WARREN, Vt. – The Vermont Foodbank is going back to the land in hopes of expanding its menu.

The food bank, which serves more than 250 food pantries and anti-hunger programs across the state, has reached an agreement to buy a 20-acre farm and grow produce for needy Vermonters.

But the proposed purchase will do more than add carrots, onions and potatoes to the shopping carts of the needy.

It will prevent commercial development, preserve farmland and revive the 20-acre Kingsbury Farm as a working farm, in the process providing a hub for agricultural education efforts and community activity, according to principals in the deal.

“Our intent is to raise 150,000 pounds of fresh produce on the farm (annually) and make it available – first and foremost – locally in the Mad River valley and Washington County and then also to other food shelves and pantries around the state,” said Doug O’Brien, CEO of the Barre Town-based food bank.

“It’s a way for us to sustain a sustainable source of fresh produce for the people we serve. Often times, it’s the fresh produce that doesn’t make its way into the shopping cart of needy Vermonters because it’s unaffordable. So they lose access and they lose the nutrient value of produce in their diet,” O’Brien said.

The Route 100 farm, which dates to the 19th century and recently has been farmed mainly for hay, has 12 tillable acres, a five-bedroom farmhouse and a 3,800-square foot barn.

It was purchased last year by the Vermont Land Trust after community groups – worried that it would be bought and developed for other uses – rallied and raised money for conservation. The Town of Warren kicked in $125,000 toward the $495,000 purchase price.

“People took notice when the “For Sale’ sign went up,” said Liza Walker, the Vermont Land Trust’s regional representative in the Mad River Valley.

“They didn’t want it developed. If it was up a back road, or the community wasn’t as into it, we might not have stepped in. But the sense of opportunity became more about what it could be than about preventing development,” Walker said.

The Land Trust, in turn, put out requests for proposals that elicited – among other things – suggestions that it be turned into an algae farm for biofuels, a community root cellar, a hub for sharing vehicles or a “localvore” store selling locally-made products.

It was the food bank’s proposal that won out.

Vermont Foodbank officials plan to farm the land for root crops and renovate the aging barn into a four-season facility that can serve as a community meeting place, a winter farmer’s market and an educational exhibit that focuses on the link between agriculture and hunger.

To many, it seems a perfect fit.

“This farm is right on Route 100, it’s got great access for people to see and drive past, and it’s a gateway to the Mad River Valley,” said Robin McDermott, a co-founder of the Mad River Localvore Project. “My feeling has always been that we’re not taking business from local farmers, because the pie is getting bigger as people realize the importance of eating locally.”

With costs rising for out-of-state produce, the food bank sees the farm as a way to get more for its money, O’Brien said.

“It’s increasingly unaffordable for us to take fresh produce from outside the state, so we need to gather as much locally as we can. The short-term gain is significant, and the long-term gain is we’ll continue to have the fresh produce and the educational opportunities to better understand the issue of hunger,” O’Brien said.

The sale is not a done deal.

The plan is for the food bank to buy it for $225,000, but the Land Trust needs to make up the difference between what it bought the farm for and what it will sell it for – a $270,000 gap.

The Land Trust has applied for a $168,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and intends to do private fundraising for the rest.

“This is well within the realm of the sorts of things we’ve been supportive of, but I just don’t know how competitive the next round of funding will be,” said Gus Seelig, executive director of the Housing and Conservation Board.

The sale is scheduled to close in December, but hinges on the financing.

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