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Retreat Farm board president Buzz Schmidt.

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Retreat Farm is giving the public a heads-up as administrators plan to take six months to assess operations — expecting to scale back — in the face of a budgetary pinch.

Starting April 1, the iconic farm said it has embarked on a “strategic planning process to identify the core activities that can meet critical community needs, leverage Retreat Farm’s unique strengths and resources, and attract sustainable community and philanthropic support to operate,” according to a press release.

A key part of the shift is to be “transitioning the enterprise to a community-based organization that will rely heavily on volunteers and an active board of directors for fundraising, community relationships, and its long-term operating strategy.”

“To date, Retreat Farm has been primarily reliant on the support of a handful of major donors,” said founder and board President Buzz Schmidt.

“But we know that to remain an enduring community resource, we need to make community engagement — both through volunteer and financial support — more prevalent in our work,” Schmidt said. “We will need the help of the community to ensure Retreat Farm thrives over the coming years and decades.”

What it means

Schmidt said by phone on April 4 that the six-month window is to allow for review and evaluation of the farm’s offerings.

“The community should [ultimately] see changes and a narrowing of focus at Retreat Farm,” he said, adding that during the next half year, however, operations should be pretty close to what folks experienced, for instance, last summer.

“We’re trying to do this thoughtfully, deliberately,” he said. “It’s a heads-up. The staff is all aware and are participating diligently.”

Schmidt said administrators are “really keen to preserve the most essential aspects of the farm that can operate cost effectively.”

Asked what the issue is, he alluded to a wish not to overextend, saying that in an “exuberance and urge to serve the community, particularly during the pandemic,” the Farm “built capabilities of service,” including interpretive resources around the property and trail improvements as well as the community food program that administrators had hoped the community “would ultimately be able to support, but [whose support] hasn’t yet materialized.”

“We’re so keen that we can reserve sufficient resources to ensure the core property is maintained and presented and we didn’t want to get any further behind the eight ball,” Schmidt said.

“We’ve built a strong community of members and supporters, and learned a tremendous amount about how Retreat Farm can contribute to both long-term and immediate needs of the Brattleboro area,” he continued.

“Part of that learning is that, unfortunately, the full scope of activities we’ve operated the past couple of years isn’t financially sustainable to continue,” Schmidt said.

Most offerings continue

Retreat Farm is open dawn to dusk daily outdoors and will continue to be open daily to the public, with its favorite farm animals, including Carlos the ox, greeting those who visit. Efforts are being made to preserve the Community Food Project and continue to grow and distribute healthy food to those in need.

Everyone Eats meals remain available at the Farmstand from Tuesday to Thursday each week, while that program’s funding lasts. At press time, a news release from the program announced that funding has been extended through July 1.

The team is also gearing up for the summer event season.

“We are all looking forward to the Thursday Food Truck Roundups this summer, though we hope for better weather than last year,” said Schmidt.

Capital plans unchanged

Retreat Farm has been named the recipient of $3 million in the federal 2022 Senate Omnibus Appropriations bill, thanks to efforts by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on behalf of the farm.

The money will help repurpose the Grafton Village Cheese Company’s former production plant on the Farm’s Route 30 campus into a regional, multipurpose food venture center, providing opportunities for local farmers, value-added producers, and other food-related small businesses to reach new customers, provide direct-to-consumer sales, and improve efficiency.

The upcoming capital project is not related to the current operational crunch, said Schmidt, and is “still very important.”

“We’re very hopeful that will provide revenue to sustain operations at Retreat Farm as well as to sustain the local food economy,” he said.

Retreat Farm says it is seeking financial and volunteer support from community members. New positions are also available on the board of directors to help guide the transition.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #658 (Wednesday, April 6, 2022).

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