BRATTLEBORO—Over the past few years, the Retreat Farm has been gradually assuming a larger role in the regional food system in Windham County.
Now, the nonprofit is poised to take a bigger step with its proposal to repurpose the former Grafton Village Cheese Company’s production plant on the farm’s Route 30 campus into a regional food center.
The Retreat Farm has a powerful ally in U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is in the process of securing $3 million of federal funds as soon as this fall to create the food center.
The chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the longest serving member of the Senate came to visit the farm on Aug. 18.
The Retreat Farm estimates it will cost $2.25 million to buy the building from the Windham Foundation and another $1.5 million to renovate and upgrade it.
The foundation, which owns and operates Grafton Village Cheese, opened a 34,000-square-foot plant in Brattleboro in 2008. The foundation ceased operations there in early 2020.
Grafton Village Cheese is still being made in Grafton, and the foundation still uses part of the Brattleboro building for packaging and for its cheese shop. But the building and the surplus cheesemaking equipment is up for sale.
Retreat Farm President Buzz Schmidt says the farm wants to bring cheesemaking back to the site, only on a much smaller scale with local artisanal producers using milk from local farms.
Jeremy Stephenson, cheese program director at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, will be one of those local producers.
“What we’d like to do is talk to the smaller dairy farms that are at risk, and we think we can help those farms through offering this steady pricing as long as they can work with us on the way they produce their milk,” he said.
Leahy said he likes the idea as a way of providing a stable market for Vermont dairy farmers, who he called “the soul of Vermont.”
“[They’ve] been hit for a number of years now with prices going up and down,” Leahy said. “The stress and the economic difficulties are amazing.”
Schmidt said the existing cold storage, milk handling infrastructure, and food-grade processing space of the former cheese plant make it a logical spot for cheesemakers.
Grafton Village Cheese hopes to continue using part of the building as a warehouse and packaging facility and to keep its cheese shop on site.
Other planned uses for the building include a large commercial kitchen for food business start-ups.
“The key to making something like this work is having anchor tenants,” said Schmidt. “Having Grafton [Village] Cheese and Spring Brook Farm as part of this project is a good start.”
Creating new spaces, experiences
In the recent years, Retreat Farm has become the home for the SUSU commUNITY Farm, which provides free food and inspiration to many local families in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community, as well as the Atowi Project, a collaboration with the Elnu Abenaki community to preserve the history of the original caretakers of the land the farm sits upon.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the Retreat Farm has also served as a food hub, producing more than 10,000 pounds of vegetables and pastured meat last year and feeding more than 1,600 community members through its Pick Up Pantry.
The farm also established a “Pay-What-You-Can” farmstand this year and doubled the size of its community garden.
In its prospectus for the project that they call “The Gathering Barns,” the Retreat Farm figures the regional food center in the former Grafton Village Cheese plant will create 46 full-time equivalent jobs, as well as support local farmers and food producers.
The second part of the project includes plans to renovate the farm’s North Barn, a 7,237-square-foot, hand-hewn, post-and-beam barn built in the 1870s.
Retreat Farm hopes to turn the barn into a year-round event facility that could accommodate 240 people for seated dinners or up to 600 people for lectures and conferences.
The North Barn renovation is estimated at $4.3 million, and it is expected to create 17 full-time equivalent jobs.
Renovating the 8,000-square-foot Ox Barn would be the third part of the project. This historic barn, which is connected to the North Barn, would be converted into a café with a prep/teaching kitchen and microbrewery downstairs and three to six meeting rooms upstairs.
Completing these renovations would cost about $3 million and create 30 full-time equivalent jobs.
When the three phases of this project at the 650-acre Retreat Farm are completed, Schmidt said that Brattleboro and Windham County will have a community space that will showcase local farms and food.
It will also serve, he said, as “a source of inspiration and sustenance for human beings.”