Belief in a Seed

Belief in a Seed

I have hoes and trowels and pots and stakes. Garden markers and grow lights, and fertilizer gleaned from both fish and farm. I have a notebook in which, every February, I plot my plans for rows of root vegetables, a variety of greens, and two plantings’ worth of lettuces. I have a pile of plastic trays and peat pots that has moved with me three times in four years.

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Business Is Mushrooming

Mycoterra Farm saw a niche and filled it - deliciously

By Leslie Lynn Lucio | Recipe photographs by Dominic Perri

When Julia Coffey decided, as an experiment, to start growing mushrooms for sale, she had no idea how much of a part of her life they would become. Now the owner of Mycoterra Farm, started in 2010 at her home in the woodlands of western Massachusetts, Julia started with a small amount of savings, some previously owned mushroom equipment, and 15 years of studying fungi.

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She decided to take a chance on something that was familiar to her and felt it would complement the local agricultural economy in the Pioneer Valley.

“As a friend of people running farms or working on farms, [I saw that] pretty much all the vegetables were covered, animal products, dairy ... The Valley had everything but year-round mushrooms and I wasn’t quite prepared for the demand I would find,” says Julia.

In Mycoterra’s first year, she maintained a full-time job while taking on the risk of starting her own business. She got into the Williamsburg farmers’ market with the help of a friend; at that time she only sold oyster mushrooms, merely a few pounds a week. River Valley Market in Northampton started selling Julia’s mushrooms and to this day she still works with them.

Last year she finally decided that it was time to focus on Mycoterra full time. Currently, Mycoterra sells at six markets in the summer as well as six winter markets. Julia’s mushrooms are served in restaurants in the Valley as well as restaurants in the Boston area. In addition, Julia runs a mushroom CSA so, like many farms in the Pioneer Valley, she makes it easy for people to get their pickups from whichever farmers’ market is most convenient from where they live. She does this in the spring, summer, and winter.

To support this growing demand, the Mycoterra farm has grown from one small room to multiple heated greenhouses, complete with radiant-heat flooring. Julie describes the growth this way: “I cut through the walls and started using this room. Within two months I outgrew this room and eventually everything started spilling out.” She jokingly adds, “I’m inhaling these spores and they’re getting in my brain and driving me. I sometimes I feel like I’m not running the mushroom farm, but it’s running me. It’s my life.”

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When walking through Mycoterra Farm, one can easily understand what Julia means. There are hundreds of spawn bags lined up in rows on racks with varieties of stunning mushrooms including shiitake, lion’s mane, oyster and enokitake. The mushrooms all start out looking like bags of sawdust. As they fruit, the mushrooms evolve from sawdust to small knobs (what Julia calls the “popcorn” stage) to mature, full grown mushrooms.

Even with a background in chemistry and environmental science, Julia says her intuition plays a big role in her success.

“There is always more to figure out. There’s the big learning curve on the intuition. When I’ve really been trying really hard, being really attentive, it’s like they’re not growing for me. When I back off and give them more room, they explode and things are smoother.”

Julia appreciates this little niche of mushroom farming and feels a sense of responsibility in her work. It’s important to her that Mycoterra Farm leaves the planet better than they found it. She does this by using agricultural and forestry byproducts, using natural methods of production to accelerate decomposition, and helping build soil and encourage cycling of nutrients, something critical and beneficial for a healthy ecosystem.

It’s clear that a lot of work has been put into her farm, a true labor of love, and Julia recognizes that hard work pays off, and clearly thanks those who have helped her along the way.

“I think it’s paid off over time. I felt shut out at first, then I got my respect and that struggle has gone away.” Down the road, Julia would love to build more. With the direction Mycoterra is going, there is no doubt of that happening.

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Mycoterra mushrooms can be found at these farmers’ markets: Amherst, Egleston (Jamaica Plain), Farmers’ Market at Forest Park (Springfield), Florence, Northampton (Saturday and occasionally Tuesday), and Roslindale. River Valley Market carries Mycoterra mushrooms year-round.

MycoterraFarm.com

mycoterrafarm@gmail.com

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Leslie Lynn Lucio has enjoyed cooking and baking since she was a small child, as well as being an involved member of the local community. She can found running Beets & Barley Catering (BeetsAndBarley.com) and at LeslieLynnLucio.com. She can be reached at info@beetsandbarley.com.

Recipe for Mushroom and Lentil Salad

Recipe for Shiitake Ginger Glaze

Housemade: Elevating “From Scratch” at the Alvah Stone

By Samantha Marsh | Photographs by Dominic Perri

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Gnocchi, English muffins, bacon, sausage, XO sauce, and beer cheese ... just a handful of the ingredients made from scratch at the Alvah Stone. Howard Wein’s restaurant and bar in the picturesque Montague Mill location (previously the Night Kitchen) celebrates its first anniversary this April.

“We would never do it any other way,” says chef David Schrier when explaining why their menu has such a focus on housemade ingredients.

Cooking “from scratch” is certainly not a new restaurant trend, however, an increasing number of restaurants are placing even more emphasis on this aspect of their cooking in order to ensure the quality and taste of every dish that leaves the kitchen. The Alvah Stone has experimented extensively with re-creating “store-bought” favorites—using fresh, quality ingredients in lieu of their processed counterparts.

“We have a problem with the ingredients, not the actual food itself,” David explains.

