Not all business start-ups incubate in the family garage. Gardens, kitchens, and J-term classes have inspired two recent Middlebury graduates and one student to explore the business side of improving local eating options and farmers’ bottom lines. Not surprising in this state, they often cross paths. Annie Rowell ’11 is the Farm-to-Institution Program Associate at the two-year-old Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick. While helping farmers process their fruits and vegetables, she sometimes teams up with David Dolginow ’09, who manages a new frozen vegetable line by Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall. And Suzanne Calhoun ’14 found Sunrise apples gave the perfect twist to several of her condiments, Suzanne’s Sweet Savories, which she cooks up at the Venture Center.
Annie Rowell ’11 was an internationally focused political science major—she speaks French and studied Arabic—when she realized the pull of her family’s Vermont farming heritage. While taking a closer look at the politics of food in her native Craftsbury, Rowell found a path into the food business. Associate Professor Bert Johnson, a specialist in local and state politics, helped her develop a senior thesis that held the lens of policy and economic change theories to Craftsbury’s proposed adoption of more locally sourced school lunches. “It was a really great experience studying my own community as an observer,” she recalls. A subsequent internship with the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick synched with the inauguration of its Food Venture Center and led to her current job. She still has a hand in the politics of food, especially through the state’s Farm to Plate strategic; but she also enjoys the physicality of production and “geeks out” over broccoli floret machines and vegetable wash conveyers that add muscle to the VFVC’s rentable commercial kitchens. “Our first year, we processed 1,700 pounds of bulk broccoli in a little under a day and a half; this year, we did 2,200 pounds in one day,” she recalls, scanning the data sheets she keeps in her office down the hall from the kitchen.
The VFVC offers professional equipment, food safety certification, and business know-how to entrepreneurs; Rowell also focuses on connecting farmers to schools, hospitals, and other institutions interested in serving what Vermonters grow. “This has been a huge production and data-gathering year,” she says. “It’s exciting what this means for Vermont’s future. For example, we know broccoli can grow well, and our equipment can process it well, and we have all this data to figure out institutional demand and how we can fill it.” Greater demand for local vegetables can mean more growing options for farmers. Rowell feels fortunate in her work, and not only because of the great aromas that waft into her office (”Yesterday was maple nuts—yum!”). “I can’t imagine having as much ownership elsewhere in what could be seen as an entry level position—doing the projections, managing relationships, and leading productions.”
As a student, David Dolginow ’09 was building environmental policy chops—working with the Sunday Night Group, taking a J-term class that crafted recommendations for Middlebury’s climate neutrality; he even took time off and worked at a Democratic lobby shop in Washington, D.C. The religion and geography major was co-teaching a J-term class on “Food and Justice in Vermont,” touring farms and hosting farmers to discuss their work, when he and one of those farmers, Barney Hodges ’91, started talking about the future of frozen vegetables. Hodges, the second-generation owner of Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, wanted to diversify his orchard business using their added asset of a refrigerated warehouse in Shoreham. Two years later, thanks to a USDA grant, Sunrise and Dolginow are doing just that. Sitting at the orchard’s farmhouse dining table, Dolginow notes their progress: “Our vegetable operation is still small compared with apples,”—a yearly average of 5.5 million pounds of apples and 50,000 pounds of vegetables—“but that’s double last year’s total.”
The business end is a natural for Dolginow, who grew up around his parents’ jewelry store in Leawood, Kansas. The natural end he learned interning in the College’s organic garden, working at a local organic farm post-graduation, and canning the harvest in the Weybridge House kitchen with friends.
“I remember thinking, ‘people en masse might not get back into home canning, so let’s do it for them, with the farms they want to buy from.’ That’s what we’re trying to do at Sunrise, and it seems to be working.” Dolginow calls Sunrise “a mid-tier supply chain partner” thanks to its two refrigerated box trucks, warehouse, and strong networks. “We buy produce from farms, move it to processors [like the VFVC], pick up the frozen products, and then warehouse and distribute them.” Customers include a network of 25 northeastern food coops and customers such as Middlebury, Fletcher Allen Hospital, and now food service giant Sodexo, which serves 10 million people a day in 7,000 institutions. Working the fine edge between price and volume, Dolginow says, it’s easy to see why the food industry has grown to such a scale. “Our solution is to work only with family farms in the northeast, period.” His job satisfactions? Chefs thrilled with their produce; a role in local food security; and the daily variety: “Produce is always changing—it’s tangible and dynamic, and that seemed a good use of my Middlebury College brain.”
They’re not your typical college-student road trips: driving from Maine loaded with 400 pounds of wild blueberries in your Outback; heading up to Hardwick to cook and can condiments at the Vermont Food Venture Center; making the rounds of farmers’ markets and coops to get people sampling your product. Suzanne Calhoun ’14 admits, “I have a high busy tolerance but I’m definitely pushing it.” What Calhoun is also pushing—tastefully—is reconnection with the fresh, clean flavors of fruits and vegetables in home cooking. Calhoun’s fledgling business, Suzanne’s Sweet Savories, features seven “piquant preserves” to liven up meals with tastes from tomato to carrot and pear to cranberry. Calhoun grew up gardening and canning with her family in Jericho, Vermont. Her desire to share those pleasures with others comes, in part, from her concern with the modern state of food: “We’ve become so disconnected from nature,” she says. “It really concerns me.” In contrast, a 6-year-old could recognize all the ingredients listed on Calhoun’s preserve jars.
Kudos from hungry friends and family started Calhoun thinking about scaling up into a business, but, she says, “I didn’t know what was involved or where to go.” Spending J-term in the MiddCORE leadership immersion course answered many of those questions and helped her establish ongoing relationships with business mentors. After further feasibility homework, she scored a MiddChallenge Grant and the suggestion to check out the VFVC. There, she found more connections through Annie Rowell: High Mowing Seeds just down the road from VFVC had tons of great tomatoes used for their seed testing; Sunrise Orchards had surplus apples perfect for cooking. As Calhoun develops savvy about marketing and sourcing, she remains committed to working with local farmers. Meanwhile, after a busy first summer, company headquarters (her parents’ basement) is well stocked with preserves for distribution so she can concentrate on studying math, computer science, vertebrate biology, and music. Meanwhile, she’s thinking ahead to new products to reconnect people with real food.