Written by Alissa Matthews and Sarah Waring
There’s no vegetable more basic than a potato. This humble, tuberous root crop, Solanum tuberosum, grows in the dark, hidden from view most of the year, and emerges late when the air is frosty. It’s not as exciting as kale, not as exotic as kohlrabi, and even has relatives that seem nicer—the sweet potato and the yam. But when it comes to taking our local food system forward in the state of Vermont, the potato—and other staple vegetables often seen as routine and dull—may be the next big thing.
In 2013, Annie Rowell of the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) started working on a pilot project that would move pre-processed potatoes, carrots, beets, and other vegetables into Vermont schools. The purpose of the project, funded by the Vermont Community Foundation’s Farm and Food Initiative, was to get more local food to local institutions so that cafeterias around the state would have access to more local produce that’s all ready to use, while expanding a new market for farmers.
A number of programs exist in Vermont to get local foods into institutions, and Annie consulted with many of them. But the unique focus of this project was on minimal processing: How could raw veggies be processed for school cooks and food service directors in advance, given that for them, peeling, washing, and prepping a root crop often takes a lot of valuable time?
“Minimal processing addresses the issues of usability and utilization,” says Annie. “These are simple procedures—washing, cutting and packaging—but they can turn a raw ingredient into something immediately usable—and save time for the small local school.”
The key link in the project was relying on the shared-use kitchens of the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick to process the vegetables. Normally the Food Venture Center is used by food entrepreneurs to create processed products for retail sale, or by local farmers who need co-packing services. The idea here was to use the Center to research the feasibility of processing vegetables for use in schools and other institutions and to learn more about the potential for this new market for local farmers.
Annie traveled around the state with her colleague Alissa Matthews, both of whom are based out of the CAE in Hardwick, and between them, they spoke with more than 150 schools about which specific crops could be grown well in Vermont, processed at the Food Venture Center, and delivered throughout the state.
They settled on broccoli, carrots, beets, and potatoes, but were particularly excited about potatoes, which tend to sell for very low prices through most wholesale markets. In this project, farmers could instead receive more value for this simple crop, and the Center could buy thousands at a time (a number that can’t be sold at a farmers’ market).
Bob Chappelle, of Chappelle’s Potatoes, understands why the added value is important. He started growing potatoes on his farm in Williamstown as a hobby 40 years ago, while working as a teacher, and quickly found he loved growing potatoes. He and his wife, Barbara, now cultivate close to 50 acres.
The Chappelles have very diversified markets. Roughly 10 percent of their sales come from neighbors and walk-in traffic, people buying potatoes directly. But most of their tubers can be found at 8 to 10 Hannaford retail outlets, along with some other wholesale accounts and chefs, and 20 percent are certified by the state to sell to smaller market growers as seed potatoes. “We truly depend on all of the various types of customers and enjoy being able to interact with so many different people,” Bob says.
Philosophically, the Chappelles believe in the work CAE is doing and are passionate about getting local food into schools and institutions. “We know that the easiest thing for institutions to do is order from one wholesaler, every day or multiple times a week, so we appreciate the openness of our new market partners in working with us on this level.” They’re already recognizing substantial growth in their business from the efforts of the local food movement and are now able to get a much more viable price for their potatoes. “In this project, the Center for an Ag Economy got my potatoes to folks who wouldn’t have eaten them,” Bob says.
Peaslee’s Vermont Potatoes in Guildhall, run by Karen Guile, the third generation of her family in the potato business, is another potato farm that CAE has worked with. Right now, Peaslee’s potatoes go to a variety of markets through distributors, independent grocery stores such as White Markets and Shaw’s, and some smaller accounts. Now they also sell potatoes destined for Vermont schools and universities through the work being done at the Food Venture Center.
So far, UVM has been the biggest purchaser of vegetables that have been processed through this pilot program. The Brennan’s Café outlet on campus orders more than 4,000 pounds of local potatoes a month in the form of freshly cut fries, thanks to the Food Venture Center and their new partnership with Peaslee’s and Chappelle’s.
Other purchasers of the processed vegetables include Rutland School District, various schools served by Green Mountain Farm Direct, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and UVM Medical Center. Processed products include carrot sticks, shredded carrots, whole peeled and diced beets, and frozen broccoli florets. “The demand for products that this project has generated has been a testimonial to the many years of hard work that went into developing the local food movement, and this project’s continued success is thanks in large part to the awareness that has been cultivated by our many partners,” says Alissa.
As the local food movement grows and farmers’ markets become more saturated with products, farmers need more market outlets. Adding value to raw vegetables is a great way to get more locally grown produce into local hands while giving farmers access to new markets and higher prices for their labor. It might be that our simplest vegetables offer the easiest way for folks to eat more locally. What can be more familiar than a carrot stick? More comforting than fries? By all accounts, Vermonters already are glad to see their everyday comfort food coming from a source closer to home.