One of the Alvah Stone’s first experiments was to create a burger that they, and their diners, wouldn’t get tired of. David explains that if they were going to serve a burger, it “had to be really good” ... and so they went to work to re-create the classic American burger, gooey “American” cheese and all. Clearly the experiment was a success, as the burger hasn’t left the menu since the restaurant opened.

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 The Alvah Stone burger is prepared with local, dry-aged beef from River Rock Farm in Brimfield, which is then ground and formed into patties, grilled, topped with onion marmalade, pickles, melted cheese, and mayonnaise. It’s served on a housemade English muffin. In the summer, David adds a juicy tomato slice to the burger, but outside of the season “I won’t even look at a tomato.”

The cheese is meant to replicate the texture of individually wrapped American cheese singles, evoking nostalgia for the simple days of childhood. It’s no lab experiment, however—it is made from aged Grafton cheddar cheese and emulsified to enhance its creaminess. The English muffin recipe, in similar fashion, has been refined to taste as good as, if not better, than the classic Thomas’ English muffin that so many know and adore.

“We love the taste of Thomas’ muffins, but we would never dream of using them,” David says. Pastry chef (and David’s wife) Jessica Schrier has perfected the experience of the English muffin with all the nooks and crannies that we remember from our Thomas’ muffin-eating days, sans the long list of unpronounceable ingredients.

“[Cooking from scratch] is fun. It’s a constant challenge to make something as good as the original,” David continues. He explains that it is all about trial and error—recipes will not come out perfectly every time. The first time David attempted to make soba noodles, for example,“it was horrible,” he admits with a chuckle.

David and the kitchen team have mastered other housemade pastas, however. Pastas such as pappardelle, cavatelli, tortellini, agnolotti, and gnocchi are always served—a gnocchi dish has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening.

“We have housemade pasta on the menu every night,” David explains. In the spring or summer, pasta may be served in ham broth with ricotta cheese and pea purée, while winter dishes tend to be heartier. David continues to describe why he loves making pasta, “it’s something that’s simple” but that he and his team “don’t get tired of looking at [it].”

The culinary mindset behind the Alvah Stone isn’t so much about adhering to the trendiness of “DIY” food and using local and in-season ingredients as it is about simply doing what makes sense.

“‘Farm to table’ is hilarious,” David says of the recent popularity of the phrase to describe restaurant cuisine. He feels that every restaurant should be using local, seasonal ingredients. There should be no need to call it out and draw attention to it, because “it just makes sense,” he concludes. “We would never define ourselves using this terminology. It’s overused and disrespected.”

Howard and David have strong relationships with many local farmers and vendors, including Snugg Valley Farm in Southern Vermont, Four Star Farms in Northfield, BerkShore in Northampton, Clarkdale Farm in South Deerfield, Red Fire Farm in Montague, Mapleline Farm in Hadley and Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland. “Whatever they have, we’ll use,” David says of the process of ordering produce from farms.

“Last year we sold the Alvah Stone a lot of shishito peppers, salad greens, peas, garlic, radishes, tropea onions, treviso radicchio, fennel, all kinds of herbs, heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes, cauliflower, celeriac, and lots more,” said Caroline Pam, co-owner of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland.

Wes Malzone from BerkShore is the fish supplier for the Alvah Stone. BerkShore delivers fish from the shore of Massachusetts multiple times a week to restaurants in Western Massachusetts, allowing restaurants like the Alvah Stone to serve some of the best seafood that the state has to offer (learn more about BerkShore in the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Pioneer Valley).

David trusts his local vendors, and is happy to experiment with different vegetables, unfamiliar types of fish, or different cuts of meat if a supplier has something exciting to bring to the table.

Caroline adds, “We love working with David because he really appreciates and knows how to use some of the more unusual specialty vegetables we grow. He is always excited to try anything new and we can feel confident that our vegetables will be highlighted on the menu with respect and skill. We are often in contact throughout the week by text. If I have something cool like shiso or okra but not enough to put on the list for everyone, I can text David and he’s usually happy to work it into his menu.”

“It’s all about making good food,” David says. “We use whatever tastes the best.”

It is clear from the Alvah Stone menu that the focus on the ingredients is first and foremost, and allows them to stand out. David explains that the process of creating the menu each night is very democratic. Most of the kitchen crew has been at the restaurant since it opened, and David trusts their opinions and skills when it comes to deciding what sauce to pair with a meat, trying out a certain plating technique, or experimenting with a new flavor combination.

For example, when David asked Dave Clegg, a line cook, what flavor he thought would go well with carrots, his answer (sesame seeds), became a new roasted carrot and sesame seed dish.

“Eli [the sous-chef] is the gnocchi master,” David says about another member of team. “We’re always learning,” David says of himself and his crew.

“We’re the opposite of traditionalists,” Dave explains. It just has to taste good. “Seasoning is important—but not just salt. We use a lot of acid and vinegar in our dishes.”

“And as much fat as it can accept,” he adds with a laugh.

It’s an exciting time for restaurants (and restaurant-goers) as the focus on specific cuisines shifts to a focus on quality ingredients and a chef’s personal style of cooking. Restaurants that cook everything from scratch are no longer one in a million, but are becoming increasingly popular. The Alvah Stone is leading this charge and are committed to getting others to join them—making good food from scratch is the right way to cook.

