Monthly Archives: October 2009

Keep Local Farms

Diane Bothfeld

Diane Bothfeld is the new Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Photo courtesy of Kelly Loftus

by Bethany M. Dunbar,  October 30, 2009

Congratulations to Diane Bothfeld who was just named Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for Vermont.

Ms. Bothfeld is an enthusiastic and capable advocate for dairy farmers and agriculture in general.  Before she worked for the state as dairy policy administrator she worked at St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.  I remember seeing her at annual meetings back in those days.

Diane Bothfeld grew up on a farm in Cabot, right in the heart of dairy country, got a bachelor’s and master’s in science at the University of Vermont and has been involved with the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Most recently, Ms. Bothfeld has been working on fair trade for Vermont dairy farmers — a concept that is most commonly reserved for dealing with third-world countries but is strangely applicable in the United States in this case.

The concept is simple — a brand and logo “Keep Local Farms” shows consumers that some of the money that they are spending is going directly to farmers.  People who care about farmers even more, and want to take further direct action, have an opportunity to donate to the fund through the Keep Local Farms web site.  The money will be distributed to farmers twice a year.  The web site also has lots of great facts and statistics about dairy farming.

Speaking with a local farmer recently, he said he likes the idea but said really consumers should not have to donate to anything.  The price paid in the stores is enough — it’s just that too much of it goes to the middlemen.

Posted below is my story about the Keep Local Farms program, plus an editorial I did recently.

There is a lot going on right now including a federal lawsuit against some of the middlemen.  I will post a story on that soon.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one of those annual meetings of the St. Albans Co-op I covered when Gary Hanman of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) came to Vermont.  One of these days I’m going to dig that story out and post it.  His comments back then might be kind of interesting to read now that he has been named in the lawsuit against DFA and others.  The suit claims the processors have been manipulating the milk price to keep the price low for farmers.

I am covering the suit for the Chronicle and New England Country Folks magazine, so please be sure to read those too.

I’m finding that this blog is getting a lot of readers who are interested in the dairy crisis story.  I intend to make it a regular subject.  We have to keep these farms going in any way we can.

My very first blog got a great response from Gloria Bruce of Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association who recommended following up with a story about agri-tourism, which is in the works.  Thanks, Gloria, for the ideas and information!  Her organization will host a meeting on this important subject in Newport on November 18.

Thanks for your comments and e-mails.  Please keep them coming!

Keep Local Farms

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This is the logo for the Keep Local Farms program.

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, September 16, 2009

A program called Keep Local Farms — launched Monday— is already raising cash for dairy farmers.

An enthusiastic Diane Bothfeld said Tuesday she hopes Keep Local Farms will raise $1.8-million for direct payments to farmers within the first six months.  If so, that would mean $1,000 for each farm in New England.

“I’m sounding real confident,” she said after explaining how the program will work.

The concept is to apply the formula of fair trade, and establish a mechanism to send some extra funds directly from consumers to farmers.

It’s a concept Ms. Bothfeld and others at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture have been working on for years.  She and others have done research about how much consumers would be prepared to help, if they knew the farmers were actually getting the money.

Funds will come into the program three ways.  People can donate directly through the Keep Local Farms web site (KeepLocalFarms.org).  Consumers can support businesses that advertise they are part of the program.  Businesses and institutions that post a sign with the Keep Local Farms logo will be paying extra for milk, at a level to be negotiated, and all of that extra money will go directly into a fund for farmers.

The first example is going to be the University of Vermont, which will be on board in October.  Each pint of milk that a student at UVM buys will cost an extra 10 cents, and that money will go into the fund.

“We’re working with hospitals too,” she said.  “You don’t get to take a piece out of it.  The whole amount has to be passed through.”

The third way for money to come into the fund is by co-branding with processors.  For example, an agreement might be reached with Booth Brothers to put 30 to 60 cents a gallon extra into the fund.  Then the company would be allowed to put the Keep Local Farms logo on its bottles of milk.  Potentially, the brand could be applied to cheese and other dairy products as well.

Ms. Bothfeld said research of consumers in New England has shown that people would pay 30 to 60 cents more per gallon if they knew the money was going directly to farmers.  She said they started the research in 2007 and went back to check if it was still accurate during the current economic downturn, and it still is.

