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Do Rootswork's actions benefit the community?

10/11/2007

By Linda Faillace

When Anne Burling bought the George Elliott farm at the four corners in East Warren, she had a vision of her land being a nexus for small organic farmers to work together. They would grow and create organic products, teach others their skills, and benefit the community not only through the sale and availability of their healthy foods but as a role model of a community working together, all while using sustainable land practices. In the mid 1990s Anne's dream gave birth to "Rootswork."

Anne approached Larry and me in 1995 and generously offered her land for us to graze our sheep on. By 1997 the first community garden was planted on her land and by 1998 Rootswork received a lease with the Town of Warren for the East Warren Schoolhouse. The building had sat empty for a few years and was in desperate need of upgrading in order to make it functional, so the Town of Warren rented the space to Rootswork at a very low rate with the understanding that members of Rootswork would contribute financially and in-kind towards the restoration in exchange for the low rent fee.

In 1999 Larry and Jackie began cheesemaking in the cheese facility on Anne's land and on August 15, 1999, Bruce Fowler opened the store, and two days later I joined him as a business partner. Shortly thereafter, Walt Krukowski began Mountain Flower Farm on four acres of Anne's property, and most recently Sally Kendall and Jeremy Gulley established Little Hands Farm on the land directly behind the schoolhouse, which led to a flush of community gardens. In 2003 Larry and John Barkhausen learned that their application for a low power radio station was approved and WMRW moved into the upstairs of the schoolhouse. East Warren was once again a vibrant little community.

Over the years I have given hundreds of tours of the property to visitors and Valley residents who have marveled at what a community working together can achieve. There have definitely been challenges (and some head butting) along the way, but Rootswork always moved forward at "promoting, protecting, and nurturing agriculture in the Mad River Valley," and I think Anne can be proud of what she helped create on her land which is now conserved by the Vermont Land Trust.

Last year there was a shakeup of the Rootswork board and anyone who had a financial involvement in Rootswork (this included Larry and me, Bruce, Sally and Jeremy, Walt, and Anne) was required to step down from the board. Although there were some differences of opinion, everyone ultimately agreed to step down.

The first piece of business for the new Rootswork board was to renew their five-year lease with the Town of Warren (for $600 a year) and the concurrent lease with Schoolhouse Market. But instead of offering a renewal five-year lease to Schoolhouse Market, the Rootswork board proposed an unacceptable one-year lease.
Over the last year I have attempted to work with the Rootswork board to resolve the issues, but to no avail. On the 28th of September I received a letter from a lawyer hired by Rootswork notifying me that Schoolhouse Market must vacate the premises before October 31 or Rootswork would pursue legal action. After battling the USDA for years, the last thing I want to do is fight members of my community in court. Therefore, I have agreed to vacate the building by the end of October.

This has been a very difficult decision. Our family loves our store, our vendors, and like Heather always says, "We have the best customers." As anyone in the retail business knows, grocery stores have low profit margins, but each year Schoolhouse Market grew at a healthy rate and last year was our most successful yet. We knew going into the business that it was not a large money generator, but there is immeasurable value in working with other farmers, selling their products, and providing the best possible food to keep our community healthy, and interacting with friends, neighbors, and visitors -- showing them what people can accomplish when they work together. I am proud of that.

Right now all our options are open and, as we've done before, we will sit down with the family and try to figure out how to go forward. What we do know is this: We will continue to work with Anne and the other farmers working her land, we will continue to make cheese and teach cheese making classes and, most of all, we will find new ways to promote sustainable, organic, community agriculture.

I encourage people to ask questions of the Rootswork board and make sure their previous and subsequent actions truly benefit the Mad River Valley community.
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