 

Samantha Marsh is a writer and food lover based in the Pioneer Valley. She holds a BA in journalism and anthropology from UMass Amherst and works as a literary associate at The Lisa Ekus Group in Hatfield. When she is not writing about food, Samantha can be found teaching dance, practicing yoga, or testing out new baking recipes at her home in North Amherst.

Recipe for Alvah Stone Bacon

Recipe for Baby Bok Choy with XO sauce and Nam Pla Prik

 

Delivering the Goods

Bringing the Valley to the Big Apple

By Caroline Pam | Photographs by Caroline Pam and Dominic Perri

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It’s 10am on a frigid December morning on an industrial block in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Annie Myers is on her tiptoes with her face pressed against the window of her refrigerated van. It’s packed to the gills with vegetables she picked up from a dozen farms in Vermont and Massachusetts and drove down to New York City last night. Yup, the keys are right there on the driver seat and the doors are all locked.

Annie shrugs and hustles in the back door of Roberta’s—the hipster haven of wood-fired pizza—and delivers the radicchio and maple syrup she had luckily already unloaded.

“This business is so full of disaster. So little can faze me,” she said. “I always have five backup plans so when crisis comes, the puzzle pieces always come together. It’s kind of a nice feeling.”

A half hour later, a local tow truck driver jimmies the lock open with a wire and she’s back in the van making stops at Brooklyn’s local, seasonal hot-spots like Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder, Forager’s upscale grocery, and CSA-style subscription services Nextdoorganics and Good Eggs. By noon, the van is empty and pointed north again.

Annie Myers started Myers Produce in November 2013 as a year-round distribution company to bring Vermont produce to the Big Apple. A few months later Myers began to stop at farms in the Valley to pick up winter greens and roots to supplement what was available from her Vermont suppliers.

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By the time the company celebrated its first anniversary Myers had set up headquarters at the Pioneer Valley Growers Association (PVGA) warehouse in South Deerfield and moved into an apartment in town.

In its first year in business Myers Produce delivered $500,000 worth of organic and sustainable farm products to New York restaurants and stores. Valley farms supplied half of that produce in 2014 and are ramping up quickly to meet Myers’ growing demand for the coming season.

I accompanied Myers on one of her delivery runs to understand how Myers Produce has succeeded in creating a significant channel for New England farm products to reach the massive market of local food lovers in New York City.

She met me at my farm, The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland, on a Wednesday morning to load up her order of cilantro, radicchio, and turnips that my crew and I had harvested and packed the day before. I hopped in the van and we continued on to Red Fire Farm in Montague to collect kohlrabi and kale that were waiting for her there. Next stop was in Amherst for spinach from Queen’s Greens.

Queen’s Greens farmer Danya Teitelbaum grew up in New York City, but she told me that working with Myers Produce means much more than a connection to home. “Myers has been extremely significant to our business this year, actually our largest single outlet, making up 15% of our gross sales,” said Teitelbaum, who started growing salad greens with her partner, Matt Biskup, in 2010.

“I think it’s important for the Pioneer Valley overall to get our products to nearby cities,” Teitelbaum told me. “Even though we don’t often think this way, in the grand scheme of things we are a local farm to New York and Boston.”

Myers Produce is hardly the first new business in recent years trying to connect local farms to city dwellers, but it seems to have struck on a model that fills a need for farmers and buyers alike.

Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm gave me two reasons why he’s happy to be one of Myers’ suppliers. Myers, he said, “is a reliable payer and she picks up at the farm.”

Voiland offered another explanation for why Myers is succeeding where several other start-ups have failed: “Getting produce from where it’s grown to where it’s needed continues to be a big challenge for the local food movement,” Voiland told me. “Like any aspect of the food business it’s not an easy or super-lucrative undertaking. The margins are often thin and it takes someone astute to make it work.”

In other words, the secret to Myers’ success may be Annie Myers herself.

“Annie has a vivacious personality,” said Mickey Davis, produce manager at Greene Grape Provisions, an upscale market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that buys from Myers Produce twice a week. “There are a lot of companies out there that are faceless, but since Annie is at the center and heart of her business, you feel more like you’re working with a person.”

Annie Myers does not look like the sort of person you expect to see driving a big box truck. At just five-foot two-inches, and still in her 20s, she is small but mighty. She moves fast, and with startling power and agility. One moment she’s leaping off the loading dock with a 50-pound sack of onions, the next texting about orders while steering the pallet jack down the loading dock, and yet still finding time to smile and quiz me about how much arugula we’ll be cutting from our greenhouse next week.

A pallet of Valley vegetables destined for New York City

A pallet of Valley vegetables destined for New York City

Myers’ tireless work ethic is essential to her business but it’s her strong grasp of New England farm seasonality that gives her an edge. New York City is well-worn territory for farms and distributors from warmer climates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania but Myers works with farms that can fill supply gaps from these other regions.

“There are times when it’s too hot in Jersey for leafy greens and Myers has a ton of it. It’s nice to have sources spanning the region,” says Davis.

Shortly after graduating from New York University, Myers worked for a year as a forager, sourcing ingredients for celebrity chef April Bloomfield’s Manhattan gastropub, the Spotted Pig. She became familiar with many of the local farms and distributors supplying city restaurants, and also noted the shortage of produce available in winter.

