Business Profile: Bill Suhr, Champlain Orchards

Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards in Shorham, Vt.

Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards in Shorham, Vt.

Bill Suhr was just 25 in 1998 when he bought this conserved apple orchard in Shoreham. The New England apple industry was up against hard times, largely because of foreign competition.  Vermont orchards were going out of business and Shoreham’s large apple packing co-operative was phasing out. Suhr knew that if he was to make a go of it, he would have to be creative.

“We were well on our way to having good ideas,” said Suhr, “and the Farm & Forest Viability Program helped us implement them.”  Working with the Intervale Center under a Viability contract, Suhr developed a business plan centered on the development of an apple processing facility. The plan was to make peeled apple slices to supply a Vermont pie company. Suhr also hoped to interest Vermont schools in purchasing peeled slices packaged in single-servings for school lunches.

Having completed his business plan, in 2005 Suhr paired operating capital with a $6,000 implementation award from the Viability Program to construct a state inspected “white room” for peeling apples—the first of its kind in Vermont. This joins a mix of new and retrofitted buildings in Champlain Orchards’ farmstead that now also house a cider mill, cold storage room, and packing facility. The business plan—centered on value-added processing and direct marketing—has proven successful.

Business Profile: Ben Gleason, Gleason Grains

Ben Gleason, owner of Gleason Grains in Bridport, Vt.

Ben Gleason, owner of Gleason Grains in Bridport, Vt.

Ben and Theresa Gleason bought their farm in Bridport in 1979 and began growing organic wheat just two years later. In 1982 they milled their first wheat berries—the dried seed of the wheat plant—in a small facility on their farm. They have been selling whole wheat flour, whole wheat pastry flour, and wheat berries ever since.

Over the course of the past 29 years, the Gleasons have become well-known across New England for their grain-growing expertise. They own 75 acres of land and rent an additional 40 acres from neighboring landowners. In order to protect soil fertility and to reduce weeds and pests, they annually rotate their tillable land through a succession of crops: black beans, seed clover, soybeans, hay, and wheat. Ben grows around 40 acres of his own wheat each year to mill in his facility and has recently begun contracting with nearby farmers to grow wheat for the business, allowing Gleason Grains to expand without having to expand the land base.

Until 2010, Gleason Grains ran out of a small millhouse and only operated for about 12 hours each week. However, in 2009, Ben milled a record crop of wheat—35 tons—and demand was so high that he sold the entire inventory by March of 2010. This dramatic increase in production, along with a desire to expand into production of a more refined flour, led Ben to write a business plan and apply for an agricultural infrastructure grant from the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program. His plan focused on expanding his facility and increasing marketing in order to develop a new product, a sifted whole wheat flour made through a process called bolting that results in a flour closer in use to white flour, yet with higher nutritional content and minimal processing. He was awarded $15,500 towards an approximately $100,000 construction project, allowing him to double the footprint of his millhouse and install an additional mill and sifting equipment. The addition is two stories tall to allow for the use of gravity in the sifting process. Also, there is now room for storage and the new addition can accommodate a forklift.

Without the Farm & Forest Viability grant, Ben would not have been able to complete an expansion of this scale. The increased capacity of the mill, coupled with the contracts from other farmers to grow wheat for him, has expanded production to almost 140 tons of wheat per year—a 400% increase. This setup will require a time commitment from Ben in educating other farmers how to grow the wheat. The new equipment has also resulted in a more diverse array of products—in addition to his whole wheat bread and pastry flours, he now offers both of these flours in the sifted version. These distinctions are particularly relevant to commercial bakers, who make up a large percentage of his clients, as each of his flours is suited to a different use, from sourdough to biscuits to pie crusts.

Gleason Grains is located just outside Middlebury, where the bustling Middlebury Co-op has been purchasing Ben’s flour for almost fifteen years. In fact, Gleason Grains whole wheat flour is the only bulk whole wheat flour sold at the co-op and sales of the new sifted flour are very strong. Says bulk foods manager Reiner Winkler, “The whole wheat flour has been a huge seller all along and it is a very good price…anyone who discovers his flour becomes very fond of it!”

