Alisha Utter and Kyle Bowley’s South Hero business, Arbor Farmstead, underwent some major shifts during the past year. Their story is the final in our series about Vermonters who started up a new venture or substantially altered their business over the course of the pandemic.
Along Route 2 in South Hero, you'll find a small storefront with a wooden porch next to a gravel parking lot. The store is stocked full of produce from Utter and Bowley’s own farm, but also products of other nearby farms who sell to them wholesale. There are also local crafts and gifts lining the shelves.
“And right here we have a produce section,” Alisha said. “So as I mentioned, we have plenty of fresh greens, right now some of the last root vegetables from last year's harvest. And the start of herbs.”
This retail space is the culmination of a year of rapid changes for the married couple, who started their farm back in 2016.
“So I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York, and then studied environmental policy and marine science in San Diego,” Alisha said. “And then I came to Vermont for six months. And I use air quotes on the six months, because I've been here ever since. And it's now been seven-plus years. And that's because I was enrolled in the farmer training program. And along the way I met Kyle.”
Kyle says he does “not identify as a farmer,” but rather the “designated hole-digger” of the couple.
“So Alisha has her grand plans, and I'm part of the effort to make them actually happen,” he said.
For the last few years, they've sold their produce along with snow cones and Kyle's woodworking products at farmers markets around northwestern Vermont. But farming wasn't a full-time gig,
“We both want to acknowledge that we patchwork together different livelihoods,” Alisha said. “So Kyle serves in the National Guard. I'm finishing up grad school, and historically have worked in the restaurant industry by night to supplement farming. And I stepped back from doing so just in the beginning of 2020, saying, ‘You know, I'm going to take a hiatus from the restaurant industry to jump into a land-based livelihood entirely. And that all changed with COVID.”
Read the other stories in this series:
- COVID Was Bad For Lots Of Businesses. Meet A Couple Who Found Opportunity — With Doughnuts
- Meg Dawson Lost Her Job As A Baker Last Fall. Days Later, She Opened Das ButterHaus
- 'You Guys Should Buy That Store': Couple Takes Over Decades-Old Grain Business In Chester
- Akshata Nayak Wanted Her Daughter To Learn Her Language. That Idea Became A Book — And A Business
When COVID hit, it wasn't clear when or how farmers markets — which were a cornerstone of Arbor Farm’s business — might come back.
“So in March, we launched a website where folks in the community could order online, and we would deliver directly to their doorstep, both our own products and harvest,” Alisha said. “But then we also started to curate products from other makers and farmers. And we would deliver direct to folks’ doors.”
At the same time, food insecurity was rising around the state. So Alisha and Kyle created what they called the “community basket program.”
“Folks could pay for groceries on behalf of a neighbor,” Alisha said. “And then that neighbor would have the autonomy to be able to sign on and order their own food, and get it delivered for free.”
The couple estimates about seven to 10 households received free food through that program, another 15 or so paid in full for produce delivery, during the first two months of the pandemic.
“Come May, we launched a CSA,” Alisha said.
That's Community Supported Agriculture, where people sign up for weekly shares of produce from a farm for a whole season.
“So we had a 15-member CSA for 20 weeks of the season,” Alisha said. “And fortunately, in how the pandemic unfolded, we were able to get together crops quickly in order to evolve, which was really helpful for our model. By June we had launched a farm stand on site. So from March to June, we had done all of these evolutions very quickly. And our community caught us. So we took these plunges, and the community was there to support us.”
Kyle added: “Yeah, it kind of became this destination for our neighbors and for members in the community, where every Saturday we'd start to see the same repeat customers at certain times. They'd come, they'd get their pints of berries, they'd also pick up produce from other local farmers.”
The couple began to build friendships, which, Alisha says, was the initial model for the farmstead. The space, right in downtown South Hero on a main road, came to their attention in December. They'd been thinking of opening a storefront at some point, but not so soon.
“This was — I had been thinking five years down the road, but suddenly, you know with how much we had evolved over this last year, it was easy to take another step forward,” Kyle said.
They signed a lease with the owners early in the year and started building out their store, mostly with secondhand items, like an antique display case found on Craigslist. They got about seven local farms to sell their goods through the store to start, and opened their doors at the beginning of May.
Alisha says the response to the store has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Someone opens that front door and truly exclaims, ‘We need this!’ and that has been so validating to this vision,” she said. “Because we suspected that was the case, and it was the case in our experience. But hearing it from folks who have been in the islands for many generations has been wonderful to hear.”
The couple says the need was for a more regular source of groceries for community members.
“There's farmstands sprinkled throughout the islands, and they contribute so much to the character of Grand Isle County, so we want to acknowledge that,” Alisha said. “But I think there's something to be said about the efficiency of this space ... Commuters can come here on the way home and grab some groceries and make dinner. And we really wanted that to be the case ... that we weren't going to be a novelty destination, but a weekly destination for locals. And we are already considering the tourists might find this space appealing as well. But the foundation of this model is always going to be our local community, especially year-round residents.”
To finance the storefront, Alisha and Kyle needed to take out loans.
“As I acknowledged, we have a patchwork of livelihoods to get us where we need to go,” Alisha said. “For instance, things like health insurance that often aren't talked about in agriculture: the National Guard is what provides us that.”
Kyle added: “You know, there still is a huge amount of risk, in that we just, we've never done a store before. Neither of us have truly worked in retail before. And so we're stepping into this great unknown, but the community, their response has been, ‘We're going to help you. All together, we're going to make this thing a success.’”
Looking forward, the couple hopes to keep community at the forefront of their business.
“My hope a year from now is that folks have not forgotten the lessons learned throughout the pandemic: the reminder of the fragility of our food system, of the importance of supporting neighbors and community members,” Alisha said. “My hope is that that still is very present, and has informed our business model, to only expand and better serve our neighbors.”
The last 15 months have been full of unexpected challenges for small businesses. And for those that have made successful changes, they faced some big questions going forward.
Early on in this series, we heard from small business experts, including Deborah Boudrieau, an advisor with the Vermont Small Business Development Center.
Here's what she's asking businesses as they look out to the coming months:
“What are they going to do, and how are they going to get through? We really see our job right now as getting people to 2022 with as little debt, as much cash, as much maneuverability as they possibly can have, when we think the market will actually start to act like it's going to act. And that you will be fully in control of your own business”
Exactly how many small entities make it to that point remains to be seen.
We've heard from five different small businesses in total, learning how they've navigated, adapted and started new operations over the course of the pandemic. You can find all the stories in this series here.
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