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BRATTLEBORO — The president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate was in Brattleboro Wednesday to learn about plans to establish a food center at the Retreat Farm.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is also the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the senior-most member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is seeking $3 million for the proposed project.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, tours the facilities around the Retreat Farm, in Brattleboro, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.

Buzz Schmidt, president of Retreat Farm Ltd. said the proposal calls for a reuse of a cheese production facility established by Grafton Village Cheese in 2008. The Windham Foundation, which owns and operates the cheese company, ceased operations at the facility about 18 months ago. It still produces cheese in Grafton.

Since then it has been looking for a buyer for both the building and the cheese-making equipment.

If all goes as planned, said Jeremy Stephenson, cheese program director at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, the facility will host cheese making again.

“What we’d like to do is talk to the smaller dairy farms that are at risk, and we think we can help those farms through offering this steady pricing as long as they can work with us on the way they produce their milk,” he said.

While Spring Brook Farm will be the principal occupant of the facility, the plan is to bring in milk from at least a dozen dairy farms, said Stephenson.

“Dairy farmers have been hit for a number of years now with prices going up and down,” said Leahy. “The stress and the economic difficulties are amazing. A project like [Stephenson] is talking about helps to give that stability and encourage dairy farmers to stay and keep the soul of Vermont.”

The Windham Foundation has been using the space as a warehouse, retail store, and “cut-and-wrap” facility and hopes to continue that if the sale of the 34,000-square-foot building is finalized.

Schmidt said any funding received from Washington, D.C., will also be used to renovate two barns on the campus of Retreat Farm, one into a large event space and another into a café and small-batch brewery.

“The senator has made a request for the funding as part of bringing back congressionally directed spending to the appropriations process,” said Chris Saunders, Leahy’s field representative in Vermont on business, community and economic development.

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Congressionally directed spending was formerly known as earmarks or pork-barrel spending.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 2011, they placed a moratorium on earmarks. In April, with Leahy in charge of the Appropriations Committee, Congress restored earmarks, now designated congressionally directed spending items.

Saunders said when the Senate reconvenes in September, Leahy hopes to get approval for the funding for Retreat Farm’s project.

Schmidt described the vision for the Grafton Village Cheese building as “a regional food center” with the possibility of a community kitchen.

“And a lot of retailing and showcasing local producers and processing,” he said. “What we are calling a showcase of Vermont products and processors will take up an area two-and-a-half times what the current retail footprint is.”

The Retreat Farm was founded in the 1830s to provide food and work therapy for the patients at what was then known as the Vermont Asylum for the Insane, established in 1834 with a $10,000 bequest from Anna Hunt Marsh. The hospital was renamed the Brattleboro Retreat in the late 1800s.

“This land has long been a source of inspiration and sustenance for human beings through the millennia,” said Schmidt.

The Windham Foundation took over the property in 2001, said Schmidt, but didn’t have “the institutional wherewithal to address the rest of the property and to restore and maintain the historic parts.”

In 2015, Retreat Farm Ltd., stepped in to develop “a land-based anchor institution to help advance the community,” said Schmidt, who described the program areas the institution is focused on: restoration and conservation of the land, water, farmland, trails, wetlands and the historic structures; education in the local schools; family services; a food system advancement program; community gatherings; and the arts.

Retreat Farm is also home to the SUSU commUNITY Farm, which provides free food and supplies to many families in the BIPOC community, and the Atowi Project, a collaboration with the Elnu Abenaki community.

Asked if he plans to seek a ninth term in the Senate, Leahy, who was first elected in 1974 at the age of 34, said he hasn’t made that decision yet. He plans to make the decision this winter, as he’s done before — while snowshoeing with his wife, Marcelle Leahy, at their home in Middlesex.

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Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.