One of the areas researched was the definition of local.  Researchers found that Vermonters consider Vermont local, while people in Boston feel Vermont and New Hampshire are local.

“We’re all in this together,” said Ms. Bothfeld.

Part of the reason for Ms. Bothfeld’s enthusiasm on Tuesday was the fact that the program was just launched Monday, and the next morning the organizers checked the web site and found they had donations of $600 already — in one day.

Farmers can join individually, or dairy cooperatives can join in bulk.  Cooperatives that have already joined include Agri-Mark, St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, Dairy Farmers of America and Dairylea.

The board that will take funds in and distribute them is the New England Family Dairy Farm Cooperative.  It was formed in 2005 and is run by a 12-member board of directors — farmers from each of the New England states.  Currently, 1,000 of New England’s 1,800 dairy farms belong to the cooperative.  The rest are being recruited, according to a fact sheet distributed at the Keep Local Farms press conference.

Payments to farmers will be made twice a year, once at spring planting time and once at fall harvest.  Information on the total dollars distributed and the average amount returned per dairy farmer will be posted on the Keep Local Farms web site.

The fact sheet says that New England has lost over 100 dairy farms in the last two years, and thousands were lost before that.

“With the current price downturn, we are in a crisis situation where we may lose the ability to maintain a viable dairy industry in New England.”

The fact sheet notes that farmers are currently receiving about 97 cents per gallon of milk, although the cost to produce a gallon is about $1.80.

According to information posted on the web site, in 2006, milk prices reached a 25-year record low of $1.14.  In February of 2009 the price dropped even further, down to about $1.

“Since the 1950s, the dairy farmers’ share of the retail/consumer dollar has declined from about 50 percent to about 30 percent today.  Of the milk you purchase at the supermarket, only about 30 percent of the price gets back to farmers,” says the site, which also has short profiles of a handful of member dairy farmers, some lovely photographs, charts, facts, and pages for frequently asked questions that have not yet been asked.

Consumers are urged to join at a level they can afford.  Joining comes along with a bumper sticker, T-shirt or insulated grocery bag depending on the level of support.

Editorial, the Chronicle, September 22, 2009

Here are some interesting numbers coming out of a hearing on dairy prices in St. Albans Saturday:

Dean Foods made first-quarter profits of $76.2-million, and its chief executive officer has personally made $116.38-million over a five-year period.

Dean Foods is the conglomerate that controls 70 percent of the milk sold in New England.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers are losing money at a rapid clip.  One typical farmer testified that he is losing $4,500 a month.

Bob Wellington of Agri-Mark testified that every cow on a pasture in Vermont generates economic activity of more than $13,000.

An agricultural economist from the University of Vermont testified that if the current dairy crisis continues, 150 dairy farms might go out of business in the coming year.  (There are only about 1,100 left)

There is so much wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know even where to start.  Vermont needs to keep those cows, and we need to keep those farmers — as many as we can.

If Vermont farmers could even reliably and consistently make 50 percent of what milk is sold for in the stores, many — if not most of them — could stay afloat.  But the farm price for milk is closer to 30 percent of the retail price, thanks to an antiquated federal system that allows Dean Foods to monopolize the market.

The hearing mentioned above was the Senate Judiciary Committee.  U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy brought the hearing to St. Albans.  U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders hopes to continue a probe of Dean Foods that was dropped in 2006 because, he says, it was unpopular with the Bush administration.

A full investigation could go a long ways to bring out the truth of where the money is going in the dairy industry and why.

If we are in some semblance of a free market, then competition needs to be able to function.

If not, let’s have a supply management system like the one proposed by Dairy Farmers Working Together.

This business of being stuck in the middle is just not working for farmers, milk consumers, tractor salesmen, grain dealers, nor for the Vermont tourism economy that needs those open fields to prosper.

It really doesn’t seem to be working for anyone but the CEO of Dean Foods.

We should note that we (the Chronicle) did not attend the hearing in St. Albans.  But we were able to watch videos of the hearing and get these statistics from a new Vermont web site called vtdigger.org.  The brand new nonprofit news site is edited by Anne Galloway of East Hardwick, an accomplished journalist and an old friend.  It’s worth a look. — B.M.D.

