BRATTLEBORO—Kristina Naylor pulls three jars of Sidehill Farm’s latest fruit pastes from boxes lining half-empty warehouse shelves at the local jam producer’s new facility. In the kitchen, against a checker-board wall of green and white tile that echos the company’s signature gingham jar covers, a contractor cuts metal pipes.
The expansion will let Kristina Naylor and her husband, Kelt, purchase more ingredients from local farmers — a long-held goal. “It was always the right thing to do,” says Kristina.
Sidehill Farm already puts local butter and eggs to work in the company’s apple butter, quince paste, and lemon curd.
The Naylors moved their jam business from the Cotton Mill, its home of 14 years, to the former Book Press building off Route 5 near Exit 3 in 2013. They say they expect to double their business at the larger facility, and project sales will increase this year by 15 to 20 percent.
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, a private, nonprofit economic development organization, owns the Book Press building and the Cotton Mill, a business incubator space.
While Kelt ducks out to field a contractor’s question, Kristina says it was he who’d led the charge for sourcing local ingredients — long before the couple knew how “local” would sweeten Sidehill Farm’s bottom line.
Back from his task, Kelt finishes the thought: “We’re just going to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Kristina adds that she remembers Kelt saying, “Everybody who grew up in Vermont has seen a piece of farmland go under.” That made an impression, she said, and the idea took hold: If Sidehill Farm can help working farms, she said, that’s what they would do.
The couple committed six years ago to use more local products where possible, then bumped up against a cold, hard fact: purchasing and preparing the fruit at the Cotton Mill proved “astronomically” expensive.
The reason: Sidehill Farm taps tens of thousands of pounds of fruit a year for its jams. (There’s no added pectin in these recipes, the couple says, explaining why Sidehill Farm’s jams average more fruit than other jams. “It isn’t cheapened out by using high-fructose corn syrup. You’re not paying for jelled water,” Kristina says.)
The Cotton Mill facility lacked the space Sidehill Farm needed to store, wash, and prepare the local fruit. When a batch of apples arrived from a nearby farm, the jam-makers put the brakes on bottling and spent the day hand-washing fruit at the sink.
The process was inefficient and infeasible. “It’s not our mission to make a $10 to $15 jar of jam,” says Kristina.
Sure, when the business was smaller, Kristina says, it was possible to fill slower periods with hand-washing fruit. But these days those lulls are few and far between.
Moving the company took years. Winning the Strolling of the Heifers/BDCC business plan competition three years ago, and a Working Lands grant of $15,000 in 2013 to put toward new equipment, helped.
For a long time, few state and federal agriculture-related monies went to value-added food producers. Most went to farmers, says Kristina.
“Both of us are kind of foodies,” puts in Kelt.
“Kelt and I courted each other by cooking dinners,” adds Kristina.
The couple’s love of food made them wonder why they should import when they could buy from farmers they knew and trusted. Indeed, says Kelt, many local farmers use protocols equal to or better than those for organic.
Many farmers have produce that they can’t sell directly to customers because pieces are too small, or are blemished, or because supply exceeds demand, says Kelt.
But jam consumers don’t care what the fruit looks like, only how it tastes, so Sidehill Farm buys perfectly nutritious, delicious fruit that might otherwise go to waste.
Vermont has a brief growing season, and farmers are looking to sell at a good price. This arrangement works for everyone, Kristina suggests.
Finding a bigger home with cold storage and room for two steam kettles was part of what Sidehill Farm needed to do to make the most of local sourcing. They also had to change their products to match local harvests.
According to Kelt, most food producers decide what products they want to make and then find the farmers to back production. Sidehill Farm now had to do the opposite: find the farmers and design products to suit the harvest.
Sidehill Farm’s quince paste offering, for example, grew out of conversations with local farmers. Kristina knew that pairing fruit pastes with cheese has a long tradition. In Spain, she says, quince paste is often served with sheep cheese.
The couple learned in talks with Brattleboro Food Co-op employees that local grocery stores were importing fruit pastes — a good opportunity here, as quince has grown in Vermont since the time of the Pilgrims.
Now, Kristina says, buyers here look for locally produced quince paste and similar offerings.
Kelt notes that he’s taken calls from local vineyards asking whether Sidehill Farm would like to buy the excess from grape harvests. Given greater storage at the Book Press location, Kelt says, the couple is exploring the option.
State agriculture trends a boon for business
According to preliminary 2013 agricultural census data from the U.S. Department Of Agriculture, Vermont is one of a handful of states to gain ground for agriculture. Overall, the number of farms in the state has increased 5 percent since the USDA’s previous census, in 2007. The amount of land in agriculture has also increased by 1 percent.
This early data marks an increase of 15 percent in the overall market value of Vermont agricultural products since the previous agricultural census, from $673.7 million to $776.1 million.
The census data also revealed that more women are running farms. Minority farm operators are seeing a slight gain in ranks.
The number of farmers in the 25- to 34-year-old demographic rose 22 percent. That’s notable as the age of the average farmer is up from 56.5 to 57.3 years of age.
New farmers — those on their land less than 10 years — describes 28 percent of the state’s principal farm operators, a 2-percent increase over 2007, data show.
In defense of ‘Vermont’
The Naylors are certainly no strangers to standards, having worked (and met) in biotech. That background was invaluable as the couple embarked on meeting the strict standards of value-added food production.
Where the biotech industry standards were 15 years ago food production is now, Kristina says. She explains that the federal government considers everything the food touches to be an ingredient, even the glass jars they’ll fill. Food producers must track every lot number and label in the event of a product recall.
Kristina says she isn’t worried about meeting those standards. She explains she worries about the preservation of quality implied by the Vermont brand, at least as far as what she sees happening in the market.
The couple take issue with companies that advertise “Vermont” on their label but neither source nor produce here. And some of these products, the couple suggest, are of inferior quality.
For example, anyone with a farmstand can stock private-label jam from what Kelt calls “glue factories,” and regardless of where the jam is made the label can read, for example, “So-and-So’s Vermont Farmstand Jam,” and customers might reasonably infer the product was made here.
Although Vermont is an expensive state in which to do business, Kristina says Sidehill Farm pays above minimum wage and is planning to expand its workforce.
That said, “It’s not a fair playing field,” she notes.
Rooted in peach preserves
The Naylors bought the 38-year-old family business from Kelt’s parents in 2000.
Sidehill Farm started at the Naylor farm in Calais in 1976. The story is that, one summer, Kelt’s mother received a large share of peaches from the Montpelier Co-op. She used what she could and preserved the rest, some for sale at the local farmers’ market. Buyers cleaned her out and a business was born.
The family farm was located up a goat path, says Kelt. On purchasing the business, the couple relocated to Brattleboro, which struck them as friendly — and well sited to allow Sidehill Farm easy sales reach in the state and across state lines.
Fourteen years later they still love making jam. Kristina, trained as a scientist, says it exercises her love of problem solving: “Lemon curd is an emulsion,” she says with a laugh, and the pair recall the first time they mixed that butter, egg, and lemon concoction.
Laughter and lemon curd, locally sourced and in a new home. “We’ve got a million plans,” says Kelt.