hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2021


Farming for a greener future

New effort guides investment in region’s local food system


The sheep at Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt., are rotated frequently to new grazing areas. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


The sheep at Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt., are rotated frequently to new grazing areas. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


Jesse McDougall became a farmer a decade ago by twist of fate.
He and his wife, Caroline “Cally” McDougall, moved to southwestern Vermont in 2011 to help her aunt, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. After the aunt’s death, the couple wound up taking over Studio Hill Farm, which had been in Cally’s family since the 1930s.


Jesse McDougall kneels with Ben, a donkey whose job is to keep the sheep safe from predators at Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt. McDougall has worked to make the farm a model of regenerative agriculture. Joan K. Lentini photo


Jesse McDougall kneels with Ben, a donkey whose job is to keep the sheep safe from predators at Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt. McDougall has worked to make the farm a model of regenerative agriculture. Joan K. Lentini photo

After several years of hard work and a few lucky coincidences, they found a niche raising grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry. Along the way, Jesse began to learn about concepts of regenerative agriculture, and at Studio Hill he set out to demonstrate how regenerative practices could be used to restore depleted farmland without chemical inputs.

McDougall also became convinced that better farming practices and healthier soils could help to solve or mitigate a variety of tenacious environmental problems, including climate change. And he became a kind of evangelist for the idea of reinvigorating the region’s agricultural sector and re-localizing the food system.

He would soon be drawn into a broader, ambitious effort to make this transformation a reality.
In February 2019, McDougall was invited to Northshire Bookstore in Manchester to speak to the local group Earth Matters, a node of the state chapter of 350.org, the international climate action organization.

“After my talk, a man in the back of the room announced that, ‘There’s money to do this,’” McDougall recalled.

The man was Michael Philipp, a longtime investment banker who had moved to the area from Florida a few months earlier. Philipp told McDougall about his career in finance and his involvement in developing large renewable energy installations around the globe. He began to talk about the potential for using electric vehicles to deliver locally grown, carbon-neutral food to people in cities.

But when Philipp invited him to work together on a plan, McDougall responded coolly.
“You do that and call me,” McDougall remembers telling him. “I have two babies and a farm.”
He was surprised when Philipp soon got back to him.

“Unbeknownst to me, Michael started to talk to everyone in the state of Vermont about the food system,” he said.

For his part, Philipp said McDougall’s talk of revitalizing agriculture to curb the climate crisis left him feeling energized.

“I came home and told my wife, ‘If half of what he is saying is really true, it can really change the world,’” Philipp said.

Before the winter was over, the two men and a third partner – Bill Laberge, the owner of Grassroots Solar in Dorset – had joined forces to form the Regenerative Food Network, a new enterprise that aims for nothing less than the revitalization of regional agriculture over the next decade.


For profit, with a mission
The Regenerative Food Network is a for-profit company. But it’s organized as a benefit corporation, which means it’s designed to produce a public benefit in addition to providing shareholder value.

Philipp said using a for-profit structure makes it possible for the network to raise funds more quickly and easily than a nonprofit organization could.

“We believe that to solve problems of the food system, we need a for-profit company to bring solutions to scale,” he explained. “We are not doing it to get rich or to build up the business and sell it to Google. We view the Regenerative Food Network as a permanent capital vehicle.”
Already the group is working to fill gaps in the region’s agricultural infrastructure by investing in processing and distribution facilities to help local farmers reach a larger base of customers in southwestern Vermont and beyond.

Among other projects, the network has rehabilitated and reopened a livestock slaughterhouse in Wilmington that had been closed for several years. It is preparing to open a nontoxic tannery operation in Manchester. And it has leased a former manufacturing facility in Bennington as the site for a planned “food hub” for distribution of local agricultural products.

At the same time, the Regenerative Food Network is working to transform how agriculture is practiced on the farm. The group has begun creating educational tools about regenerative farming and has committed to paying for its partner farmers to participate in multi-day, in-depth “holistic management” courses. Participating farmers will enroll in a program that measures and verifies ecological outcomes such as soil health and biodiversity, and achieving these goals is expected to add value to the farmers’ products – in much the same way that organic products command a higher market price.