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Yankee ingenuity

Pictured above:  October snow in West Glover, Vermont.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Inventors do well in Vermont

Timothy Perkins at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Timothy Perkins at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar,  October 23, 2009

Timothy Perkins of Barton has designed a maple spout that is increasing production dramatically by using an incredibly simple concept.  It’s a check valve with a tiny plastic ball inside the spout, and it keeps maple sap from flowing back into the tree.

People have been trying to figure out how to solve this problem for years.  When I heard that a guy who grew up lugging sap buckets through the deep, wet snow in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont was the one to figure out a practical way to solve this problem, I was not surprised.

Even better, what he and his wife do in their spare time is the Odyssey of the Mind, a challenge for kids to exercise their scientific minds.

Maybe it’s the long cold winters, or the ruggedness of the landscape and life here.  Maybe it’s the general lack of funding to go out and hire someone or buy something to fix our everyday problems.  Normally if duct tape and baler twine won’t do it, we have to move to the next level and figure something else out.  I think it’s a combination of all this plus genetic material that equates to a perfect recipe for Vermont inventors.

Posted here are the Chronicle stories of Timothy Perkins and Jason Starr, who invented a cool device to play with that many of us happened to see and even tried out at the Great Parker Pond regatta at the home of our celebrated publisher around Labor Day or so.  I don’t think anyone got pictures of me falling into the water after I tried those things, at least they haven’t shown up on facebook.  Let’s just say the surf skis are not as easy as Jason makes them look, but that doesn’t take away from the coolness of the concept.  In fact a little challenge makes anything like that a little more fun.

I can’t write about inventors without mentioning one of my favorite profiles of all time, Romeo Vezina, whose profile shows up on the Chronicle web site. Romeo is the town constable and sells vacuum cleaners, and he has designed a wooden vacuum cleaner.  He has also done an incredible variety of other things in his life, spelled out in the story.

Also on the Chronicle web site is a profile by Joseph Gresser of Philip Hurley who designed an energy system that you have to check out.

What is it about this place that gives us so many great ideas?  Do you know of an inventor that would be a good story?  Thanks for reading and thanks for all your thoughts and comments.  Stay warm, and keep on thinking.

Barton-born inventor runs UVM maple research facility

The check valve is visible in this close up of the maple spout.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

The check valve is visible in this close up of the maple spout. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar      the Chronicle, September 30, 2009

UNDERHILL, Vt. — Timothy Perkins started out studying spruce trees.

He grew up in Barton and graduated from Lake Region Union High School in 1979.  He went to the University of Vermont, where he studied acid rain with Hub Vogelmann.  Studies of vegetation on Camel’s Hump are ongoing since the 1960s.

Mr. Perkins has shifted his attention to maple trees.  He joked that he couldn’t get UVM to change the name of the Proctor Maple Research Center when he started working there, so he figured he’d better do some work that lived up to its name.

He certainly has done so.

In August U.S. Senator Pat Leahy announced that Progressive Plastics in Williamstown will start full-scale production of a maple sap spout designed Mr. Perkins, who is the director of the research center and has been since 1996.

Senator Leahy also announced a new UVM appropriation for maple research at the Proctor center — $188,000 to fund research to further increase sap yields.

Mr. Perkins’ spout has a simple check valve inside it that keeps sap from flowing back into the trees — a little ball that rolls into place and blocks the valve when the sap starts flowing the wrong way.  It’s designed for use in vacuum systems.

“A lot of research has already been done on gravity,” he said.  There are a lot of small producers of maple syrup still using buckets, but 95 percent of the syrup in the world is made with vacuum systems.

“The maple industry is growing, growing very strongly for years,” he said.  He said there are a number of producers in Vermont with more than 50,000 taps, in some cases up to 100,000.

He said that his research has successfully increased production from half a gallon per tap to a gallon of syrup per tap.

“We did it last year,” he said.

People like to spend time in the sugarhouse, he said, “But the place where you make your money is in the woods.”

His focus has been, and continues to be, what can be done to increase yields in a sustainable way.

Mr. Perkins said the spout will increase production for maple sugarmakers by 25 percent to 90 percent.  If a sugarmaker’s tubing is brand new, the gains will be lower because there is no bacteria inside new tubing.

Even though tubing is completely cleaned out every year, some bacteria remains.  Then when there is a release of suction in the vacuum system, the tree, which has a slight amount of suction inside it, will suck sap back in.  Sap also gets sucked back in from the pipeline when the tree refreezes each night.

