NORWICH — About 100 people are pledging money to buy a dairy farm here before Vermont Technical College sells it to the highest bidder.
The Norwich Farm Creamery is a fixture in the area, but now it’s being divided and sold. Part of the property was put on the market for $1.7 million in June and another parcel went on sale two weeks ago for $485,000.
Norwich residents fear the 200-year-old farm will be subdivided and replaced with multi-million dollar homes, a beloved farmer will be kicked out, and the community will be left without a farm.
“It seems almost negligent to the state and everyone here,” said resident Omer Trajman.
The Norwich Farm Foundation, a nonprofit founded by a group of residents, has raised $155,000 in pledges so far. The organization offered to buy both properties in February for $610,000, but the offer was turned down.
Vermont Technical College President Pat Moulton said the offer represented just 36% of fair market value and it wasn’t good enough for the financially-strapped institution, which is facing a $4.5 million deficit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, the state of Vermont and its students to maximize the proceeds of the sale,” she said in an interview.
Moulton said there has been interest in the properties, but no agreement has been made. Attempts to contact the real estate agents listing the properties weren’t successful.
Farmer Chris Gray and his wife, Laura Brown, came to the area in 2015 after Gray was hired by Vermont Tech to lead a new dairy program.
Gray signed a five-year lease agreement with the college in 2016 allowing him to stay at the farm, teach and use the college’s equipment to operate his own small business. He pays $500 a month in rent. The college, in turn, invested $800,000 in a new creamery machine as part of a $4 million federal grant. The college also brought in cows, spent $1.1 million turning a 3-bedroom house into a 12-person dorm room, in addition to renovating a classroom and updating electrical work.
But the dairy program shut down after one year, in part due to lack of student interest. The cows were sold, the herd manager left and the students disappeared — but Gray and the cheese machine stayed. Now, four years later, the large cow barn is empty.
Wheelbarrows and shovels haven’t moved since the cows left, a grain feeder sits in the aisle, left behind with bits of sawdust. New milkers in the milk room sit, barely used. Gray continues to make cheese, yogurt and ice cream, by hauling milk from nearby Billings Farm in Woodstock, while Vermont Tech continues to pay $70,000 a year in maintenance for the farm. The college plows, mows, fixes leaky faucets, disposes of waste from the creamery and heats the empty barn to 50 degrees.
Vermont Tech tried to force Gray off of the property in 2018, but he said he had the right to stay under the terms of his lease agreement — and the college backed down. Gray’s lease is up June 30, but the community wants him to stay and Gray said he has no plans to leave.
“They are an incredibly well-loved cornerstone of the Upper Valley community,” said Kate Barlow, who is part of the Norwich Farm Foundation.
“Save the Farm” lawn signs have lined the streets in Norwich since the properties went on sale.
The Norwich Farm Foundation, headed by six people, formed after the college tried to make Gray leave in 2018.
The group, which includes a cardiologist, a graphic designer, a financial advisor and start-up founder, has crunched numbers, prepared spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations and presented a 60-page plan to bring the cows back. Its members admit they know nothing about farming, but they know they want a farm and they say their plan is sustainable. They’ve written letters to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
They’ve held community discussions, attended by neighbors and legislators, and they’ve pledged money.
So far, 100 people have pledged between $10 and $10,000.
“It was something we felt like we had to do,” said Tony Gemignani, a cardiologist and foundation board member, who donated $10,000. “We put everything we can into it. I have to believe we can make this happen.”
His wife, Liz, a graphic designer, created the “Save the Farm” signs and stickers pro bono.
“It would be an intangible loss to what feels like a focal point in the community,” Tony said.
Neighbors bring their kids to play at the farm.
“I love that we actually know the family making the food,” said Norwich resident Suzanne Ficaro. “We’ve never had that kind of access before.”
The creamery’s supporters want to have adult and child education classes at the farm, as well as community meals and outdoor events. They want their kids to learn about agriculture — to see where cheese is made and to watch calves be born. They appreciate what they’ve learned so far.
“I didn’t know that cows had to have a baby to produce milk,” Barlow said with a laugh.
Supporters have reached out to Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts.
“This group has done their homework and they are committed to their community,” Tebbetts said. “There is tremendous energy around local agriculture now because of the pandemic and we need to build upon these opportunities.”
Tebbetts said the farm is also needed. The state lost at least 17 dairy farms since the pandemic reached Vermont last March.
“I have not given up hope all sides will work out a deal so the farm can remain in farming,” Tebbetts said. “We know the housing market is hot now, but we need to think long-term here.”
Residents have also flooded Vermont State College chancellor Sophie Zdatny’s inbox with nearly 100 emails.
“I understand that people are concerned about losing something of value in their community,” Zdatny said. “We do understand the strong emotions.”
Zdatny said it’s not that simple. The Vermont State Colleges System, which includes Vermont Tech, is facing a $45 million deficit.
“The Vermont State Colleges System has to be thoughtful about what it does with our assets,” Zdatny said. “There’s no animosity to having a farm on this property. Our main concern is that we get a fair market value for it.”
Zdatny said part of the asking price for the properties comes from a settlement agreement in 2019.
The farm was a gift from Andrew Sigler, the former chief executive of the Champion International paper company. Sigler gave away his 358-acre property, valued at $2.5 million in 2015, so that Vermont Tech could start an agricultural program.
Vermont Tech sold 352 acres of that property to the Upper Valley Land Trust for a discounted price of $300,000 in 2015. As part of the deal, the land trust would have the option to purchase the remaining six acres where the farm is located, worth $1.7 million, for just $50,000, if the educational program failed.
When the educational program closed after just one year, the Upper Valley Land Trust filed a lawsuit against Vermont Tech for not handing over the dairy farm. The lawsuit was resolved for an undisclosed amount in 2019.
Moulton, the president of Vermont Tech, declined to say more about the settlement agreement.
The farm is one of a handful of properties the college is selling to recoup losses from the pandemic.
But some in Norwich, including resident Chrissy Morley, said the college’s desire to sell the property goes against the intention of Sigler’s gift.
“I know that there are financial pressures at work here, but to sell a gifted property to the highest bidder without upholding these agreements seems both shortsighted and dishonest,” she said.
But Moulton said there were no agreements made when the farm was donated.
“There are no deed restrictions or gift restrictions that the property must remain in any kind of specified use,” she said. “We know their intent was for us to deliver an agriculture program, which we attempted. For a myriad of reasons, it did not go well for us.”
Sigler, who still lives in Norwich, asked for privacy.
“We’re not involved in it,” Sigler said. “We have no interest in it.”
Moulton said Gray is aware his lease is about to end, and the creamery machine will be moved to the campus in Randolph after the property is sold.
“That’s the intent — to build here what we tried to build in Norwich,” she said.
Moulton said it would cost several hundred thousand dollars to move it, which was custom-designed to accommodate the small space in Norwich.
“We don’t have immediate plans, but we will remove it,” she said.
Moulton said it would be a challenge to operate the farm as is. The 5-acre parcel isn’t large enough for cows to graze. There’s no space to hay the fields or spread manure.
“It’s not set up for dairy farming unless you’re doing a very small herd and you can make it work,” Moulton said.
Like others, Gray has pivoted his business in the pandemic. He expanded his farm store, a small 100-square-foot space that’s only big enough for one family at a time. He now sells products from about 60 farmers up and down the state and he’s seen an influx of customers.
Gray said operating the farm on a small scale is the only approach that will work.
Want to stay on top of the latest business news? Sign up here to get a weekly email on all of VTDigger’s reporting on local companies and economic trends. And check out our new Business section here.