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As Dairies Across Vt. Struggle, Upper Valley Group Wants To Bring Cows Back To Norwich Farm

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Chris Gray, left, his wife Laura Brown, far right, and their daughter live on Norwich Farm but may have to move off if a deal can't be worked out between Vermont Technical College and Upper Valley Land Trust.

A group of Upper Valley residents has taken up the call to “bring the cows, back”to Norwich Farm.The group is supporting Chris Gray and his creamery located on the farm, but with the property locked in the middle of a pending land deal, its future remains unclear.

Gray owns Norwich Creamery. He set up a production facility at Norwich Farm while he was working with Vermont Technical College, which owns the six-acre property.

The farm was donated to the college in 2015, and after setting up a state-of-the-art creamery, VTC ran its dairy agricultural program there.

But it got too expensive.

So the college shipped the herd off the property, and moved its agricultural students back to Randolph.

The college is now looking to sell the property to the Upper Valley Land Trust.

Gray says the Norwich Farm has just about everything it needs — except cows — (that’s the only thing standing in his way, he says) for him to bring the farm back to life.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The barns are empty at Norwich Farm. Gray has been shipping in milk from a nearby dairy to produce his yogurt, cheese and bottled milk.

“We get our herd manager and our herd in today, we can be milking cows tonight and bottling tomorrow morning,” said Gray while walking through the empty barn.

Gray was supposed to teach dairy classes and live on the farm, while his wife would be a sort of dorm manager and work with the students who live there.

But as the college now looks to sell the property, Gray’s future as well as the future of Norwich Farm is very much up in the air.

“So we knew this would be a challenge,” he said. “We don’t own it. We’d love to own it, but we don’t. So we’re realistic about that. So our goal is to make it as productive as possible.”

Almost 2,000 signatures have been gathered to support Gray and his business.

Norwich resident Miriam Horowitz says the community wants Norwich Creamery to be a viable part of the Upper Valley agricultural landscape.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Miriam Horowitz is one of the almost 2,000 people who signed an online petition to support Norwich Creamery and to bring the cows back to the farm.

“The community is very fond of the creamery, and very committed to the idea that Norwich Farms stays a working dairy farm,” said Horowitz.

Before Vermont Technical College sells the Norwich Farm to the Upper Valley Land Trust attorneys on both sides say Gray has to be off the land. It’s just too complicated otherwise.

So Horowitz and the hundreds of other supporters have been going to Selectboard meetings, gathering signatures and trying to find a way to keep Gray’s business in Norwich.

“A farm is more than just pretty green fields, and surrounding buildings,” Horowitz said. “You know, farmland that’s sitting ideal, or farmland that’s just there looking pretty, really isn’t really a farm. A farm is really people working on the farm, to feed their families and to feed their community, and to be a member of the community. You know land without the farmer isn’t a farm.”

"A farm is really people working on the farm, to feed their families and to feed their community, and to be a member of the community. You know land without the farmer isn't a farm." — Miriam Horowitz, Norwich resident

The Upper Valley Land Trust has conserved thousands of acres in Norwich and in the surrounding towns.

And usually, there’s nothing but good news when a mountain or a trail system or even farmland is taken over by the group and opened up to the public.

But Upper Valley Land Trust president Jeanie McIntyre says the Norwich Farm is different.

“This property is the first property that we have been involved with that has such a substantial building complex,” McIntyre said. “And that makes the analyzing proposals and developing a sound business plan very complicated.”

The land trust needs the property to be profitable and so the organization is considering proposals from a number of different agricultural businesses, including Gray’s.

But the college has to end its relationship with the farmer, before the land deal goes through.

Vermont Technical College president Pat Moulton agrees that the pending deal and the arrangement between the college and Gray is complicated. Moulton says there’s a lot of discussion going on behind closed doors, and she hopes it works out for everyone.

“Upper Valley’s been a good partner to us,” says Moulton. “We’ve been working pretty cooperatively with them, but as in any kind of legal situation sometimes the parties don’t always see things the same way. But we are working to move forward to sell the property to them.”

Some kind of decision about the fate of Norwich Farm will be made before May 5. That’s the deadline for the land trust’s option to purchase the property.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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