Many of the network’s plans are based on the expectation that, in a future reshaped by climate change, the region will need a more robust and resilient system for producing its own food.
Currently, only 10 percent of the food consumed in the Northeast is produced in the region, and a mere 1 percent of all food is grown organically or with regenerative farming practices.
Several years ago, researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute put together a strategic plan to achieve the goal of New England farmers growing 50 percent of the region’s food by 2060.

But the founders of the Regenerative Food Network say the task is more urgent.
“We felt that the year 2060 is too far off,” Philipp said. “Our goal is that by 2030, 30 percent of the food consumed in the Northeast would be grown regeneratively in the Northeast.”

The Regenerative Food Network defines the Northeast as including New York as well as New England.

The network is establishing a nonprofit arm, the Regenerative Food Foundation, for funding research and education.

But like Philipp, Laberge stressed that the benefit corporation is the better vehicle for accomplishing many of the network’s goals.

“The mission is to do the good deed without being motivated by money,” he said. “For the planet’s sake, we want to do this in a hurry.”


Restoring healthy soils
Regenerative agriculture is a relatively new movement whose supporters describe it as going beyond the more limited concept of “sustainable agriculture.” It invokes the idea of restoring the land, using nature as its model and biological processes as its engine, rather than merely sustaining ecosystems as they are.

“The idea that humans need to reduce their negative impact on the planet is not a solution,” McDougall explained. “It is a stalling tactic. We need to change our impact on the planet.”
One of the goals of regenerative farming is to take some of the excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil – a process that provides farm fields with more resilience to the extreme weather associated with climate change.

McDougall became interested in the movement based on his early experiences and frustrations at Studio Hill Farm.

Cally’s aunt, Edie Tschorn, had run a horse boarding operation at Studio Hill and used the farm’s fields to grow hay and corn. She personally applied the herbicide Roundup, and McDougall said she used to talk about how she loved the smell of the weedkiller.

When he and Cally took over the Shaftsbury property in 2012 after Tschorn’s death from brain cancer, one of their first decisions was to stop using any pesticides on the land.

McDougall said they imagined that stopping herbicide use would make the vegetation lush. But the next spring, they observed soil erosion wherever there had been corn. Decades of conventional farming methods had reduced the soil to sand and rock.

“All the biology had been removed,” he said, referring to all the living organisms and microbial activity that contribute to the health and fertility of the soil.

He got a glimpse of how to revitalize the farm after he heard a 2013 TED talk by Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean-born ecologist who developed a system of “holistic management” of grasslands. Savory’s system advocates planned grazing of livestock, with frequent moves to new pasture, to reverse land degradation.

“Savory said that livestock, if managed in a way that encouraged them to act naturally in a natural environment, could heal the land,” McDougall explained.

So the McDougalls began to experiment with Savory’s ideas. For two years, they raised pastured poultry in a quest to revitalize their field, but McDougall said he eventually calculated they would need 1 million chickens to regenerate the farm’s soils. So they acquired a flock of sheep.
Slowly, as they learned more and expanded their flock, their soils grew more fertile and their grasses more abundant, McDougall said.

Studio Hill does not grow any corn or other annual crops. Instead, all of its hayfields now are managed as perennial pastures. The McDougalls watch the grass very closely to determine when to move the flock to give the sheep more grass. For optimal soil health, he stressed, the animals should not be left to graze the pasture too short, because the cover of vegetation protects the soil and its microbial life from the destructive effects of the sun’s rays, strong winds and the pounding of rain.

“We’re trying to give the grass the management that it evolved to thrive under, similar to the way bison roamed the prairie on the Great Plains,” McDougall said, summing up his goal for grazing as “bunch, munch and move.”

As these practices put more carbon back into the soil, the soil will be able to absorb and retain more excess water from the atmosphere. Water vapor is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so rehydrating the land offers a quicker path to cooling the planet, McDougall said.


Linking farming and finance
Although Philipp and his wife had most recently lived in Florida before moving to the area three years ago, the Northeast was familiar to them. Michael grew up in northern New Jersey, and his wife was from Gloucester, Mass. They first met at the University of Massachusetts as art students.

