(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - A team of timber framers from the Huntington, Vt. construction company Building Heritage was hard at work Thursday raising a new barn in Vermont's largest city. They were using traditional methods to erect the structure, and in doing so, were also helping build a more vibrant food system.
"It's what's going to allow small farms to thrive," said farmer Eric Seitz.
For more than eight years, Seitz has grown vegetables in a non-traditional place for farming: a city. Just minutes from downtown Burlington, Vt., the non-profit Intervale Center rents 350 acres to urban farmers like Seitz. His Pitchfork Farm sells beets, carrots, and other crops wholesale to Vermont restaurants. When it was time for the business to expand, Seitz told New England Cable News Pitchfork Farm benefitted from some help in locating new customers.
"There's no shortage of small farms around this country that are looking for new markets to sell to," Seitz noted.
Seitz found his new customers through the Intervale Food Hub. It's like a farmer's market that delivers direct to consumers. Products include veggies, eggs, meats, bread, prepared meals, and more.
"We have to have farmers that are making a living," said Travis Marcotte, the executive director of the Intervale Center.
Marcotte explained the Intervale Food Hub is different than the familiar "community-supported agriculture" programs operating at many farms. While many of those CSA operations sell shares that give customers a chance to pick up crates of food from a single farm each week, the Food Hub fills its delivery boxes with a variety of items from at least two dozen farms.
The Intervale Food Hub also delivers to workplaces around Chittenden County, Vt., further giving buyers more flexibility, Marcotte said. "The state of Vermont has an aggressive plan to grow the amount of food consumed in Vermont that's grown in Vermont, and things like food hubs can really help accelerate that," he added.
Marcotte told NECN the concept has been so successful, growing 20-30 percent a year for five years, the Intervale Food Hub needs more space. It'll soon move into the $425,000 barn Building Heritage is working on, for storage, coolers, and distribution. The crew had been in cramped quarters.
"It's another step in the right direction," Food Hub staff member Bobby Young said, smiling.
In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture identified more than 170 of these food hubs around the country, and believes there is huge growth potential for them. The USDA has called them pillars for building stronger food systems in our communities. "People around the country are looking for food that takes care of the planet, takes care of farmers, and takes care of themselves," Marcotte said.
A typical vegetable plan runs $30 dollars a week for customers in the Burlington, Vt. area. The Intervale said that is on par with mainstream grocery store prices. Vermont-raised meats and cheeses, though, are considerably more expensive, the non-profit pointed out.
Eric Seitz said he appreciates the support from his neighbors. "What the Food Hub has done is it has grown the pie for all the farms that are participating," he added.
Seitz and Marcotte said they are certain this emerging trend of local food sourcing and delivery will mean more sales for producers and more nutrition for customers, while preserving farm lands and boosting agricultural jobs.
"We can't move all of the food production into an industrialized system that does not actually take care of the folks who grow the food," Marcotte said.
The Intervale Center said it hopes its new barn will stand for 200 years, as did the historic structure it was modeled after. When complete, the structure may have several other applications aside from housing the Intervale Food Hub. For more on Burlington's Intervale Center, visit the non-profit's website.