This week, we had a report on the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and a visit from some of the people/businesses that received grants. One of the truly inspiring stories came from the Vermont Goat Collaborative at Pine Island Farm in Colchester. With their relatively small grant, the Collaborative built a custom slaughter facility that is an important part of the success of their farm. What is so impressive is the number of threads that were intertwined and synergistically woven together to produce a lovely community fabric.
One aspect of this story is human. New Americans (recently arrived refugees from other countries) in the Burlington area had a great need for goat meat, both for dietary and cultural/ religious reasons. To satisfy this need, the equivalent of 3,000 goats was being imported from Australia and New Zealand every year. The quality of the frozen meat was not particularly good and the carbon footprint that it represented was problematic, especially given Vermont's rural/agricultural environment and ability to grow food.
At the same time, a family that had been expelled from Bhutan due to ethnic cleansing in 1990 had been relocated in Burlington in 2009 after spending 19 years in a Nepalese refugee camp. Chuda Dhaurali was employed in a restaurant to support his family and had worked his way from dishwasher to assistant cook during the intervening three years. His dream, however, was to farm again.
There are a growing number of goat dairy farms that, every year, have a crop of kids that are not needed once their mothers have "freshened." In the past, the fate of these little bucks was not a pleasant one and seemed like a terrible waste of a useful resource.
The VT Goat Collaborative (see their Facebook page) did a feasibility study and, with the help of the Vermont Land Trust, acquired farm land in Colchester. Together with Chuda Dhaurali, they launched a pilot project with Chuda as the lead farmer. Their goal is to produce fresh, local, affordable goat meat for the New American population. This mode of production also allows for certain traditions practiced by the various ethnic groups to continue. Buck kids and some does are picked up at five days of age and raised in a healthy, loving environment until they are purchased to be processed.
Challenges were the cost of professional slaughter/processing and the do-it-yourself slaughter laws in the state. In order to make the enterprise affordable, it was determined that what was needed was a local slaughter facility. The VT Goat Collaborative applied for a Working Lands Enterprise Initiative grant, which they received, and with that $10,868 grant, converted the old milk house on the farm into a custom slaughter facility. The local community also pitched in with volunteer labor.
So how have they done this past year? The numbers are heartening. Baby goats from three farms were collected and raised in a loving, humane way; goats from two more farms will be added this year. Chuda Dhaurali has made enough in sales so that he will be self-sufficient this coming year. One hundred families from 12 nationalities bought and custom-slaughtered goats at the farm. Soon they will be bringing on an additional farm family originally from Rwanda. Next year, they plan to add another family with a projected total of 300-360 goats. The $70,000 that previously would have gone to Australia and New Zealand is staying right here in the Burlington area and making that community stronger and more vital.
In the words of Karen Freudenberger, the representative for the VT Goat Collaborative who spoke with us, "Numbers are important and we think that these figures will help you understand the very real and palpable impact that an $11,000 grant can have. But for the people we are working with, the impact is so much greater than what numbers can capture. Nearly all these refugee families were deeply connected to their own working landscapes in Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda before their lives were brutally disrupted. Arriving in Vermont most are settled in dense urban neighborhoods, grateful to have jobs but working long hours sorting recycling or cleaning hotel rooms. For many, rural Vermont was as far away from downtown Winooski or Burlington's Old North End as the verdant forests of northern Burma or the lush hillsides of southern Bhutan. This sentiment was captured by a young Congolese man who found his way to the farm on a warm July day as the clouds hovered over Mount Mansfield in the distance. 'You know,' he said, 'ever since I came to this country people have been telling me how beautiful Vermont is. But I never saw it. Today I finally understand what they are talking about.'"
It is this story and many others that inspire me in my work in the Legislature -- where several "challenges" were turned into entrepreneurial opportunities that contribute to Vermont's vibrant economy; cut down on our carbon footprint; rejuvenate an old farm; make life more meaningful for our New American Vermonters; and provide healthier, fresher, local meat at the same time.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.