Together Again at the 2023 VFN Annual MeetingFebruary 15, 2023
Close to 75 VFN members, partners and others interested in local food gathered at Echo, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain on Jan. 30th. It had been 2 years since our last in person Annual Meeting in January 2020. The VFN Annual Meeting is a chance to connect with farmers, food producers, distributors, chefs and other culinary professionals. It combines panel discussions and plenty of informal networking opportunities, plus a chance to shape VFN's work for the upcoming year.
The event kicked off with a welcome from Doug Paine, VFN Board President, who spoke about the Network and our projects and activities in 2022 including bringing back our beloved Annual Forum Dinner at Shelburne Farms.
“After being away since 2019, our 2022 Annual Forum Dinner came back strong. This dinner is a major fundraiser for our organization and it certainly has been missed - Between the number of VFN Partner Members showcasing their food, and by the number of attendees from the public, we had a solid crowd of like minded people devoted to VFN’s mission.….. Events like today are directly connected to our mission of strengthening partnerships. This year we hosted two networking events bringing together over 100 farmers, chefs and producers, in St. Albans and Middlebury. There will be more networking events in 2023 around the state.”
”After a challenging couple of years navigating the impacts of the pandemic, a goal at the start of 2022 was to begin the transition to a new “normal” for the organization that put us on more stable ground - something that resembled the financial picture we would have expected to see in 2019 before the pandemic. This involved rebuilding our core financial resources by reintroducing pre-pandemic programming, namely the Annual Forum, and bringing our membership dues back-up in parallel with the pace of recovery of the restaurant industry. Additionally, as we did during 2020 and 2021, we continued to diversify our funding channels.”
And, Tara Pereira, Executive Director discussed the organizations focus in 2023 on Transparency, Increasing Network Partnerships, Agritourism & Culinary Tourism and Strategic Planning.
“Transparency and strong partnerships are essential to VFN’s mission. And we will continue to cultivate these relationships and work towards strengthening connections. This coming year, we are planning three more networking events around the state. The first is coming up in March in the Northeast Kingdom. Some of our partnership work also involves supporting the growth of little known products…… Our work in agritourism and culinary tourism is part of Vermont Fresh Network’s broader effort to educate the public about local food and making informed choices. This year, we will continue in our commitment to Building a Larger Narrative Around the local food and farm experiences that make Vermont special. This involves deepening and increasing the touch points the public has with local food as it relates to VFN members and members of the DigInVT Partner Associations.”
After the business portion of the agenda, we transitioned to small group table discussions. For thirty minutes, groups of 8-10 discussed and answered the following questions:
How do you want to see the VT food and farm sector move forward for the benefit of business owners, staff, and customers? What’s working well? What still needs to happen? What Big Idea do you want to see come to fruition? How can VT Fresh Network support that?
Below are themes that came up in discussion and a sampling of notes from each table.
Industry staffing problems and lack of affordable housing
Worker shortage/Lack of staff drives everything.. Childcare. Businesses are closing or are not open on certain days because of lack of staff. Inflation is high and wages aren't keeping up. Lack of housing... Lack of health insurance. Should we/How can we use our platform to promote better labor practices? Is there a clear path for migrant workers in Vermont? Seasonality in food/farm demands business/producers/manufacturers hire to fill in during busy seasons. Staff and resource sharing…
“Businesses should tap into VFN to amplify their marketing. How can we connect local food and beverage marketing with other tourism sectors and fill in any gaps. How can VFN get its name out more and show the impact of the Network? Can VFN set up a new membership level to address the needs of farms that focus on agritourism ”
“Tax incentives for new farmers…problems with Act 250….Liability insurance..VFN could reach out to legislators to move forward initiatives that could address the needs of VFN Members.”
What does the future of local fine dining encompass? What does that mean? Restaurants that do 1200 a day vs. Smaller restaurants...Is verification still necessary? How can we better identify surpluses and needs”
After lunch, our afternoon panel reflected on some of the questions discussed earlier in the day. Topics over the hour covered rising costs, employee culture and also the growth of Vermont’s local food system. Sourcing local ingredients and connecting with farmers is easier than ever for Vermont’s restaurants and hospitality businesses.
Moderator: Jake Claro, Program Director, Farm to Plate Network
- Ryan Chaffin, General Manager, 14th Star Brewing Co.
- Doug Paine, Exec. Chef, Hotel VT Juniper Bar and Restaurant, Bleu Northeast Kitchen
- Eric Warnstedt, Co-Owner, Doc Ponds, Hen of the Wood, BTV & Waterbury, and Prohibition Pig
Here are some excerpts from the panel discussion...
Eric: Collaboration and relationships are the basis of our whole program. The original relationships when we opened Hen set the tone for today’s relationship. And a new generation of our chefs are building their own relationships with farmers.
Ryan: The difficulty with breweries is that we have to stay within the pricing tiers that the market has established. And when social mission is a part of business it can be hard. At the end of the day we have to make sure that we’re taking care of the people that work for us. We can use our platform and brand muscle to promote the good work of our employees.
Doug: Diners want to know more about the culture of restaurants along with the origin of ingredients. We give staff two days off in a row, fair wages—prepare for the increases in budgets.
Jake: Growth in the food sector is not what it was in 2010, but it shows signs of maturity. The nature of how businesses are run does not necessarily increase profits, but provides better opportunities for employees. The more that we can drive diversity through restaurants and other outlets will define the future. We are at a place where things are more sophisticated, and more complex, but that is because we have grown. It asks the question, how big do we want to be?
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As we were planning the agenda for the day, we made sure to have an extended time for networking in the afternoon. From 2:30 - 4pm, attendees continued their conversations and snacked on sweet and savory treats from Burlington Beer Company, Honey Road, Black Flannel Brewing and Distilling Co., Jule's on the Greene and Cabot Creamery. 14th Star Brewing, Prohibition Pig, and Burlington Beer Company provided the beverages. It was great to catch up and chat with folks in person while eating food and drinking beverages made locally.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for the 2023 Vermont Fresh Network Annual Meeting! We especially want to thank the Echo, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain for hosting us and 14th Star Brewing Co. • August First • Blake Hill Preserves • Black Flannel Brewing & Distilling Company • Burlington Beer Co. • Cabot Creamery Co-operative • Four Town Lowlines • Grateful Greens • Honey Road • Jericho Settlers Farm • Jules on the Green • Kestrel Coffee Roasters • Misty Knoll Farms • Prohibition Pig • Sugarsnap Catering • Shelburne Farms for providing lunch and sweet treats for the day.