In 2015, the Agency of Agriculture teamed up with the Department of Tourism and Marketing to open a Vermont produce stand at the brand-new Boston Public Market. The two agencies saw the market stall as a way to promote Vermont tourism through the sales of Vermont food products — so what happened with this $25,000 state project?
VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.
In 2014 the Vermont Legislature passed the Vermont Domestic Export Program "to connect Vermont producers with brokers, buyers, and distributors" across the country. The program had money for promotional materials and technical assistance, as well as grants to send food producers to trade shows around the country.
Over two years the state invested $25,000 to help set up a new stall at the Boston Public Market, which opened up in July 2015.
“We could see this as a potential Vermont embassy in Massachusetts,” Chelsea Bardot Lewis, then business development administrator with the Agency of Agriculture, told VPR at the time. “So not only a place where the product would be sold retail, but also a place for the producers to come down, sample their products, maybe have meetings with wholesalers who are based in the Boston area.”
The state partnered with Paul Harlow of Harlow Farm, in Westminster, and under the terms of the deal the state gave Harlow money for start-up costs.
It was called Harlow’s Vermont Farm Stand, and Harlow sold his organic produce at Boston Public Market along with some other Vermont products. The idea was that consumers in Boston would buy the Vermont produce and food products, and then hopefully come up to apple pick or maybe go to a restaurant.
When the state needed an ambassador to represent Vermont’s agricultural community, it made a lot of sense to ask Paul Harlow. The Harlow family has been farming the rich Connecticut River soil in Westminster for more than 100 years.
Harlow sells most of his produce wholesale, and he runs one of the biggest organic vegetable farms in New England. He trucks his carrots and lettuce and winter squash up and down the East Coast, some of it going as far as Florida.
The Agency of Agriculture approached Harlow in early 2015 and said they had a stall at the brand-new Boston Public Market. The market was built at one of the busiest crossroads in the city, and the $13-million project was touted at the time as a major source of local food for tourists and Boston residents.
The agency said Harlow could represent the state and sell his produce to Boston consumers who were hungry for a taste of those good Vermont fruits and vegetables
Harlow said all the people he spoke to thought it was a great idea.
“We hadn’t really, other than our roadside stand, done much retail,” Harlow said recently during an interview on his farm. “You know wholesale prices are not always great, so yeah, it was a way for us to diversify, and yeah, we were in it for the money. Plus ... I don’t want to say we were helping out the state, but I guess in some ways that's what we were doing.”
The Agency of Agriculture billed the initiative as a public-private partnership: agency staff worked hard to get the market space, and the state gave Harlow a $25,000 grant to cover start-up costs.
But Harlow had to sink a bunch of his own money into the project as well. He had to buy coolers and truck his stuff to Boston, plus hire staff to work the stall.
Harlow also had to cover the monthly $4,500 rent for the prime Boston real estate.
The market opened in late summer of 2015. Sales at the Vermont stand were OK, but not near what had been projected.
Harlow held out hope for the next growing season.
“You know all through that winter, I don’t recall exactly, but sales weren’t great. But ... we could always say: 'Well, come springtime we’ll have all new fresh stuff and things will improve,'" Harlow said. "Mmm, they didn’t."
Harlow said they had a great spot, right near the market entrance. In the height of the season, the crates were busting with beautiful greens and root crops and berries.
But things just never picked up, and as that second season wore on Harlow found himself deeper and deeper in a financial hole.
“You know what it turned out to be was more of a food stall, a food emporium, because there several places serve lunches, and a tourist attraction,” Harlow said. “I think we envisioned at the time it wasn’t too close to the T station, and you know maybe people coming home from work at the Government Center would fill up a bag of vegetables and get on the T, and go home. Well as far as we’re concerned it didn’t really work out that way.”
Boston Public Market itself has seen success since it first opened. Today it manages three off-site farmers markets, and they’re opening up a satellite outpost at Logan Airport soon.
During a recent weekday visit to the market's original location, there was good crowd there. Stalls were filled with doughnuts and ice cream, soap and wooden bowls.
However throughout the entire market there were only two produce stands.
Boston Public Market CEO Cheryl Cronin said when the market first opened, there were six farms; everyone thought there’d be a lot more sales of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I do think perhaps when the market got started there [was] lots of hope for how much produce you could have here that would be successful,” Cronin said. “So I think the issue was less that folks didn’t succeed; it was more that the original planning, the notion of having five or six different produce farmers here, wasn’t realistic.”
Harlow survived two years here at the Boston Public Market, and he said he lost about $200,000 between those two years.
Harlow said after the first year the Agency of Agriculture convinced him to stick it out and see if he could build up more business, but after the second season it was clear that the produce sales couldn’t sustain the project.
He said he paid his staff and all the Vermont producers whose food products he sold — but in the end, he said, Harlow Farm didn’t make one cent.
“I got one little table. A little small table, that’s all I got out of it,” Harlow said, laughing. “You know, it was stepping out beyond our realm of expertise, or where we were. You know, we were taking a chance. But at the time it did seem like a great idea. But I think, in retrospect I really wish we hadn’t done it.”
At the end of that second season, when it was harvest time back in Vermont, Harlow sent a crew down to Boston to gather up whatever food was left and bring it back north. He said he left thousands of dollars of equipment there, partly to cover the back rent he owed — and he was done.
Cronin, the market's CEO, said Harlow wasn't the only farmer who ultimately couldn’t make a go of it. Plus, she said, coming all the way from Vermont made it that much harder.
Not really. There’s no longer a Vermont food stand at the Boston Public Market.
But, different stakeholders evaluate the endeavor's outcome differently.
Abbey Willard, development division director at Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the Vermont stand at Boston Public Market never met its sales goals. However, Willard said the project was about much more than just selling Vermont food products.
In between the cases of kale and carrots at the stand, there were copies of Vermont Life magazine and brochures about agritourism and food festivals. Willard said these investments are hard to quantify — it’s impossible to know how many people maybe bought a pint of blueberries and then decided to head north to go blueberry picking.
“Sometimes we don’t see increased sales or benefits for multiple years,” Willard said. “But we are confident and convinced that it’s the long-game investment in exposing new consumers and new regions to Vermont products that’s worth the ongoing investment.”
Considering that, Willard said the state considered it a success.
Harlow, however, sees it much differently: “It is a disaster, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I wish we hadn’t done it.”
Still, Harlow has a pretty good attitude about the whole situation; he said he realizes he took a calculated risk to make some money, and it didn’t work out.
Willard said the state feels bad that a Vermont farmer lost money on a project it promoted. The state still has all sorts of initiatives going on to promote Vermont food across the country and even internationally.
While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of taxpayer money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.