Open Farm Day Helps Vt. Farm Get More Business

5/10/2014 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

SOUTH HERO, Vt. — Hannah and Eric Noel’s children, Madeline, 10, and Calvin, 7, played in the barnyard as their parents prepped for guests last Sunday.

The skies were overcast, the air was cool and forecasters predicted rain, not a surprise during yet another wet Vermont spring. But the weather did not dampen the Noels spirits at their Health Hero Island Farm in South Hero.

“This is the first time this event has happened,” said Hannah Noel, as she spread informational fliers on a table about Islands Farms CSA. “We’re not really sure what to expect, but I think it’s a good idea. If we get some new CSA members out of it, that’s great, too.”

Health Hero Island Farm, a pristine and attractive organic operation that sits across the road from Lake Champlain, was one of more than 50 farms across Vermont that participated in the state’s inaugural CSA Open Farm Day.

Held on May 4, CSA Open Farm Day was structured as a four-hour afternoon open house that allowed participating farmers to educate the public about their CSA programs.

Community supported agriculture is a form of direct farm-to-consumer sales in which the customer typically subscribes in the spring to a weekly share of the season’s produce from participating farms. CSA programs have helped to grow and sustain Vermont’s booming farm-to-table movement.

Sixteen farmers and producers supply fresh goods to Islands Farms CSA, which Hannah Noel organized last year. Islands Farms CSA sells shares — a maximum of 15 this year — and has three weekly pickup spots for consumers: Health Hero Island Farm, and two other sites in Essay and Georgia, also in northwestern Vermont.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, or NOFA-VT, organized the event with help from a Vermont Specialty Crop Block Grant.

“With growing consumer demand for local food, there is an increase in marketing opportunities and farmers face a myriad of choices for growing their businesses,” said Erin Buckwalter, NOFA’s market development and community food security coordinator, who took the lead on arranging CSA<\n> Open Farm Day this year.

“CSA farms are poised to meet this consumer demand,” Buckwalter said, “but many consumers do not understand the concept of CSA, nor differentiate among the many models available.” Open Farm Day “is one way for consumers to start to interact with these farms and learn more,” Buckwalter added.

Earlier this week, Buckwalter and her NOFA colleagues were still collecting evaluations from Open Farm Day participants and gathering data about the turnout at all the farms. But Buckwalter believes “the general structure is great.”

Farm activities included tours, demonstrations, product samples and scavenger hunts. Open Farm Day lasted from 1-4 p.m. and included farms from all over the state, whose CSA programs offer produce, dairy products, baked goods and meat.

Buckwalter summarized the planning for Open Farm Day in three words: “Outreach! Outreach! Outreach!”

“We reached out to farmers to get their interest, got their details and put the word out around the state to partners and through press contacts,” she said. “Our goal was to just get consumers on farms, to start understanding more about CSAs and to hopefully create more customers.”

About 18 months ago, the Noels, longtime organic farmers, moved to South Hero from their former farm, Maplewood Organics, in Highgate in nearby Franklin County. Their business partners are Bob Fireovid and Joan Falcao.

Grand Isle County, where South Hero is located, has more diversified farms than Franklin County, which has more conventional dairy farms. So when Hannah Noel started Islands Farms CSA, her intent was to cooperate, not compete, with the CSA programs already in the area.

“We call it coopetition,’” she said.

The Noels devote one acre of their farm to Islands Farms CSA and structured their program after the open-platform model used by the Burlington Intervale, which is arguably the template for most CSAs in Vermont. The Noels still belong to the Intervale.

“They were really supportive of us branching out and doing it on our own,” Eric Noel said.

Zachary and Jessica Gavell, a young, married couple who recently moved to South Hero, owned a CSA share and bought vegetables, bread and cheese through the Intervale when they lived in Burlington, after they graduated from the University of Vermont. They were at Health Hero Island Farm last Sunday to see how they could join Islands Farms CSA.

“We learned about Open Farm Day on Facebook, saw that this farm was participating and thought we’d check it out,” Jessica Gavell said, just prior to a tour of Health Hero Island Farm. “We know we are interested in at least one share.”

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