BRATTLEBORO -- Back in 2008 Hans Estrin was teaching in his agro-ecology class at the Putney School when a few students wanted to see if they would be able to increase the amount of local food served at Putney Central School, the public elementary school just down the hill.
All of the food was grown within a 15-mile radius, and Putney Central was only a mile away from Estrin's class; still, the experiment failed.
But the experience made an impression on Estrin.
Why couldn't schools bring more local produce into their kitchens? What were the barriers for farmers to deliver more local fruits and vegetables? And could a sustainable model be developed that worked for farms, institutions and consumers?
In 2009 Estrin partnered with Westminster farmer Paul Harlow, filling up Harlow's truck with produce from other farms as the driver made his way around Windham County.
They sold about $10,000 worth of produce that fall.
In 2010 UVM Extension supported Estrin and encouraged him to extend his network, which was now called Windham Farm and Food.
Sales reached $50,000 that year and grew to $75,000 in 2011.
Post Oil Solutions managed the delivery system in 2012 and sales almost doubled when Windham Farm and Food sold $143,000 worth of locally-produced food in the region's schools, stores and hospitals.
Now, with a new growing season upon us, Windham Farm and Food is doing some growing of its own.
On Jan. 1, Windham Farm and Food became an independently run, for-profit business.
After building interest and support over the past four years Estrin said it was time to see if the business could stand on its own.
"We knew at some point we would have to be able to stand on our own," he explained. "We are trying to be financially viable and sustainable. This is a big step, and it is what we have been hoping for as we have been marching along here."
Windham Farm and Food was started to develop a low-cost, low-overhead method of bringing locally-grown produce to the market.
At a meeting in Putney last week, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross recognized the work Windham Farm and Food has done to grow the business.
Ross said that by making everyone understand that a stronger local food system benefits everybody, Windham Farm and Food has been able to succeed and help all the farms.
"What you have done here has been incredibly collaborative," said Ross. "You have been able to compete and collaborate and it has helped everybody."
Throughout Windham Farm and Food's history, Estrin said, the organization has been able to thrive by operating on a razor-thin margin which has made the food affordable.
About 85 cents of every dollar went to the farmer.
Estrin also has been able to make it easier for the institutions by developing an efficient, online ordering system which allows food buyers to see, in real time, what is available, and then having the produce delivered the next day.
As the group has grown, more farms and consumers have come on board.
Windham Farm and Food now delivers to schools throughout Windham County as well as to institutions such as Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Thompson House.
It has experimented with starting buying clubs and hopes to increase the number of buying clubs as business expands.
As part of the group's big move, the members have started an online campaign to raise money for startup operating costs. It has already raised about $11,000 through supporters.
For more information go to www.threerevolutions.com/campaign/detail/523.
During 2012 Post Oil Solutions managed Windham Farm and Food and helped set up the business systems.
As the organization ventures out on its own Estrin said they hope to reach $250,000 in sales in 2013.
"Our mission is the same. We are trying to make it easier to access healthy, local food throughout the community," said Estrin. "Now we are going to try to stand on our own."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.