Business Profile: JD and Cheryl DeVos, Kimball Brook Farm

JD and Cheryl DeVos, owners of Kimball Brook Farm.

JD and Cheryl DeVos, owners of Kimball Brook Farm.

In 1968, when JD DeVos was five years old, his grandfather moved the family, along with 50 cows, from down-state New York to their current location at Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont. In 2001 JD and his wife Cheryl took over the business, expanding the herd from 80 to over 200 cows and adding a milking parlor. In 2003, after another downward trend in conventional milk prices, JD and Cheryl decided to transition the farm to an organic dairy.

Inspired by an organic milk production meeting sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), JD and Cheryl DeVos approached the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program (VFFVP) to seek help with their plan to transition their 220-cow dairy operation into organic production. With a focus on increasing profit and transitioning to organic, VFFVP service provider Nat Bacon of NOFA-VT worked one-on-one with Cheryl and JD to develop an in-depth business plan. The DeVos farm went on to become certified as the largest organic dairy in the state at that time and their business plan projections accurately predicted business outcomes for the years following the completion of the plan. The DeVos’ also conserved their farm in 2004 with funding from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Federal Farmland Protection Program (administered by USDA-NRCS), providing additional financial stability to the operation.

Cheryl and JD returned to VFFVP in 2009, this time to plan for a value-added milk bottling facility. For the DeVos family, the ability to bring a product to the market that isn’t reliant on unpredictable commodity prices is a key reason for pursuing the creamery. After a marketing survey confirmed the demand for local, organic milk, JD and Cheryl decided to go ahead with their plan to offer Vermont customers a unique product: their own organic bottled milk. In 2010, they were awarded a VFFVP implementation grant to purchase equipment for the new enterprise: Green Mountain Organic Creamery.

Business Profile: Pete Colman, Vermont Salumi

Pete Colman, owner of Vermont Salumi, seasons ground pork while preparing sausage.

Pete Colman, owner of Vermont Salumi, seasons ground pork while preparing sausage.

Leaders in Vermont’s food system have exciting things to say about artisanal cured meats: Rowan Jacobsen of the Vermont Public Radio Table believes that “Salumi (aka charcuterie or cured meats) is the obvious next frontier in Vermont’s food revolution,” and Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese points out that:

“Production of American high quality cured meat is not unlike the artisan cheese movement of 25 years ago: a few regional pioneers who believe that if they make something delicious and sustainably produced, Americans will eat it. While salumi may be a relatively obscure and unknown to the American market today, we know that the American consumer did not eat goat cheese 25 years ago.”
Pete Colman plans that his new business, Vermont Salumi, will fill this niche. Vermont Salumi was launched in January of 2011, informed by Pete’s five years of making prosciutto as a hobby—a skill learned from time spent in Italy with his father’s family and friends. When he began looking into opening a business making only cured meats, though, he found that the regulatory requirements to sell dry-aged meat and the turn-around time of the product (it can take several months to a year or more for cured meats to be ready) were prohibitive. With the help of a business planner from the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, Pete was able to examine the costs and benefits of a cured meat business and create a plan for getting there. As a way to appeal to a broad audience and bridge the gap between the inception of the business and selling its first salumi, Pete began to make sausage. Sourcing only pasture-raised heritage pork from Vermont, as well as other Vermont products such as Hill Farmstead Brewery’s beer and wine from Lincoln Peak Winery, Vermont Salumi has come out with several fresh sausage varieties.
Completing a business plan allowed Pete to apply for an agricultural infrastructure grant from the Farm & Forest Viability Program. In order to be able to sell his cured meats, Vermont Salumi needed some serious equipment upgrades and a HACCP plan. An award of $9,250 helped Pete purchase the monitoring equipment necessary to meet regulatory requirements. New gear on the inside of his aging room constantly monitors humidity and temperature and can send updates directly to his computer. The grant also allowed Pete to purchase new production equipment—a meat grinder and a sausage stuffer—that have dramatically improved his efficiency. He says the grant award helps “plan for the project better, and more importantly, it is a serious catalyst” for taking on projects to move is business forward.