by Luke Zarzecki, Center for Research on Vermont The red-roofed barns and buildings of Charlotte’s Nordic Farms stand out against the green landscape overlooking Lake Champlain while they belie the level of innovation happening inside lately.
Birds flutter across fields conspicuously missing cows.
Against one long barn new silver silos gleam in the sun. They don’t contain feed for animals. Instead they hold barley, stored until it can be processed into malt and delivered to craft beer brewers around Vermont.
Go inside what was once a calf barn and there’s a distinct sound of running water coming from 24 large tanks that hold the latest crop at Nordic Farms introduced by its new team of entrepreneur owners: Vermont-raised shrimp.
There’s a transformation happening at Nordic Farms, the former dairy farm along US 7 in Charlotte that last year changed hands when its operator landed in bankruptcy. After years weathering the ups and downs of producing milk, longtime owner Clark Hinsdale sold the property to Peterson Quality Malt and the owners of Hotel Vermont.
Looking beyond dairy, the new owners are investing in creative agricultural ventures including raising shrimp to supply local restaurants, growing barley to produce malt for the red-hot craft beer industry, and welcoming a bakery that will rely on flour milled on site.
Now for something totally different
Sweet Sound Aquaculture at Nordic Farms will soon debut Vermont farm-raised shrimp at local restaurants.
John Brawley, the marine ecologist who heads the operation, has purchased shrimp from hatcheries in Florida and Texas. Inside the tanks in Charlotte, they will grow for three and a half months and will be served at Juniper Restaurant at Hotel Vermont in downtown Burlington.
“We are really looking forward to it,” said Matt Canning, food and beverage director at Hotel Vermont. “Farming (shrimp) seven miles south of us and having it be a part of a local food system -- we are really excited about that.”
The first taste of the shrimp came at a Vermont Land Trust benefit dinner in July at Nordic Farms. Tables were set up on the farm’s north end with a view out across Lake Champlain with the Burlington skyline off in the distance.
About 75 people gathered for a meal prepared from various farms -- many of them conserved through the land trust. Offerings included shrimp from Sweet Sound Aquaculture, bread from Slowfire Bakery, butter from Ploughgate Creamery, beverages from Caledonia Spirits, Jasper Hill Farm’s Harbison cheese, Health Hero Farm beef, vegetables from Jericho Settlers Farm and Pete’s Greens and Maple Wind Farm turkey.
Hotel Vermont Chef Doug Paine, who prepared the menu for the event, gave the shrimp two thumbs up. “They were very sweet and firm, thin-shelled but easy to peel,” Paine said. “They were better than the majority of the shrimp that we buy.”
Part of the dinner experience was a farm tour that included an up-close look at the process of growing shrimp.
No ocean needed
The shrimp operation at Nordic Farms uses 24 tanks -- 12 are considered “nursery tanks” and 12 are used for shrimp closer to harvesting size. Brawley said he can raise about 20,000 shrimp in a month, depending on the survival rate.
The aquaculture operation lowers the carbon footprint of the popular crustacean by using less fossil fuel for transportation. The other positive result, Brawley said, is a fresher product.
“A lot of shrimp that you get from supermarkets and restaurants come from a variety of sources, but the majority of shrimp in the U.S. is imported from Asia and South America,” Brawley said.
Although Canning said he hadn’t tried the shrimp yet, he predicted that they will taste better than imported shrimp because of their freshness. And sourcing the shrimp locally fits the restaurant’s mission, he noted.
Brawley said he’s lining up other restaurant customers in Burlington, Montpelier, Stowe and Hanover, N.H. Eventually, he said he expects to raise enough to sell fresh shrimp to the public directly at the farm.
Planting seeds for beer and bread
Sweet Sound Aquaculture is sharing its 583-acre Nordic Farms home alongside several other fledgling operations.
Peterson Quality Malt was the first to get underway. Andrew Peterson began growing barley in Vermont in August 2014 and has since turned it into a multimillion dollar venture supplying 16 percent of the malt used in Vermont.
Construction began over the summer on a new home for Slowfire Bakery, which plans to move from Jeffersonville to Nordic Farms, according to Peterson.
Both the bakery and the malt operation will make good use of the barley grown at the farm, Peterson explained.
And soon Nordic Farms will own a New American Stone Mill, which has been designed, engineered and built in Vermont. The mill is “as artistic as it is functional,” Peterson noted. It will be primarily used for the bakery.
On the malt side, Peterson said that there are four breweries that source ingredients only from Vermont: Foam Brewery in Burlington, Hogback Mountain Brewery in Bristol, Hired Hand Brewing Co. from Vergennes and Cousins Brewing in Waitsfield. Together, he said those breweries will use most of the malt that Nordic Farms produces.
Other breweries such as Lawsons in Waitsfield and Zero Gravity in Burlington are interested in Vermont malt, Peterson said. As the farm expands, he hopes to add another 10 breweries to the lineup.
Peterson figures local ingredients only minimally increase the final cost of a beer -- he estimates a beer completely sourced from Vermont would run about 16 cents per pint higher than one sourced from different states.
The local connection has value, too, he added. “These are your local farmers. These are your kids. When you’re buying this beer, you are helping this family send this kid to college, as opposed to some multinational corporation that is out of the country,” Peterson said. “That is a fun part of the story to be able to tell.”
And he knows Vermonters truly expect local to mean local.
“When I go to other states, farm-to-plate doesn’t mean there what it means here,” Peterson said. “Here it means it came from Vermont. There it means ‘Well, we didn’t buy it from Cisco. It’s from a company a couple states away.’ Vermont is culturally unique,” Peterson said.
Looking to the future
The Nordic Farms malt operation currently provides seven full-time jobs and Peterson envisions that growing to about 25 as it expands. The bakery and shrimp production each will have three or four people, Peterson said. And not unlike the dairy farm that preceded it, the new venture is not without risks.
For example, just navigating the growing season poses a challenge. Peterson said that when he started growing barley in 2011, he would begin planting the fields in May compared with recent wet springs that have pushed planting into late June.
“It’s hard to know what to attribute to climate change and what to attribute to being difficult farming in Vermont,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Vermont Land Trust sees entrepreneurial farms like Nordic Farms as paving the way to diversify farming in the state to a degree that farmers will be economically successful.
“It’s interesting for me to see that a lot of that is happening and I do think that there is a role for the Vermont Land Trust in helping folks make the connections to those new businesses,” said Nick Richardson, president of the Vermont Land Trust.
Richardson said he would like to see Vermont farms broaden their reach to grow the markets for their products. “Vermont has 40 percent of the agricultural land in New England, and less than 1 percent of its population,” he said. “So an economically viable farm economy share must be about getting our products into other places.”
For now Peterson said the goal is for Nordic Farms to produce products that complement each other and promote local agriculture.
“The way I see this is a community of like-minded people that want to hang out together and work together,” he said. “People joke with the shrimp and the beer and the bread -- at the end of the day, we can sit around and eat shrimp po’boys and drink beer.”
Luke Zarzecki is a junior dual-degree student at UVM majoring in Environmental Studies and English with a minor in public policy analysis. He has a nose for news and investigative journalism, and has gained reporting experience through multiple newspapers. He has been picked up by the Huffington Post and has interviewed Will Poulter (an actor in The Revenant, We're The Millers and The Maze Runner), as well as internet celebrities Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas.
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.