“Up to a pint can run back into the tree at night,” he said.

When bacteria gets into the tap hole, the hole’s reaction is to heal up to keep more bacteria from getting in.

Sugarmakers have known this for decades, and other attempts have been made to stop the tap holes from healing over too early.  For years sugarmakers used a tablet made of paraformaldehyde.  The tablet had problems, though, including that the taphole would develop a large wound.

It was also a substance that was not great to have in the maple sap.  Mr. Perkins said it mostly evaporated and wasn’t in the syrup, but it was probably not good for sugarmakers to breathe in during the boiling process.

“It was actually Vermont, the Vermont industry, that first sought to ban paraformaldehyde,” said Mr. Perkins.  He said it has been banned since the 1980s.

Mr. Perkins came up with the idea for the check valve in October of 2007 and ordered a bunch of different types for testing.

The current design has been in use for two years.

“We’ve patented the idea because we knew it was going to be something that was going to be commercially viable,” he said.  UVM is working with Leader Evaporator.  in the spring of 2009, the company gave out 15,000 of the new spouts for their sugarmakers to try.  Mr. Perkins gets a little income from each spout sold as part of the deal with UVM.

Part of the reason the new spout increases production is because it tends to extend the sugaring season.  The tree is not trying to heal its tap hole as quickly, so sap flows out of it for more days.  The spouts can delay the end of the season for a week to three weeks.

“The average season is four weeks,” he said.  “Over 40 years the season has shrunk by three days.”

He said the season averaged 33 days 40 years ago.  It’s also moving earlier into the spring, due to global warming.

Mr. Perkins said it’s extremely difficult to predict the affects of global warming, but it will certainly have an impact.

One of the negative consequences might be a higher prevalence of ice storms.  Other possibilities include diseases and insects moving into Vermont that were not able to live here in past years due to the colder climate.

Among the issues of global warming are changing rainfall patterns.  Perkins said those are even harder to predict than temperature changes, but so far it does not look like Vermont will suffer intense droughts.

Mr. Perkins grew up helping his grandfather, Clifton Perkins of Westmore, and his uncle sugaring.

“Sugaring is a lot of work,” he said, adding that haying is too.  He did the hard work but was always more interested in science.  His parents encouraged him with chemistry sets and in whatever other ways they could imagine.

Mr. Perkins and his wife, Anita Tanguay Perkins, have one daughter, Megen, who graduated from UVM with a degree in early childhood.  She works at the Burlington Children’s Space as a preschool teacher.  A biology minor, Ms. Perkins definitely inherited her father’s scientific curiosity.

When she was a young student at Richmond Elementary School, she came home one day and said, Dad, there’s a cool program I want to do called Odyssey of the Mind.

Megen Perkins made it to the world finals as a fourth grader.

“She is now a head judge at state level,” said her proud father.  She worked as an official at age 16, the youngest person to be trusted with the job.

Timothy Perkins and his wife got deeply involved as well, and now it is what they do in their free time.  They run the state program.

“We both go to world finals every year,” he said.

Odyssey of the Mind is a science competition.  Teams of five to seven students are given problems to solve.  The teams have to work together to solve the problem and create an eight-minute skit demonstrating their solution.

“It’s kind of like a sport for your brain,” he said.  Not only is it a fun competition, it enhances students’ potential job skills.

“More and more employers are looking for people who can work with other people, solve problems, and present.”

In a way, Odyssey of the Mind is similar to Timothy Perkins’ work at the research center as he tries to solve the scientific problems involved in making maple syrup.

Some of the future studies at Proctor are focusing on sap tubing.  Tubing used today is quite different from original types, he said, and the patterns of tubing in the sugarwoods make a huge difference.

Tubing used to be soft and pliable, and these days most of it is made of harder plastic — except the short lines that connect the tap hole in the tree to a bigger line, which need to be flexible.

One question sugarmakers have wondered about is how many taps should ideally be on a lateral line?  The answer to that question is “strive for five” according to Mr. Perkins.  It’s most efficient for sap flow if there is only one tap per lateral line, but that’s too expensive to set up.