After a stint as a potter, Philipp went back to school for his master’s degree in business administration and, in 1982, embarked on a new career in banking. From 1995 to 2003, he was employed as an investment banker at two European banks. For most of that time, he served on their management boards, an unusual position for an American.

In 1995, he was appointed chairman of Deutsche Bank in South Africa. Later he was promoted to head global asset management for Deutsche Bank, with regional responsibilities for the Middle East and Africa. He also served as the head of Credit Suisse for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

In 2008, Philipp went off on his own and, with his son Kyle, started Ambata Capital Partners as a private equity firm focused on renewable energy. The word “ambata,” from Swahili, means to bridge, connect or bring together. The Philipps selected that name to convey their intention of building economic bridges between cultures and geographies.

Ambata Capital invests in projects that bring best practices to developing nations, principally in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Michael Philipp now is chairman of the Regenerative Food Network, and Kyle Philipp serves as its chief executive. Though neither has prior experience with farming, they bring expertise in project management and finance, and Kyle has extensive prior experience with solar power installations.


Filling an infrastructure gap
As producers of grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry, the McDougalls learned early on about a long-running source of frustration for small-scale livestock farmers in the region: the lack of slaughterhouse capacity for small, independent producers.

“When we started to raise meat birds, we had to drive all the way to Richmond, Vermont, to get them processed,” McDougall said.

A one-way trip with truck, trailer and livestock took four hours.
Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture exemption in effect in many states, anyone can slaughter and process up to 1,000 chickens on a farm. But doing so requires the right equipment, and the limit of 1,000 chickens yields too little revenue to be worthwhile. McDougall explained that even at a profit of $1 per bird, a farmer would be able to net only $1,000 annually from all the work of raising the chickens.

To scale up beyond 1,000 birds a year, the McDougalls needed a USDA-inspected processing facility, but the closest one was in Rhode Island.

With their lamb, they had trouble getting a slot at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse or processing facility. If they took the lamb to a non-USDA-inspected facility in Vermont, they could legally sell whole or half animals within the state, but not meat by the cut.

When farmers can’t get their own livestock killed and processed at an approved facility, the livestock they cared for lose value. They may be forced to sell their animals at a livestock auction or to an aggregator that turns them into meat to be sold under their own brand.

Given the experience of the McDougalls and many other farmers, the region’s lack of slaughterhouse capacity became an obvious early focus for the Regenerative Food Network. Last year, the group refurbished the former Adams Farm slaughterhouse in Wilmington, reopening the plant as Higley Hill Processing. It was the network’s first physical venture and cost about $150,000.

The small plant had been closed for several years. It needed a new well, and RFN replaced all the equipment. It only took a couple months to get it up and running again, whereas building a new facility from scratch would have been a much longer process.

Besides the physical improvements, there were other requirements for USDA inspection.
“We got a lot of help and advice from a former USDA inspector,” Kyle Philipp explained.
The network also worked with a consultant from University of Vermont to create a food safety risk management plan. And it hired a consultant to help adapt the facility and its protocols to the processing requirements specific to grass-fed animals.

Old Adams Farm is a seventh generation family farm. RFN is renting the meat plant with an option to buy the whole farm, which for now is not being actively worked. But now, enthused by the renewed activity at the property, the farm family’s next generation has expressed interest putting the farm back into production – and in learning more about regenerative agriculture, Kyle Philipp said.

Higley Hill Processing received state approval at the beginning of the year to begin processing custom cuts of meat. It received its USDA certification in August. Also, with USDA inspection, meat from the plant may be sold through distributors and retailers, rather than being restricted to direct farm-to-consumer sales.

Federal inspectors are only present on slaughter days, which are Thursdays and Fridays. The plant operates three other days per week, but operations on these days are restricted to cutting.
Higley Hill is open to all farmers, regardless of how they raise their animals.

“Overall we are aiming to fill in gaps in infrastructure to enable farmers to have options,” Kyle Philipp explained. “If we can give them a market, they can grow into it.”

