start-up and early-stage businesses like the Wisemans’, providing the flexibility that have allowed for the phased development of their business. The Wisemans’ SPROUT loan provided capital for fit-up and renovations to their new growing and production buildings just down the road from their home.

 “We had a lot at stake, our homestead and our business that we’d put everything into,” Karen says. “The Loan Fund wasn’t interested in pushing us to grow too rapidly, or in taking our home. They were interested, like we were, in building community.”

 By the time the COVID crisis hit in the early spring of 2020, Peaceful Harvest had a sizeable enough inventory to satisfy a growing customer base seeking to boost health and immune systems with medicinal mushrooms. Throughout the ongoing health crisis, Peaceful Harvest’s business has been, well, mushrooming.    

  “We’ve come full circle,” Karen says reflecting back on goals that have long been central and meaningful to her and Brian. “We’re helping people, growing food, feeding people, supporting our community. It’s everything we’ve always wanted to do.”

During the first half of the year, VCLF also provided financing to:

Bellu Porcellu, Panton
Bellu Porcellu is a diversified livestock farm producing pork, lamb, duck and chicken and hosting culinary events on their 56-acre property. They used VCLF financing to pay off an existing equipment loan and restructure credit card debt for farm renovations. Their subsidiary, Agricola Meats, is also a VCLF borrower, specializing in cured meats. The loan preserves two jobs.

Fresh Roots Farm, Sharon
Organic vegetable grower Fresh Roots Farm borrowed from the Loan Fund in 2019 to cover costs of staffing, seeds, equipment and more. In 2020, Fresh Roots returned to VCLF to help finance seasonal operating costs. The loan helps preserve one full-time job. facebook.com/pages/Fresh-Roots-Farm/1607414642842778

 My Favorite Things Food Truck, Jeffersonville
My Favorite Things chef and owner Lea Ann Macrery first borrowed from the Loan Fund in 2019 to purchase the vehicle from which she operates her food truck and catering business. Committed to sourcing local ingredients at a sometimes-higher price point, Lea Ann borrowed again from VCLF to cover these and other seasonal operating costs. The loan preserves one full-time job. facebook.com/myfavoritethingsvt

Sweet Pickins Farm, Putney
Sweet Pickins Farm raises chickens and ducks for eggs and meat. Given their limited processing and storage space, regulations prohibited selling their meat outside Vermont, and permitted selling whole birds only; selling parts would require an expansion. A VCLF line of credit helped finance an indoor processing space, eliminating these restrictions and increasing market opportunities. Financing is expected to create one full-time job, plus additional part-time positions. facebook.com/sweetpickinsfarmputney

Tamarlane Farm, Lyndonville (2 loans)
Owned and operated by Eric and Cathy Paris for almost 40 years, Tamarlane Farm is a certified organic farm producing milk, grass-fed beef, vegetables and compost. The Parises felt certain that, with updated equipment and systems, they could produce and sell significantly more compost. VCLF helped finance a bucket loader and an aeration system, expected to triple compost production. The loan preserves one job. thelyndonfreighthouse.com/tamarlane-farm.php

Walnut Hill Farm, Pawlet
Walnut Hill Farm, producers of flowers and pork products, has been making a name for itself in major NYC area and other retail venues since starting its borrowing relationship with VCLF in 2015. Most recently, they borrowed to purchase a manure spreader. The loan preserves two full-time jobs and one part-time job, as well as additional seasonal positions. walnuthillfarmvt.com

 Wilson Herb Farm, Greensboro (2 loans)
Wilson Herb Farm grows organic culinary and medicinal herbs for the value-added products they sell online, at wholesale, retail and farmers’ markets. When they purchased another nearby organic produce farm and farmstand they came to VCLF for financing to purchase inventory and develop the site into a seasonal marketplace offering local, organic, sustainably grown food and products. The loan preserves two jobs and creates two new ones. wilsonherbfarm.com

 Paycheck Protection Program loans:
The US Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, established by the 2020 CARES Act, has helped small businesses, nonprofits and self-employed Vermonters access financial support to offset losses due to COVID-19. Thanks to our pre-existing relationship with the SBA, the Loan Fund was able to help the following businesses access PPP financing:

·         Fisher Brothers Farm, Burlington

·         Herb Craft, Middlesex

·  NU Chocolat, Burlington

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