Vermont sugarmakers have been extremely helpful to the UVM studies, Mr. Perkins mentioned.  They have really good questions and often have great suggestions for solutions or new studies to be done.  In many cases, it’s too expensive for a maple producer to try out an idea in his or her own sugarbush — especially if the outcome might be that he or she doesn’t make enough to cover the extra cost.

For example, Mr. Perkins might set up a study of 600 trees and that study might cost $150,000.

Even though the cost is high, the production increases at Proctor have been so dramatic that it has been worth the expense.

One of the studies the team at Proctor has been looking at is whether or not the color of the syrup is directly related to the flavor.  The reason some syrup is darker is that it has a higher percentage of invert sugar from microorganisms, Perkins said.

Air injection can create very light colored syrup, but it does not have invert sugar.

“You can’t make candy out of it,” he said.  “It’s a different composition of sugar.”

The air-injected syrup tends not to solidify, which is needed in candy making.

The Proctor Center Maple Processing Research Facility is a separate building on the site with four brand new shiny evaporators.  The roof has solar panels which creates enough electricity, on an annual basis, to run the building.

Mr. Perkins said they considered wind towers but thought they might be controversial at their site in Underhill, on the shoulder of Mount Mansfield.

The center does have a high tower, just above the tree line.  It is called a canopy research tower and measures wind speed, temperature, humidity, and gives data related to photosynthesis and air pollution at several points from the ground to above the tree canopy.

Another study at Proctor is about changing the plumbing of an evaporator so that the heat from the steam that normally floats away into the air is redirected into preheating the sap.  Fuel efficiency can be increased by 7 to 12 percent with this one improvement, Mr. Perkins said.

Surf skis aim to carve a turn on waves

Jason Starr shows one of a pair of surf skis he invented.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jason Starr shows one of a pair of surf skis he invented. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite, the Chronicle, September 9, 2009

WEST GLOVER — Jason Starr of Colchester grew up skiing, but didn’t try surfing until the year he graduated from college, about 20 years ago.

The idea struck almost immediately, and he’s never been able to let it go.

“The idea was to use waves as a slope to ski on,” Mr. Starr said Monday during an interview on the shores of Parker Pond, where the waves are very small.

On the surfboard, he recalled, “I was making that heel-toe snowboard-style turn.”  The question that came to mind:  “Why can’t I be making that ski turn?”

The answer, after five years of work on the Starr Surf Ski, is that he can.  The day after Hurricane Bill did its worst on the east coast in August, Mr. Starr took his set of prototype skis into the surf off Maine.

“They work pretty well,” Mr. Starr reported.  “They carve a turn — which is a pretty big thing.”

To support a skier who weighs up to 150 pounds, the surf skis are pretty big, much longer than Mr. Starr is tall.  He’s developed a second design, a much lighter ski that can’t support a person who isn’t moving, but can be towed into big waves by a Jet Ski, then released.

Mr. Starr said he’s also ridden his skis on the wake of a motor boat, powered by the wave itself.

“Any wave anyone is surfing, I’m trying to ski.”

As he demonstrated on Parker Pond, the skis can also be used to stride across flat water with the aid of a long paddle, using a leg motion much like that of a cross-country skier.

But Mr. Starr doesn’t believe his invention’s future is on flat water.  That’s a better medium for the stand up paddlesurf boards he demonstrates and sells on Lake Champlain.  These look like big, stable sail boards without the sail, powered by a long paddle.

Mr. Starr’s imagination is clearly captured by the idea of carving ski turns across the face of waves.  Much of his time has gone into the study of the patent process, he said, and he’s obtained a “method patent” on the idea of towing athletes into waves on skis.

Mr. Starr relies on others to produce the prototypes he’s designed.  “Because I’m not that adept at building things with my hands,” he said, “I’ve had to work with people who are.”

Among companies he’s found who are willing to experiment with his designs is one that makes water skiing equipment for people who are disabled.

Meanwhile, Mr. Starr supports himself as a journalist on the Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun, two Chittenden County weekly newspapers.

The pace of his development efforts, he said with a smile, reflects that income source.

He acknowledges politely that he does, indeed, have an idea how much money he’s invested in his surf ski, but would prefer not to share that information.

“I know there’s this desire to ski waves,” he said.  “I hope to get someone else involved.”

That someone, he said, would have the means to see the idea through to a product that could be produced in quantity and marketed.