In an ambitious plan to develop the processing capacity needed for livestock producers to grow their farming businesses, RFN aims to open four more facilities like Higley Hill, adding one every year or 18 months. This includes reopening a couple of other shuttered facilities.


Nontoxic tannery
As part of its effort to expand the infrastructure for local agricultural production, the Regenerative Food Network also acquired Vermont Natural Sheepskins, a business in Randolph that had operated a natural tannery without using toxic chemicals. In buying the business, the network inherited a book of clients for the sheepskins.

To run the operation, RFN hired Derek Anderson, a teacher at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester who had experience in tanning. The network plans to reopen the business soon in Manchester.

Another goal of the Regenerative Food Network is to increase access to “good food” among underserved and low-income communities. Toward that end, Laberge said the group has been talking with the developers of the Putnam Block, a mixed-use residential and commercial project in the center of Bennington’s downtown. The developers would like to incorporate a downtown grocery story into the project.

“That’s the missing piece – a place downtown where people could go to buy good food,” Laberge said.

Although no firm plan has emerged so far, Laberge stressed there’s a need for something more than a gourmet food store or boutique grocery. He cited a presentation in Bennington by Allen Taylor of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, who highlighted problems with food access in southwestern Vermont.

Bennington already has two large supermarkets, but both are in car-oriented shopping plazas more than two miles from the walkable downtown area that has the Putnam Block at its center.

Bill Laberge, the owner of Grassroots Solar in Dorset, Vt., stands in front of one of his solar power installations in Manchester. He and McDougall are among the founders of the new Regenerative Food Network, which is investing in the region’s capacity to produce more of its own food. Joan K. Lentini photo


Bill Laberge, the owner of Grassroots Solar in Dorset, Vt., stands in front of one of his solar power installations in Manchester. He and McDougall are among the founders of the new Regenerative Food Network, which is investing in the region’s capacity to produce more of its own food. Joan K. Lentini photo



Renewed farms, renewable energy
Laberge first met McDougall when the farmer came to speak at SolarFest, the annual alternative energy and music festival in Manchester. Laberge serves as the festival’s president.

The first time he met Michael and Kyle Philipp, he recalled, they got into a conversation about solar carports before the discussion turned to the food system. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for him to agree to a role as a partner in RFN.

“Regenerative Food Network checks off a lot of boxes: agriculture, energy, transportation, food justice and climate justice,” Laberge said.

He likes the group’s emphasis on action on the ground, rather than getting stuck in endless talk.
The founding partners agree that one opportunity to find investment lies in renewable energy -- and also that renewable energy projects can help finance some of the other initiatives the network is developing. And as with electric vehicles and charging stations, Laberge said they are finding people who are willing to invest in a “good food” system.

Beyond his career as a solar energy entrepreneur, Laberge has a long history of working for the values he supports. In 2008, he co-founded Transition Town Manchester, a group that raises awareness about the climate crisis and works for sustainable solutions. He also served on the governor’s climate council, an official body that met for a couple years and then dissolved, though it recently was revived.

Laberge says renewable energy and regenerative agriculture fit together under the overall goal of solving the climate crisis.

“We aim for 30 percent of the food consumed in the Northeast to be regenerative and from the region by 2030,” Laberge said. “It will be healthy, good food, delivered by electric vehicles. We are paying farmers for what they produce and how they produce it.”

There’s a pragmatic reason to embrace renewable energy as part of the network’s effort to revitalize the infrastructure for local food production.

“The opportunity to find investment is in renewable energy,” Laberge said.
So although the Regenerative Food Network is not interested in owning land for farming, the group has purchased one farm and entered into an agreement to buy another one. Both sites will be used for “solar grazing,” with solar panels installed in fields to produce electricity while sheep or other animals graze around the panels.

Laberge also is developing a series of on-farm solar projects with area farmers. Through these projects, RFN is prepared to take the surplus power from solar panels farmers install on their buildings. The network also is building its own fleet of electric vehicles and working on powering its facilities with renewable energy.


