By Kara Herlihy

The opening of the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield will create many links in the local food system—sausage and otherwise.

The new food storage, processing and distribution facility located in the Irasville Business Park sets out to integrate the local food system to encourage growth in capacity and demand for fresh and value-added food.

MRFH is the first of its kind to offer both vegetable and meat processing facilities; the two meat processing rooms are licensed by the Agency of Agriculture Vermont Meat Inspection Service and the vegetable kitchen was constructed to USDA standards.

Meat processing space is available for rent on an eight-plus-hour-per-day basis by chefs, farmers and food entrepreneurs.

On Tuesday, facilities manager Jacob Finsen hand processed half of a hog for the Vermont Meat Company.

Finsen is the MRFH’s first full-time employee; he oversees the daily use of the 4,000-square-foot facility that includes a smoke room, industrial-sized coolers and freezers as well as dry storage.
Owner Robin Morris said that the MRFH got its start after George Schenk of American Flatbread in Waitsfield graciously agreed to sell his freezers; construction started back in May and reached completion in mid-August.

Morris said that it took three things to get the business off the ground: grants, cash and volunteer labor.

The MRFH applied for and was awarded several grants that served as capital to purchase equipment and fund the project including $7,500 grant from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund Farm to Plate initiative.

The MRFH has not and will not use public money to fund the facility. In order to be sustainable, the building has to be leased in full 60 percent of the time.

The Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce applied for and was awarded a $50,000 matching USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) to purchase meat and vegetable processing equipment for the MRFH.

The MRFH is classified as a L3C, a for-profit business; nonprofits may serve as the applicant for the grant, even though the recipient is technically a for-profit entity.

The RBEG program provides grants for rural projects that finance and facilitate development of small and emerging rural businesses, help fund incubators, and help fund employment-related adult education programs to assist with business development.

On November 16, the MRFH is hosting an “Essentials of food safety for food producers” course specifically designed for producers working in a shared-use facility.  Chefs, farmers and business owners lease the space that is subject to a strict set of state-regulated and enforced sanitation requirements.

Morris said the business has attracted a number of young people interested in starting small businesses who don’t have access to properly licensed food-processing space.

“What we’re really looking for is people who want to come in and create a vegetable, meat, or vegetable and meat business of their own,” Morris said.

In addition to storage and processing, the MRFH will also distribute products for area producers offering delivery services locally and throughout the region.

A true hub, the MRFH has relied on nearby businesses such as Freeaire Refrigeration of Waitsfield who installed the energy efficient coolers; Deerfield Designs who printed business cards; and Liz Lovely who helped get www.madriverfoodhub.com up and running.

The Vermont Raw dog food company has moved from another Irasville Business Park location to the MRFH; Kingsbury Market Garden stores fresh produce onsite, as does Lawson’s Finest Liquids and the Vermont Meat Company.

Morris said the MRFH is the result of many years of discussion and collaboration with the Mad River Valley Localvore Project, Valley Futures Network, the Mad River Valley Planning District, the Vermont Land Trust, farmers, businesses, nonprofit organizations and residents.

“Funding has come from a variety of sources including Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund - Farm to Plate, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board Farm Viability Program, Vermont Agriculture Innovation Center, Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and local residents” he continued.
For more information about the Mad River Food Hub, visit www.madriverfoodhub.com.