“I’m trying to prove there’s a market right now, that the concept works,” he said.  “Beyond that I don’t have any concrete plans.”

The scarecrows are back!

Some good news for once

yippee ki yi yay

yippee ki yi yay

by Bethany M. Dunbar              October 16, 2009

The scarecrows are back.  I’m not exactly sure why I find this story so completely fascinating except it seems like a small triumph of kindness over crappiness.

So I went back and slogged through a lot of really wet grass to get a lot more photos, which you will see posted here for posterity.  I don’t think I photographed all the scarecrows but I did get a lot of them.

One idea I got from an e-mail was that maybe next year, Barton can develop the whole scarecrow thing into a theme or a contest and possibly even make some events around it.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

The background on the story is this:  Last week Karen and Brian Chaffee put up something like 38 scarecrows along Route 5 between Barton and Orleans.  I covered this story for the Chronicle, but just after I took some pictures the scarecrows were taken down.  It seems some twerp had shot the hunter scarecrow and burned the soldier scarecrows, and the Chaffees were nervous that more damage might be done by leaving them up.

But Karen said she had so many phone calls (about 90) she felt that she just had to put them back up for everyone.  So far they seem soggy but fairly undamaged.  Yay!  Karen mentioned that Donna Bousquet of Irasburg gets credit for painting the faces, and that she did all of them in about an hour.  Now that’s some speedy talent.

Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do.  I'm half crazy, all for the love of you!  It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage.  But you'll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two!

Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you! It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two!

Boo!

Boo!

A faithful volunteer

A faithful volunteer

Staying dry

Staying dry

Ready for a square dance

Ready for a square dance

Only nine more shopping weeks to go

Only nine more shopping weeks to go

Ready for any hair emergency

Ready for any hair emergency

An invisible scarecrow, now that's frightening

An invisible scarecrow, now that's frightening

How cute is that?

How cute is that?

No bunny slopes for her.

No bunny slopes for her.

He ain't nothin but a houn' dog.

He ain't nothin but a houn' dog.

happy sm

Thank you to the troops and their families.

Thank you to the troops and their families.

skeleton sm

The breezes get kind of stiff up here in the Northeast Kingdom sometimes.

The breezes get kind of stiff up here in the Northeast Kingdom sometimes.

Scarecrows

What is wrong with people?

scarecrow convict

by Bethany M. Dunbar, October 9,2009

My question of the week is what is wrong with some people?  They seem to feel the urge to ruin something nice that another person has done for everyone’s enjoyment.

On Sunday afternoon in Barton, a local couple set up an elaborate roadside decoration celebrating fall.  By one count there were 38 scarecrows all along Route 5 between Barton and Orleans.  It was amazing.  Each one had a beautiful painted face and clothes.

A pair near the turn to Lake Region Road had a sign saying, “Go Rangers!” to encourage the high school’s soccer teams.  The boys are undefeated this year.

Others included a scarecrow dressed in rain gear and holding an umbrella, a hunter scarecrow in camouflage and an orange vest, one in medical scrubs, one in firefighters’ clothes and gear, a skier, and a convict in prison garb, to mention just a few.  A “just married” bride and groom were perched on a bicycle built for two.

At the beginning and end of the row were signs warning drivers to watch out for “scarecrows crossing.”  At the northern end of the collection were a pair of Santa and Mrs. Claus scarecrows with a sign, “Coming soon.”

The town was buzzing.  People kept coming in to the Chronicle office to tell us about it.  It just kind of made the whole town’s day.  There were rumors about who had done it, but part of the fun it seemed was that no one had taken credit.  These scarecrows were just out there looking cheerful.

My car was in the shop on Monday so I couldn’t go look until Tuesday morning.

When I did I was amazed.  It was quite a show.  It was hard to decide which ones to photograph; I knew we couldn’t fit them all in the paper.

In retrospect I wish I had taken a photo of each remaining scarecrow because I found out shortly later that some had been taken, burned, or vandalized.  One dressed like a soldier had been burned and two others were knocked over.

I got back to my desk and started to put the pictures into the computer, and in came Paul Doyle, who owns the sugarhouse along the route.  He said they were all gone.

What?

Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

The people who made them had taken them all down because of the vandalism.  Mr. Doyle was clearly upset that someone would wreck this random act of kindness meant to brighten everyone’s day.

