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January 17, 2012

Mad River Food Hub's Grand Opening is a Meaty Matter

IMG_3441As a dairy farmer himself, it's no surprise that Gov. Peter Shumlin took the time out to cut the ribbon at the Mad River Food Hub's official grand opening today.

Perhaps a greater testament to the importance of this particular project was the number of legislators who followed him up the snowy driveway behind the Shaw's Supermarket in Waitsfield to tour the food storage and production facility. Senate license plates lined the parking lot and when the Governor asked for a show of hands among legislators, it seemed that nearly half of the assembled group raised theirs. They had all made the trek from Montpelier, then had to return for the day's session by 1 p.m.

Other attendees, mostly agricultural advocates or farmers hoping to learn more about the new resource, stuck around for in-depth tours and question-and-answer sessions.

The warehouse was hushed as Shumlin declared to the roughly 50 gathered guests, "This is yet one more example why Vermont has such a bright agricultural future." 

However, Mad River Food Hub founder Robin Morris was the real star of the event. The venture center is the brain child of the former chief financial official of American Flatbread. It was also his idea to open the facility as an L3C, a privately owned company with a social mission and limited profit. That way, the Mad River Food Hub is not dependent on public funding.

According to a press release from the state, the Food Hub is "the first fully equipped, licensed vegetable and meat processing facility" in New England and offers "farmers and food producers affordable, daily rental of state licensed meat and vegetable processing rooms, together with on-site storage and distribution services to local market outlets." Funding for the project came from "a number of state, federal and foundation funds as well as private investment," but it doesn't get more specific than that.

Since October, customers have already processed 28,000 pounds of food, including 2,617 pounds of goats, sheep, pigs and cows.

That doesn't include the first meat to hang in the freezer this past July. Months before the facility officially opened for business, Rob Williams of Vermont Yak used the freezer to store a whole, quarterd yak post-slaughter. Its destination? New York, more specifically the Food Network, where it will soon appear on an episode of "Iron Chef America." Guests today sampled yak in the form of indulgently tender meatballs flavored with fresh lemon zest.

In the current cold spell, the Food Hub is able to keep pallets of food chilled in the massive refrigeration units using outside air. The two giant cooling rooms account for much of the facility's space. Two smaller rooms, used for breaking and cutting meat and value-added meat products have been particularly important to the business. Even before today's official opening, the rooms boasted a 40-percent occupancy. That means that almost half the time, someone is cutting or packaging meat in there.

IMG_3442Five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., facility manager Jacob Finsen is there to help farmers or value-added producers use the equipment. Together with Food Hub operations director (and Mad Taco chef) Joey Nagy, Finsen produces sausages made from whey-fed pigs under the name Vermont Meat Company. Their tangy, juicy garlic sausages were distributed on toothpicks today, too. They're also available at Healthy Living and Hunger Mountain Co-Op.

Jennifer Hammond of Vermont Raw Pet Food was also on hand to show guests how the meat facilities worked, even for non-human consumers.

All the while, other customers prepared their wares in the value added kitchen, to share with the legislators and other visitors.

IMG_3432Joe Buley, a former New England Culinary Institute chef-instructor, now owner of Screamin' Ridge Farm, was particularly effusive about what the facility has done for him. "I can now make legal chicken noodle soup and sell it," he says of the soup line he's long sold at local farmers markets. "It allows me to  bring in even more growers into my product line." It also means he'll now be selling specialties like the hearty and peppery beef and barley soup he spooned out to visitors today, along with a vegan Thai curry potage.

Because the hub is certified by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, he can sell at markets all over Vermont. The Food Hub also has its application in for USDA certification and may receive it in as little as three months. That will mean Buley and others will be able to sell their wares outside Vermont, too.

It looks like soon, Mad River Food Hub's clients will be proving Shumlin's statement that, "No one’s better at growing wholesome, quality food than the people of Vermont."

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