Myers then moved to Craftsbury, Vermont, and spent two seasons working at Pete’s Greens, an innovative four-season farm growing salad greens and specialty crops on hundreds of acres. In Vermont, Myers connected with a community of farmers who are producing high-quality crops year-round in a deeply rural part of the state and are constantly challenged by the need for more distribution networks.

“In northern Vermont,” Myers explained to me, “you can’t take a break over the winter. That’s half the year!”

In the spring of 2013, while still working at Pete’s Greens, Myers was telling her friend Kate Galassi, who founded Quinciple, a local food delivery business in New York, about an idea she’d been dreaming about for years.

“I told her I honestly felt the best option would be to drive up to Pete’s to get stuff,” Myers said. “And Kate said, ‘You have to do it. The time is here and now. You have the stuff; we need it.’”

The business plan came together quickly after that conversation.

“I didn’t think I wanted to stop farming but I felt like there was an urgent need,” Myers said. “I decided I would start in November.”

Myers took three days off work that October to meet with 10 potential buyers in New York. All 10 are now regular customers. (She knew who to approach from her days in the restaurant industry.) Myers raised $50,000 in five months from friends, family, community members from Craftsbury, and even her boss Pete Johnson from Pete’s Greens. She leased a van, built a website and got to work.

For the first year Myers did all the driving herself. Five hours from Vermont to Massachusetts on Tuesday, then four hours to New York City on Wednesday with an overnight at her sister’s apartment in order to start deliveries at 6am Thursday. A new round of orders came in Thursday during the drive back north and it started over for another round of pickups and deliveries ending in New York on Monday morning. And repeat.

The logistics are incredibly complex, but Myers seems to thrive on solving tricky problems.

She says the nature of the business forces her to be constantly figuring things out. “That’s why I like it. The minute things are going smoothly I add complications,” she said with a wry smile.

Myers recently made a number of decisive changes to improve her quality of life while helping the business run more smoothly. The rented space at the PVGA warehouse allows her to stage orders and load them by the pallet instead of by hand into a new refrigerated box truck. She hired someone to do the Vermont leg of the route, another to help with deliveries in the city and added a third driver so she can bring another truck into the fleet and add more delivery days.

But in spite of her constant innovations, there seems to be no shortage of problems for Myers to solve. Cold storage in Brooklyn remains a challenge and Myers cobbles it together with a shared cooler and a refrigerated shipping container in two different neighborhoods.

Myers puts a positive spin on these urban challenges. “This is what keeps me in business,” she explained. “It’s not easy for farmers to warehouse or deliver in the city.”

Happy customers are also good for business. Chef Matt Hyland of Emily artisanal pizzeria in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, told me he orders all the restaurant’s salad greens, kale, herbs, and rainbow carrots from Myers because the quality and customer service are so superior.

“It is refreshing,” Hyland said, “especially in NYC, to have a vendor that is actually trying harder than status quo. Annie has never missed a delivery or forgotten a single item. The quality is perfect every time and I never have to worry about the nonsense that comes from nationwide vendors.”

Word is getting out and Myers has big plans for 2015. She is in discussions with Black River Produce about distributing their new line of meats and she’s starting to transport fresh Vermont cheese to Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn for aging. She just got her first orders from Fresh Direct, an online grocer and delivery service with big buying power. And a new delivery route to Boston and Cambridge will begin in April.

In anticipation of increasing demand Myers is working closely with growers to increase their offerings so that her truck is filled to capacity even during the darkest days of winter.

It’s this personal touch that makes farmers like Danya Teitelbaum at Queen’s Greens eager to continue working with Myers.

“One of the biggest things we’ve gotten from Myers is feedback on how we can do better,” Teitelbaum told me. “She’s a new business and we’re a new business and it’s nice to be in a relationship where we’re both moving at a similar fast and motivated pace to figure things out.”

Annie Myers seems to have figured out quickly that Pioneer Valley farms are an important part of her business model.

“It’s incredible how close together all the farms are in the Valley, and how different that is from Vermont,” Myers told me. “Every day I’m finding more farms I want to work with.”

Farms don’t necessarily need to be organic to catch Myers’ interest, she told me.

“My customers trust me to buy from good farms,” Myers said. “I want to know that the farmer is part of a community of farmers working to strengthen agriculture in the Northeast, and part of a world we want to be in.”

In the Pioneer Valley Annie Myers discovered a vibrant farming community that fits this profile and decided to become a part of it.

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Caroline Pam grows organic vegetables with her husband, Tim Wilcox, at their Sunderland farm, The Kitchen Garden. A former cook and journalist in New York City, Caroline writes about food and farming for various publications. She also organizes the farm’s annual Chilifest in September, a weekend-long festival celebrating all things spicy, including Kitchen Garden brand sriracha. She be reached at KitchenGardenFarm.com or kitchengardenfarm@gmail.com.

Recipe for Carrots with Peppers, Lemon and Sunflower Seeds

Recipe for Kale Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette

Beyond "Eat Local"

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Investors put their money where their mouth is

By Ilana Polyak | Photographs by Dominic Perri

Shortly after the midday rush one day this past winter, Susan Mygatt Ragasa was behind the counter at Sutter Meats pressing ground pork into little squat maple breakfast sausages. She carefully stacked the patties three layers high on a platter bound for a display case where they sat alongside thick slabs of bacon, plump Italian sausages and pink roast beef.