So this isn’t the biggest injustice in the universe.  But it just really stinks, particularly because of the generous nature of the placing of the scarecrows in the first place.  I hope whoever got their jollies ruining someone else’s nice work feels really proud of this little prank.

What goes around comes around.

DSC_0126

Thank you to the creators of the scarecrows.  Clearly you put a huge amount of effort into making them.  A lot of people saw them; it was a fun thing.  You did a good deed, and with any luck something good will come back to you.

To anyone thinking of visiting to see foliage:  This is the weekend.  It’s spectacular.  For those looking for activities beyond driving around looking at the scenery, there is a fall festival at the Orleans County fairgrounds in Barton and an arts and crafts fair at Jay Peak.

For more on these events, and other listings, check out the Chronicle’s web site, or better yet, pick up the actual newspaper!

Thanks for reading.

Good companies to keep

Vermont food entrepreneurs have amazing offerings

by Bethany M. Dunbar,  October 2, 2009

Barbara Frechette and Steven Maestras of Relish Vermont.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Barbara Frechette and Steven Maestas of Relish Vermont. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Two little new businesses I have written about for the Chronicle in the past year deserve an extra mention here.  Their products are delicious, and they are just really neat people trying to make a go of it.  I want them to succeed, so if this helps, that would be great.  You might consider their products for your Thanksgiving dinner or for holiday gifts.

One of the companies I only mentioned briefly in the newspaper because I met the owners while covering something else, an announcement about a new food venture center coming to Hardwick.

The new little company I’m speaking of is located outside the newspaper’s regular coverage area — in Essex Junction.

The company name is Relish Vermont, and it was started by a woman who was recently widowed and who decided she was not just going to sit around feeling sorry for herself.  She was going to make some relish.

In truth, she has been making relish since the 1960s.  Everyone has complimented her and for good reason.  The relish is divine.  I only tried one variety, but I ate most of the jar in one day.  I put it on my vegetables for supper and in my sandwich the next day.  It goes with fish, beef, chicken, vegetables or on bread.  It’s got biggish chunks of zucchini and peppers.  It’s sweet, and it has curry in it.  It’s incredible.  I e-mailed the company owners right after my first taste and said I really need a case of this.  They are just starting production.  I am waiting patiently — kind of.

Barbara Frechette of Essex Junction is the creator of Relish Vermont.  Her husband was an accountant, and she used to give it to his clients.  Steven Maestas, a friend of the family, is helping get Relish Vermont into production.

The other company I wanted to highlight is Ploughgate Creamery of Albany.  Ploughgate cheese is heavenly, smooth and sublime.  Posted below is the story I wrote about them for the Chronicle.  Check the Chronicle web site for more such stories, including features on Eden ice cider, the Jasper Hill cheese caves in Greensboro,  Dan Maclure’s beefalo (Farm and Forest Ranch), Highland Cattle, Bonnieview Farm (Neil Urie), and a 1993 article about the Lazy Lady in Westfield — among others.

What is your favorite little Vermont food company?  Tell me who, how and why.  Recipes would be wonderful.  Thanks!

Samples of Ploughgate cheese varieties.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Samples of Ploughgate cheese varieties. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Ploughgate Creamery is a cheese business with no animals — yet

by Bethany M. Dunbar, The Chronicle, March 25, 2009

ALBANY — Princess Maclean and Marisa Mauro started making cheese in May 2008.  Called Ploughgate Creamery, their tiny agricultural enterprise is unusual in at least one noteworthy way.

They have no animals.

“Our whole motivation behind this is to be farmers,” said Ms. Mauro with a wide smile.

They just haven’t got quite that far yet.

Both young women always wanted to have a dairy farm and make cheese.  Both have worked in a variety of cheese-making settings and learned a lot about it, with hands-on experience — from California to Shelburne Farms and locally.  Not only did they learn how to make amazing, incredible cheeses, they learned about marketing as well.  So instead of starting with the farming end of things, they decided to start with the cheesemaking and selling end.  In theory, they will master the second part of the process first, so they won’t have to be figuring it all out at once and suffer the consequences of milking cows and having no market for large quantities of milk.

So far, so good.

Ploughgate Creamery cheeses are mostly soft cheeses, like brie.  The cheeses are smooth, rich and creamy, slightly tangy, and the cheesemakers are working on varieties including one washed with ice cider, so the rind carries the local beverage’s distinct flavor.

