BRATTLEBORO—The project proposed for the Grafton Village Cheese facility is still too new for Buzz Schmidt to discuss.
But if all goes well, the current cheese facility next to the Retreat Farm on Route 30 will become an integral part of the region’s local food infrastructure.
Will the new project be a food hub? Or campus? Or venue? Time will tell, and the conversations are just starting.
At this stage, Schmidt said he is investigating having the Retreat Farm take over the cheese facility and renting space to food organizations.
“If we assume that we’re successful with partners and with pulling all these pieces together, including the funding for it, we would have, we think, an opportunity collectively to have a positive impact on the local food system,” Schmidt said.
While he remained vague in defining the project, Schmidt said, “This is not a singular corporation coming in to take over and make cheese in an existing cheese plant, this is about getting the wonderful food-related leadership in this community to collaborate around a big idea.”
Bob Donald, chief financial officer for the Windham Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the Grafton Village Cheese Company and the building, said the foundation is interested in being part of the project and remaining as a major tenant.
He referred to the vision of the project as a “food campus” and noted that earlier this year, the foundation decided to consolidate its cheesemaking at its Grafton plant, he said.
“For literally years, we have been examining the question of ‘Do we really need to produce at both the facilities?’ And have concluded that, ‘No, we do not,’” he said.
In a June 10 letter to employees, Donald wrote, “We are optimistic that we can meet our production needs and achieve positive business results operating primarily from the Grafton Plant.”
One- and two-year aged cheddars are the base of the business, according to Donald.
In recent years, the company has also developed a line of cave-aged cheese. The cheese is not aged in caves per se, but in temperature-controlled conditions at the Grafton facility.
The biggest thing that played into the decision to consolidate was that the capacity and storage volume of the Brattleboro plant is more than what the company needs right now.
The farm was established almost concurrently with the Brattleboro Retreat in 1837, playing a therapeutic role in treatment of the psychiatric hospital’s patients into the 20th century.
“In 2001, the Windham Foundation took ownership of the property, joining forces with the Brattleboro Retreat, the Vermont Land Trust, Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to preserve forever the remaining 612 acres of farm and forested land, the iconic farm structures, and the Farm’s founding principles,” according to the Retreat Farm’s website.
The Windham Foundation transferred ownership of the farmstead and most of the land to a new nonprofit, the Retreat Farm Ltd., in 2016.
Becoming a project partner
The plant houses the Grafton Village Cheese Company’s Brattleboro retail store. Donald said that last fiscal year, the store staff completed almost 42,000 transactions and welcomed an estimated 100,000 visitors.
But as it happens, “We’re not actually producing [cheese] in the Brattleboro plant,” he said.
Donald explained that the plant was designed and built in the early 2000s, “at a time when the expectation was that the cheese market and our piece of it was going to be much bigger than it has turned out to be.”
He cited several reasons for the different outcome.
“It’s a very competitive market today,” Donald said. “We’re hardly the only ones facing these issues. There’s more foreign competition, there’s domestic [competition] as well, and there’s COVID-19, which certainly hasn’t helped.”
Donald said the Windham Foundation and Grafton Village Cheese has partnered with the Retreat Farm for several years on different projects. The two organizations are now in discussions with Schmidt about the farm acquiring the facility.
Donald said at this early point in the discussions, the Grafton Village Cheese Company is looking at a scenario where it would stay as a tenant, renting space for both retail and packaging. He added that the company would likely move all the cheese currently stored in Brattleboro to Grafton.
“That is our hope,” Donald said. “Buzz [Schmidt] is talking to other people who will be potential tenants in the building — we would certainly be one of them.”
He added that the conversations are still “preliminary” on how the building “could fulfill [Schmidt’s] vision of a food campus, etc, and there’s still a matter of it all working financially.”
Donald said the parties aspire to have everything wrapped up is September.
“So, it’s far from a done deal, but we’re both optimistic that we can pull this together,” Donald continued.
Rural communities have faced several economic and demographic challenges in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the strain.
The Windham Foundation, with its focus on rural communities, has also felt the added weight, said Donald, noting that he has used the term “survival year” in the foundation’s business planning discussions.
The foundation’s other major commercial enterprise, the Grafton Inn, only recently reopened after several months due to the pandemic and the state’s emergency shutdown.
“We had to furlough many, many people back in mid-March,” Donald continued. “We’re only now able to do outside dining and only just had our first visitors in three months.”
Most of the hotel’s clientele, however, tend to come from Connecticut and New York, areas hit hard by COVID-19. Donald suspects that guests from these areas of the country won’t be traveling to vacation in the state for some time.
A popular wedding venue, most of the weddings booked for this spring and summer were rescheduled for 2021, he added.
“We might do half the revenue this year than we did in the last fiscal year,” he said.
The cheese company also lost about a third of its businesses after restaurants and other large vendors needed to close for public health reasons, he said.
The foundation has received some funds through the federal CARES Act, but “we’re going to be watching our pennies, I can tell you that,” he said.
Still, Donald looks forward to a brighter future.
“We are very excited for [Schmidt’s] vision for the campus,” he said. “The whole mission of the Windham Foundation is to support rural Vermont, so we feel this [project] is in line with that mission.”
Building capacity and pivoting during COVID-19
Schmidt admits that he will have little to say about the new food project for now.
He said the project would not try to plug a hole in the local food system. Instead, he envisions providing facilities to ramp up and augment it.
His sense is that the “various facilities that support the local food system are operating at capacity, and we’ve got to find more capacity and establish a magnet to pull more resources into it.”
He confirmed that the Grafton Village Cheese Company “would become one of the principal partners in this food venture.”
Conversations with other potential partners only started earlier in June.
“There are a lot of the pieces of the puzzle to put together,” he said. “If we succeed in that, it would certainly expand our potential impact in the local food area.”
Supporting local agriculture, growing food, and distributing it are three objectives set forth in the farm’s 15-year plan, which focused on the farm’s own operations, Schmidt explained. The plan was unveiled in 2017.
“The thing is, the world is changing so quickly, we’re already doing other things at the farm that we hadn’t originally envisioned,” Schmidt said.
The Grafton Cheese venture, if it goes forward, would mean the farm would become more involved in the production and distribution of food, he said.
The partners would do most of that work while The Retreat Farm’s role would be “the catalyzing, enabling role to pull those pieces together.”
“So when I talk about the ultimate form this will take, I have to be vague right now,” he said. “I apologize for that.”
Other long-term plans at the farm include converting the 8,000 square foot cow barn into more classrooms, exhibition spaces, and a mini museum of the Retreat Farm’s cultural and geological history.
Education and gatherings will likely stay the farm’s hallmarks.
COVID-19 has shifted the farm’s focus “in major ways,” said Schmidt.
Originally this summer was supposed to contain a full calendar of gatherings, festivals, and concerts produced in conjunction with community partners such as the Brattleboro Music Center, he said.
The farm had also planned to have a busy children’s programing schedule.
“And of course that very operational plan was completely upended with COVID,” he said.
So, staff have shifted to projects involving the farm’s agricultural resources and its buildings.
“The good news from that is that these building activities have some immediate community value,” he said. “One of them is that the food we’re growing this year will find its way into various food banks and food security programs.”
Even in a building year, families can still enjoy the farm and its trails, Schmidt said.
“So we’ll be building all summer. By the end of the summer it will just be an amazingly beautiful place to visit,” he said.