The air was thick with the aroma of pastrami and a signature semi-cured product called “beef pancetta” in the smoker as customers weighed the merits of different cuts of steak—ribeye or porterhouse?

In a little more than a year, the Northampton butcher has become a go-to destination for consumers craving local, humanely raised meat. Animals from the almost two dozen farmers with whom Sutter Meats works are slaughtered at Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol. They are then delivered to Sutter Meats for butchering.

“This way we’re able to use almost all parts of the animal and introduce the community to different cuts of meat they may not have known about before,” says Ragasa’s husband and co-owner, Terry.

Things are humming along at Sutter Meats now, but the future didn’t always look so bright.

As they were getting ready to open the business in January 2014, the Ragasas had already sunk close to $200,000 of their own savings into the venture. They had secured their 1,300-square-foot store on King Street, but paying contractors, electricians, suppliers, not to mention purchasing the freezers, cutting tables and display cases, required even more cash.

“We got to the point where we were going to have to have to write some big checks,” says Susan.

To keep their vision for a small-scale butcher on track, they turned to the PVGrows Loan Fund for financing. PVGrows connected the Ragasas with the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (the CDC), in Greenfield to provided a much-needed cash infusion.

“Our whole business is meant to support the local food system, so it made sense that we would get our funding locally too,” says Terry.

The CDC helped the butchers secure a small business loan of $288,000 with an interest rate of 5.75% through Florence Savings Bank, with the CDC kicking in a portion. But the Ragasas got so much more than financing.

The CDC took the lead in helping them refine their business plan so that it demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the supply of pastured meats in the region and the market for a store like theirs. “The CDC had more information on the local climate [for pastured meat] than we were able to get online,” says Terry about their first pass at a business plan using online tools.

Moving toward food independence

Community members will now have the ability to help fund the local food economy too. The PVGrows Fund is accepting investments from community members to be lent to local food businesses.

The Fund hopes to raise $500,000 and offer investors a 2% interest rate on their money—though that rate of return is not guaranteed. It will be administered through the CDC. The Fund now operates under the CDC’s auspices, as reflected by a recent name change: Franklin County CDC’s PVGrows Investment Fund.

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The Fund is part of a larger plan to move New England toward food independence, says PVGrows’ former executive director Sam Stegman. Food Solutions New England has set a goal to have half of the food consumed in the region to be produced locally by 2060. Right now, just 3% to 5% is. “If you want to reach that, that’s a complete transformation of the food system and is vastly different from what we have now,” says Stegman.

To get to a quarter of that vision requires $250 million in financing for local food businesses. “We could never create a $250 million fund,” Stegman explains. “We just have to create a smaller fund and then have banks and other financial institutions join in. We have to lead the way.”

Because investing in just one or two businesses directly can be risky, pooling the money together for a variety of investments helps spread the risk for investors. If one business fails, it won’t necessarily mean losses if the other businesses are doing well and making their loan payments. And since the loans are paid back over several years, it further reduces the risk.

For borrowers the first step is an application through PVGrows. A 10-organization committee reviews it for “mission fit,” explains Rebecca Busansky, PVGrows Fund coordinator. This committee is made up of potential funders and food and farm specialists. Once an organization’s application is deemed appropriate, it moves on to the CDC, which is the loan administrator, for due diligence, the process of vetting for financial soundness.

While PVGrows starts the ball rolling, it may not ultimately loan out the funds. One of the other funders may be better suited due to their expertise. For example, Common Capital is interested in healthy foods, Equity Trust has expertise in land issues and Cooperative Fund of New England provides financing to co-ops in the region.

“That’s the advantage of having everyone at the table,” says Busansky. “It’s so efficient and then you throw in the technical assistance piece that really makes a difference.”

Small investors, big impact

It’s difficult for non-accredited investors—those who have less than $1 million in assets and under $200,000 in income; in other words, most of us—to invest in small businesses.

Typically individuals rely on mutual funds when they want to pool their money and invest in companies. But mutual funds don’t invest in local businesses—defined as one where the producer and consumer are a short distance away from each other. An exemption to the Investment Act of 1940, which governs mutual funds, allows non-accredited investors to participate in local funding if they invest in a nonprofit fund to support small businesses.

Through the PVGrows Fund, community members can invest from $1,000 to $10,000.

Though not federally insured, says Jeffrey Rosen, chief financial officer of the Solidago Foundation and one of the original members of the PVGrows finance working group, the investments have some protection. Solidago and the Lydia B. Stokes Foundations are both contributing to a risk loss pool for the first five years, so that in case of default, the pool should be able to cover losses. Both foundations are also footing the Fund’s administrative costs.

Capital-intensive businesses

The loan fund is not meant to support start-ups, says Busansky. “Our sweet spot tends to be farms and food businesses that have been around for three to five years and are ready to grow to the next level,” she adds.

Businesses like Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley, for instance. Owners Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum found themselves in a typical small business predicament in late 2013. As their sales were growing (they expect an increase of 50% in 2015), their cash outlays were too. They will need to buy $30,000 worth of bottles and pay $15,000 to print labels on them in March. However, the busy holiday selling season for the business’s ciders, vinegars and syrups is in the last few months of the year. What’s more, distributors and retailers can take up to 60 days to pay their bills, creating a significant cash crunch.

“Agriculture is a capital-intensive business,” Jonathan notes.

