2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent
ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. — So what’s easier to make: a dish from scratch from a bag of secret ingredients, or state law?
“It’s close,” said Rep. Norm McAllister, a Highgate, Vt., dairy farmer and member of the state’s House of Representatives, at the Vermont Farm Show last week. “It’s similar, because they both might leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.”
McAllister cracked his joke, and a few eggs, at the Capital Cook-Off, a culinary contest now in its second year at the Vermont Farm Show, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary in Essex Junction, at the Champlain Valley Exposition, also home of the Champlain Valley Fair in August.
This was just the second year that the farm show called Essex “home.” Since 1947, the three-day event had been held in Barre Municipal Auditorium, about 45 minutes southeast. Its first home was Burlington Memorial Auditorium.
The larger space at the Essex Expo’s Miller Building had space for 80 more vendor booths.
More than 15,000 people attended the three-day farm show this year, held Jan. 29-31. The event is free, and offers free parking.
“That’s something people have wondered for a long time: Will we charge? Won’t we charge? We don’t need to,” said Ron Greenwood, Vermont Farm Show board and event president. “We can keep our costs down and still offer a great, free event.”
On average, the Vermont Farm Show — the state’s largest agricultural showcase — attracts about 150 vendors, from equipment dealers and agricultural insurance agents to educational displays, nonprofit groups and prize-winning animals.
An additional 65 vendors are at the show on Consumer Night, which features only Vermont-made products, from ice cream, wines and cheeses to popcorn, spreads and fleeces (sheep and llama).
The Capital Cook-Off coincides with Consumer Night as a strong marketing tie-in for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets (VAAFM), but more on that in a bit; first, some history.
The founders of the Vermont Farm Show were Joseph Carrigan, agricultural college dean at the University of Vermont; Edward Jones, state agriculture commissioner; and Harold Dwinell, director of the state agriculture department’s markets division. Their vision was a large, annual state agricultural exhibit.
Today, the Vermont Farm Show operates on an annual budget of about $250,000. Funds come from the sale of vendor booths ($350 per 10-by-10-foot site) and the state, because VAAFM is a strong partner, said Greenwood, 75. His farm equipment business, based in Randolph, has been a Vermont Farm Show exhibitor since 1929 — currently the oldest one there.
The Vermont Farm Show board, which Greenwood has headed for nearly 20 years, also contains 18 representatives from various state agricultural associations. Those groups typically use the farm show as a site for their own annual meetings.
Greenwood said the general topic of concern among farmers at the 2013 show was general expenses versus the price of milk.
“The price of milk always seems to be number one,” he said.
Wartime restrictions halted the Vermont Farm Show in 1943 and 1944. Afterward, it moved to Barre, because Burlington Memorial Auditorium was leased to the Veterans Administration.
“And then we just outgrew Barre,” Greenwood said. “That’s why we moved to Essex.”
And now, the Vermont Farm Show is outgrowing Essex.
“We already wish we had another building,” Greenwood said. “We have more requests for booths than we have space.”
Credit some of that to a boom in Vermont’s diversified agriculture sector, which has generated new products from farmers in large and small markets — and new markets for them.
“We absolutely have to pay more attention to it,” Greenwood said.
For years, one of the most popular events at the Vermont Farm Show was the Political Pull, a milking contest that pitted state legislators against each other.
Two years ago, the Political Pull became the Capital Cook-Off and moved the challenge from the milking parlor to the kitchen.
The premise: three teams from the Vermont House and Senate agriculture committees, and VAAFM, compete in an “Iron Chef”-style challenge and create a dish from a bag of Vermont-based ingredients.
The cook-off shares space with the vendors that participate in Consumer Night. Many of them provide free samples of their products and, in turn, make sales. Their sites are free.
“It’s one part farmers market, one part fun political event,” said Abbey Willard, local foods administrator for VAAFM, who co-organizes the cook-off with Koi Boynton, senior agricultural development coordinator for VAAFM.
“This event is growing every year. It’s nice to have all the positive energy of the vendors and consumers,” Willard said. “New businesses are cropping up all the time, which is pretty cool. This is vibrancy of agriculture.”