Creating a food hub
Another aspect of RFN’s plan involves retrofitting a 15,000-square-foot industrial building on Shields Drive in Bennington as a food processing facility and distribution hub, which would make it the fourth such hub in Vermont.

Higley Hill and the network’s other anticipated slaughterhouses will all feed into the Shields Drive facility, which will also serve as an aggregation and distribution site for local farmers’ meats, eggs, vegetables and other products.

Until 2014, the Shields Drive building had housed Plasan Carbon Composites, a manufacturer of automobile parts. The company shut down the local plant when it consolidated operations at a facility in Michigan.

RFN entered into a 10-year lease on the Shields Drive facility. The lease started in September. In the project’s first phase, the group plans to renovate one-third of the facility.

“We will put in a big rail cooler where we will re-hang quarters and primal cuts; a fabrication room; and a large walk-in cooler and freezer,” Kyle Philipp said. “We will also have a packing and loading area and three loading docks,” as well as two lower areas where farmers can pull up their trucks to drop off their products.

He added that converting the former factory will not be a simple feat.
“We are removing the top 8 inches of concrete so we can put in drainage and insulation,” he said. “The facility has 2,500 square feet of office space, which is ready to use.”

Initially the group will use refrigerated shipping containers, which will later be moved to Higley Hill once the Shields Drive facility has its own cooling.

In the project’s second phase, the network will add an egg handling and packaging room as well as kitchen space for making value-added products such as sausage, meat sticks and bone broth. This commercial kitchen space will also be available for community use.

The Shields Drive location isn’t suited to retail sales, but it will be a good site from which to develop delivery routes that could serve destinations including the local hospital and college.
The food hub will be RFN’s biggest investment yet. Ambata Capital put $1.5 million in seed money into the Regenerative Food Network during the first two years, and the network’s principals are now working to raise another $1 million from investors.

“It will take $5 million to get Shields Drive off the ground,” Kyle Philipp estimated.


Looking beyond Vermont
RFN’s model starts with the understanding that because local markets are limited, developing adequate markets for Vermont farmers will require reaching urban centers beyond the state’s borders.

“There are only 660,000 people in Vermont and not much money,” Laberge said. “But if you zoom out a little, there are 40 million people.”

One goal is to allow locally based food producers to serve a larger pool of customers than they can currently reach through direct-to-customer sales and community-supported agriculture, or CSA, operations, in which farm customers effectively pay in advance for a share of each season’s production.

“We are saying to farmers: There’s only a certain amount you can do with your CSAs and farmers markets,” Laberge said. “Give us a negotiated percentage, like half of your production, to take to regional markets, like colleges and also direct-to-consumer sales beyond the local area. This will be Internet-based with delivery via UPS and FedEx.”

Early on, the dining service at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst signed up to buy meats from RFN, though the plan was derailed when the pandemic hit. The campus normally serves 50,000 meals a day.

“‘They said, ‘Good food from Vermont? Sign us up,’” Laberge recalled.
The network has created a high-end brand, Southshire Meats, for locally raised meats raised through organic and regenerative processes.

“There is far more demand for these foods than area farms are producing,” Michael Philipp said. “If you are raising 80 animals, we might say, ‘Raise 10 for us.’”

RFN will sell them for a premium to markets that are more difficult for individual farmers to get into, like institutions. But farms will have to meet certain standards to sell their animals for this brand, he added.

Although RFN’s goal is to support and encourage farmers who embrace regenerative practices, it also aims to provide some essential services for all farmers.

Many farmers today have pulled out the stops in their struggle to survive. A phone call received by RFN one day illustrates an increasingly common predicament. The farmer who called was working all angles to keep his farm afloat, using maple sugaring and his snowplowing business to subsidize his dying dairy operation.

Laberge said he is convinced RFN can help farmers to find a better path.
“We can help farmers to transition to enterprises that are more profitable to the farmer, better for the planet, and produce healthier food,” he said.

But farmers do not have to renounce chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other agrichemicals to access services provided by RFN. For example, any livestock farmer can make use of the Higley Hill Processing plant.

“We’re not demonizing conventional farmers,” Laberge said. “We want to help farms transition to regenerative agriculture.”