When the Carrs applied for their loan, they were connected with Common Capital of Holyoke. Before closing on the loan, Common Capital gave them technical assistance, mostly designing spreadsheets that would help them with their cash flow projections.

Their $45,000 loan from Common Capital will help Carr and Blum avoid bank overdrafts and financing through credit cards.

Artisan Beverage Company, the Greenfield purveyors of Ginger Libation and Green River Ambrosia, was also ready to take its business to the next level when members of the cooperative applied for funding last winter. The worker-owned brewery couldn’t produce its beers, meads and kombuchas fast enough in its old 1,200-square foot facility. The company was readying plans for a bigger space, which they moved into last fall, and needed funding to hire a design consultant.

The loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England helped the business take full advantage of its new facility’s 3,000 square feet by stacking fermenters on top of one another. “We doubled our production space, but our actual capacity increased by 300% to 400%,” says Will Savitri, ABC’s president and operations manager.

Before ABC was approved for the loan they got a $6,000 grant for technical assistance to write a new business plan.

“We had written a business plan on our own and it was good, but it was driven in large measure by our values,” Savitri explains. “This business plan has more of a business focus. When we’re looking to raise $1 million, someone is going to want to see that.”

Loans through PVGrows are different, Savitri says. The funders are willing to loan money for things like marketing and sales, activities that carry more risk than lending for equipment as most banks prefer. If a business goes under, equipment can be sold and at least some of the lender’s losses can be recouped. But while riskier as investments, marketing activities are essential for business growth.

“PVGrows is willing to take on a little bit more risk for the values they’re lending for,” Savitri says.

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Growing demand

The timing is right to introduce a fund like this in the Valley, says Doug Wheat, a certified financial planner with Family Wealth Management in Holyoke. His clients are increasingly asking him about more ways to invest in businesses headquartered in their backyard. “Investing locally means knowing where your money is going, like knowing where your food is coming from,” he says. “It’s very satisfying.”

As evidence, he points to the experience of local food businesses that have raised money from the community in recent years. In March 2013 Real Pickles of Greenfield embarked on a financing campaign to buy out its founders, Dan and Addie Rose, and transition to a worker-owned cooperative. The picklers were able to complete the $500,000 campaign within two months with 77 investors.

Similarly, River Valley Market in Northampton launched a $2 million campaign to refinance its start-up loan and raise funds for a remodeling project in March 2014. The member-owned co-op raised $2.4 million from 220 participating member households over a six-month period, says Rochelle Prunty, River Valley’s general manager.

One of those local investors is Paul Lipke of Montague. He participated in both deals and is looking for more ways to help out local food businesses. “If it were possible to be entirely invested [in locally sustainable businesses], then I would do it,” he says.

He likes being able to see the businesses he invests in and have their products on his dinner table. “Part of the pleasure of this is you’re investing in something where you have a real relationship with the person producing your food,” he says.

Lipke says he thinks about risk and reward differently when investing this way than investing for other purposes like retirement. His motivation is community development, not necessarily profit.

Wheat, the financial planner, supports this reasoning. Because small businesses are by their nature riskier than larger ones, investors shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t go as planned.

A pooled approach, such as the PVGrows Fund, certainly helps to minimize the risk, but it’s not foolproof. When the Fund was still in its pilot stage, it experienced one default. For that reason, Wheat recommends investors should only commit money they are willing to part with. “There is risk involved,” he says. But so many rewards, too.

Ilana Polyak is financial writer. Her work has appeared in various national publications including CNBC.com, BusinessWeek and the New York Times. She lives in Northampton with her husband, Jean-Paul Maitinsky, and their sons, Stefan and Kobi.

Peak Experiences in the Hilltowns

By Sienna Wildfield as told to Jenny Miller Sechler | Illustrations by Alli Howe

goshen

goshen

When western Massachusetts residents refer to “the Hilltowns,” they don’t always agree on the details. The term commonly refers to a cluster of rural communities bridging the Connecticut River Valley with the Berkshire Mountains, but the towns deserving the official “Hilltown” stamp differ depending on the source.

Towns that usually make the list include the communities of Ashfield, Chester, Chesterfield, Conway, Cummington, Goshen, Huntington, Middlefield, Williamsburg, Windsor, and Worthington, but there at least another dozen that could be included in the roster.

While the Hilltowns boundaries can be argued, everyone can agree that the Hilltowns are a wonderful place to visit. Opportunities for outdoor activities are abundant. The Hilltowns host many beloved family events, such as the Cummington Fair and the Maple Fest in Chester. And the Hilltowns are also home to a variety of family-friendly destinations, with menus to tempt the palates of children and adults alike.

worthington

worthington

As the founder and director of Hilltown Families and a former chef and baker, West Chesterfield resident Sienna Wildfield is the ideal person to turn to for Hilltown recommendations. When it comes to food, Sienna prefers organic, locally grown produce and maintains a gluten-free diet.

Sugar Season 

The Hilltowns are a great place to be during sugaring season. The sight of the area’s numerous sugar shacks issuing clouds of steam into the cold sky is a sure sign of the coming spring thaw, as well as a way to identify delicious breakfast options.

Red Bucket Sugar Shack

584 Kinnebrook Rd., Worthington ◆ 413-238-7710 ◆ Find them on Facebook here

The Red Bucket serves a variety of both traditional and creative versions of pancakes and French toast. Last season’s pancake flavors included cranberry orange and pumpkin, and the restaurant’s almond French toast is a signature dish. If the kids haven’t had enough sugar with their breakfast, they can take home a bag of maple sugar cotton candy. And customers shouldn’t be deterred by the wait for a table, as it gives everyone a chance to observe the sap boiling down.

chester

chester

 South Face Farm

755 Watson Spruce Corner Rd., Ashfield ◆ 413-628-3268southfacefarm.com

South Face is another Hilltown institution, serving waffles, pancakes, and French toast made with homemade bread topped with maple syrup boiled down that very morning, alongside other breakfast fare and the restaurant’s signature corn fritters. South Face prides itself on supporting other local farms by using local eggs, milk, and blueberries. The restaurant also features maple milk shakes made with Bart’s ice cream. In addition to the restaurant, the sugar house is always open for visitors during the sugaring season.

Annual Maple Fest More

Chester◆ More information here.

An annual event held in March, featuring local artisans and a pancake breakfast. This year’s event takes place on March 21. The festivities start at 9am and the fun continues until 3pm.

ashfield

ashfield

Year-Round Destinations

Elmer’s Store

396 Main St., Ashfield◆ 413-628-4003elmersstore.com

Described on their website as a “big time breakfast and Friday night dinner joint, Old Timey Natural Foods Grocery, and Art Gallery,” Elmer’s boasts delicious pancakes (including gluten-free), hot drinks (notably chai) and kid-approved ice cream sodas. Elmer’s popular breakfast menu is consistent, while their equally popular dinner menu offers new items every week.

Country Pie

343 Main St., Ashfield413-628-4488Find them on Facebook here

According to Sienna, her family will face a blizzard to pick up a pizza from this Ashfield establishment. Customers can choose from a wide array of fresh toppings or try one of the restaurant’s famous specialty pizzas, as well as widely praised sandwiches and wraps. The only catch for Sienna? The Country Pie currently doesn’t offer gluten-free products.

haydenville

haydenville

Bread Euphoria

206 Main St., Haydenville413-268-7757 breadeuphoria.org

Known for their amazing pizza (including “the best gluten-free pizza,” according to Sienna), pastries, and artisan breads, Bread Euphoria is a family friendly place to have a great dinner, sometimes accompanied by live music, or al fresco when the weather cooperates. Bread Euphoria uses organic and locally grown ingredients whenever possible, and describes itself as “proud to belong to a community of small farms and locally grown food producers.”

Old Creamery Co-op

445 Berkshire Trail, Cummington413-634-5560◆ oldcreamery.coop

The Old Creamery is a community hub for the Hilltowns, and with its expansive deli selection and yummy soups, it offers something for everyone, even the pickiest among us. The Old Creamery prides itself on using locally grown ingredients, as well as supporting local artists—the store’s inventory includes ceramics and paintings by Hilltown artists. Sienna’s family loves their hot chocolate, making it a popular place to stop after outdoor winter activities.

cummington

cummington

Additional spots to visit

The DAR State Forest

78 Cape St., Route 112, Goshen ◆ More information here

The DAR State Forest, initially donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, features 15 miles of hiking trails, a lake for swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter, and a fire tower with views of the area. The DAR campground is also a popular camping destination for family weekends. For a perfect winter family activity, Sienna recommends a hearty breakfast at one of the sugar shacks, an ice skating trip at the DAR with a stop at the warming hut, finished by a trip to the Old Creamery for hot chocolate.

Chapel Brook

Williamsburg Road, Ashfield ◆ More information here

Chapel Brook is a popular place to cool off in the summer months. This little patch of woods run by the Trustees of the Reservations is particularly known for a series of waterfalls, cascades and pools that provide a natural water slide. For a longer day, you can hike or snowshoe from Chapel to the DAR along a series of trails created by the Ashfield Trail Committee and then head to the Country Pie or Bread Euphoria for a pizza!

chesterfield

chesterfield

Chesterfield Gorge

River Road, Chesterfield ◆ More information here

The Chesterfield Gorge is a dramatic 70-foot-high canyon carved over centuries by the Westfield River. After making its way through the Gorge, the river opens up into a beautiful spot for bathing and fly fishing. The Gorge is a popular place for (un-groomed) cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

windsor

windsor

Notchview

Route 9, Windsor ◆ More information here

Notchview provides more than 17 kilometers of groomed trails for cross-country skiing, as well as back-country trails for more intrepid skiers and snowshoeing. Skis can be rented on site. Sienna also recommends Notchview as a great place for stargazing.

Sienna Wildfield is the founder and executive director of Hilltown Families, an award-winning online grassroots communication network serving thousands of families living throughout western Massachusetts. Sienna is a board member of the Hilltown Community Development Corporation, executive producer of the Hilltown Family Variety Show (103.3 FM Northampton, MA), a life-long activist, a mother, and an active community member living in West Chesterfield. See Sienna’s TEDx Talk, “Supporting Education Through Community Engagement” here.

Jenny Miller Sechler is a writer focusing on local, sustainable agriculture and the arts. She lives in western Massachusetts. Find her at Jenny-MillerSechler.squarespace.com.

Alli Howe is a flower farmer from New Hampshire. She studied art at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. Find her at allihowe0889@gmail.com or see more work @aehowe08 on Instagram.

Tackling the Whole Bird: You CAN Cut Up a Chicken

 By Jennifer Chandler | Butchery photos by Melissa Petersen | Recipe photo by Dominic Perri

You are probably thinking, “Why should I learn how to cut up a chicken when I can buy it that way at the store?”

I have three answers for you.

Number 1: Buying a whole chicken is much cheaper than buying individual parts.

Number 2: Not only are you saving money, but as an added bonus, you can use the carcass and bones to make a delicious chicken stock.

Number 3: Many of the local farmers at our farmers’ markets only sell their beautiful birds whole.

chicken_2

chicken_2

Prep the Chicken: Rinse off the chicken and pat it dry. Then place the chicken on a clean, flat cutting surface with the breast side up. Having a sharp chef’s knife is essential. A sturdy pair of kitchen shears makes removing the backbone a breeze. But a sharp knife will work if you don’t have shears.

chicken_7

chicken_7

Remove the Wings: Place the chicken on its side, pull the wing away from the body, and cut through the joint to remove the wing. Repeat with the other wing.

chicken_5

chicken_5

Remove the Legs: Pull the leg away from the body and slice the skin between the leg and the breast. When you reach the bone, stop cutting. Turn the chicken on its side and then bend back the leg until the thighbone pops out of its socket. Remove the leg by cutting in and around the joint. Repeat with the other leg.

chicken_6

chicken_6

Separate the Drumstick and Thigh: Place each leg skin-side down. Bend to see where the ball joint between the drumstick and thigh is located. Look for the line of fat. Cut through that line of fat to separate the thigh and drumstick, wiggling the joint as needed to separate it. Repeat with the other leg.

chicken_1

chicken_1

Remove the Backbone: Place the chicken on the cutting surface with the breast side down. Using kitchen shears, cut through the rib cage on one side of the backbone. Let the fat lines be your guide. Repeat on the other side of the backbone to remove it completely. (Reserve the backbone for chicken stock, if desired.)

chicken_4

chicken_4

Split the Breasts: Place the breasts skin-side down, exposing the underside of the breastbone. Using the tip of the knife, slice along the breastbone to weaken it. Turn the breasts over and press down along the breastbone to crack it. Now, slice through the meat and the breastbone to separate the two breasts. Cut each breast half in half again, crosswise, if desired.

Recipe for Lemon-roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Recipe for Basic Chicken Broth

The Making of Upinnzellar Cheese

By Nikki Gardner

 

Last December, I called the good folks at Upinngil Farm to ask if I could sit in on one of their artisan cheesemaking workshops. Cliff Hatch, who runs the 100-acre farm alongside his small crew, said “yes.”

On a sundrenched Saturday morning, I walk into the white-walled dairy room dressed in a chef’s jacket and hairnet, ready to learn the secret behind their notable Upinnzellar (Swiss-style) cheese. Within minutes I discover that cheesemaking is both an act of passion and gentle technique. As it goes in most kitchens and science labs, temperature and method matter.

Cliff pours raw milk into the 60-gallon cheese kettle to warm before adding the culture. The Farm’s Ayrshire cattle produce high-protein medium-fat raw milk fit for cheese production. Two hours later, the rennet is stirred in. Once the curd sets, it is cut into uniform cubes then stirred and cooked for another hour and a half. The curd is done when it can be formed into a ball. Curds and whey are separated with cheesecloth. Drained curds go into a cheese mold before they are covered and pressed overnight.

The next morning, the cheese is removed from the mold. Cliff coats the cheese with dry salt and lets it sit before the cheese is wrapped and placed in a two-door “cheese cave” to age for three to six months. After a day spent at Upinngil, I understand the craft behind their cheeses, and feel lucky for both the knowledge and company.

Upinngil Farm, 411 Main Rd., Gill
Farm Store, open daily, 8am to 7pm

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Clifford Hatch can be reached at 413-863-2297
Check Upinngil.com for detailed information about upcoming cheesemaking workshops. Currently scheduled:
Soft and fresh cheeses for beginners on April 11
Hard, pressed and aged cheeses on April 25

 

Nikki Gardner is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Artful Blogging, The Huffington Post, Smithsonian’s Food & Think, and The Daily Meal. She shares seasonal vegan and vegetarian recipes on WWLP’s Mass Appeal and in her cooking classes at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Northampton. Find her online at Art & Lemons, where she chronicles everyday life in food, photos, and stories.

 

Spring 2015 Cover Story

We have a confession to make: As it came time to shoot the cover for this issue, we were sort of stumped. For our spring cover something green was in order, but we need to take our pictures at least a month or two before you get your copy. In late January, it’s hard to find anything growing under those snowbanks!

Microgreens to the rescue! Our “cover girls” are pea shoots, grown by Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst. “Micros” (as they’re known in the restaurant trade) add a welcome splash of color to a plate as well as a spark of flavor to your dishes.

Microgreens are herb or vegetable plants that are harvested at a very young stage—right when the first set of true leaves start to sprout. Typical plant varieties found in micro mixes are kale, arugula, beet greens, onions, radish greens, watercress, chard, and bok choy and herbs such as cilantro, basil, chervil, parsley and chives.

You can find micros at many Valley farms and markets. Look for them this spring!

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Simple Gifts Farm

413-549-1585

simplegiftsfarm@gmail.com