The two make small batches of cheese, between 25- and 45-gallon batches, or about 45 pounds of cheese, three or four times a week.  In the winter they use cow’s milk because sheep’s milk is seasonal, but they use sheep’s milk in the summertime.  They buy the milk from local farmers and pasteurize it.  Although they would like to make some raw milk cheeses at some point, they aren’t ready yet. Raw milk cheeses require a 60-day aging process.

“I have a hard time bragging, but when people try it, they like it,” said Ms. Maclean.  So far they have been selling Ploughgate cheeses at farmers’ markets and at the Buffalo Mountain Cooperative in Hardwick.  Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick uses some Ploughgate cheese in its menu as well, and Ploughgate cheeses are a featured part of the community supported agriculture shares at Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury.

If Ms. Maclean’s first name seems unusual, it’s good to know that she was named by her sister, who was four years old at the time.  Her sister’s name is Emmy Lou Harris Maclean.

Ms. Maclean was born in Massachusetts and went to Sterling College in Craftsbury, studying sustainable agriculture.  Ms. Mauro, who grew up in Dorset, Vermont, also went to Sterling, but only for a year.

“I’ve just been working on farms that produced cheese ever since I was 16,” she said.  She currently works part-time for Lowell Urie.

Ms. Maclean worked at Neil Urie’s sheep dairy, Bonnieview, for five years.  Her husband, Nathan van Gulden, works at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro.  Ploughgate ages some of its cheeses in the caves at Jasper Hill.

Ms. Mauro worked at Bonnieview as well.  The two young women decided to work together to create the new creamery.  They discovered a creamery in Albany that was not being used.  Built by Frankie and Marybeth Whitten, the creamery was the former home of Up a Creek creamery, which made sheep milk cheese and hard cheese for a few years.  For Ms. Maclean and Ms. Mauro, leasing the place was a great way to get started.

The goal of making great cheese has been achieved, but it’s far from the point where the two are making a living.

“We haven’t made any money yet, and we are working all the time, but we love it,” said Ms. Maclean.  She said they have a business plan, and that has helped.

“We never want to be big,” said Ms. Mauro.

As for the cattle, Ms. Mauro already owns a Holstein-Jersey cross and a Holstein calf.  They are boarding at Neil Fromm’s, one of the farms they buy milk from.  Ms. Maclean said she would like to have about ten cows, but her husband would like to have about 20.

“We want our farm, but it’s fun to work with other farmers too,” said Ms. Mauro.

Both said they’d like to be milking their own cows in two to five years.

It has been helpful for both women to work as a team.  They said although their experiences have been similar, they are not the same and they have been able to learn from each other and bounce ideas off each other.  The two are at the creamery six days a week, but not always at the same time.  Their paths tend to cross in the middle part of the day, a time for discussion and brainstorming.

The artisan cheesemaking culture in northern Vermont has been extremely supportive of their new little business.  Ms. Maclean and Ms. Mauro said the Vermont Cheese Council has been helpful, as have Jasper Hill, Bonnieview and Laini Fondiler in Westfield, who has Lazy Lady cheese.  Cheesemakers in this network tend to help each other instead of seeing each other as competition.  This came in handy for Ploughgate as Ms. Maclean and Ms. Mauro searched for second-hand equipment to save money.

Jasper Hill helps with aging in the caves, and with distribution.

One type of recipe the Ploughgate ladies have been experimenting with lately is cheese washed in a brine made of micro-brewed beer.

Recently the two traveled to Brooklyn, New York, for a tasting at a pub.  They met someone who knew Ms. Fondiler, who makes a cheese called Sweet Emotion.  This person told them that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, who co-wrote the song “Sweet Emotion” which the cheese is named after, had discovered the Sweet Emotion cheese in New York and loved it.

Ms. Maclean and Ms. Mauro were quite excited to hear that news.  When they got home they called her and left a long message about it on her telephone answering machine.

It seems it’s a small, sweet world in the northern Vermont cheese business — and it’s full of emotion.

 Marisa Mauro, left, and Princess Maclean started the Ploughgate Creamery in Albany in 2008.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Marisa Mauro, left, and Princess Maclean started the Ploughgate Creamery in 2008. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar