Assisting in Addison County: Panton farm's Agricola Meats is expanding
PANTON — After a couple of years of raising two dozen pigs, and trying to make a go of selling pork locally as a hobby farmer, Alessandra Rellini knew two things: she needed to get bigger to make her business work and she needed some help from a person who had expertise in the field.
So, she wrote a classified ad for a farm assistant and sent it afar on a wing and a prayer.
As fate would have it, the ad reached Stefano Pinna, who had just finished his Masters degree in Agricultural Science at the University of Torino in Italy and was looking to travel to see how people farmed around the world. He was offered a position in Kenya but passed that up when he saw the advertisement for the position on an Italian farm in the middle of Vermont raising livestock on pastures using Italian traditions. He decided to come to Vermont through a post-graduation working visa.
With his knowledge of soil science and animal welfare, the two formed a partnership and began growing the farm with a focus on sustainable farming.
“I knew I needed to grow, and I had no formal training in agriculture,” said Rellini. “So, I put out an advertisement for a farm assistant to grow my little farm team and somehow it arrived to him [Pinna] in Italy… We went from a smaller farm to a much more developed farm.”
HOBBY TO A BUSINESS
Relinni had started the 56-acre farm as a hobby in 2012 with 20 pigs, a dozen sheep, and around 40 chickens. She loved the farm life but knew to develop it as a business she had to seek a farm assistant who had more knowledge about farming and finding a marketable niche.
It’s been working.
Today they raise 160-180 pigs, some Icelandic sheep, ducks, chickens. They also grow a variety of Italian vegetables and herbs. Most recently, they’ve ventured into the cured meats industry with the help of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC). They now have a full-time and a part-time employee at the Middlebury plant as well as themselves at the farm. They recently received a $200,000 grant to help market and expand sales of their cured meat largely with the help of the ACEDC.
“We strongly believe in the importance of processing your own meat, because you learn more as a farmer,” said Rellini. “The cost of owning your own facility, however, is really high and, for us, we wouldn’t be able to survive with just fresh meat.” The grant, she said, was a critical piece of the pie to allow them to expand their farm in that direction.
Rellini has been curing meats for several years. Up until 2018, Rellini processed cured meats on a smaller scale at the Mad River Food Hub in nearby Waitsfield. During that time she heard about a training grant through the ACEDC and decided to look into it. Although she ultimately didn’t apply for the grant, Rellini said this is how she became connected to the ACEDC and its executive director, Fred Kenney, who encouraged her to pursue the cured meats business.
“I heard about a training grant, where the state gives you money to pay part of the salary for more employees. I wanted to learn about it. I didn’t qualify, but they [the ACEDC] didn’t let me go,” said Rellini, “They said ‘aren’t you making cured meats, because you really should be making more.’”
A year later, Kenney and the ACEDC helped Rellini and Pinna establish their current meat processing facility at 656 Exchange Street in Middlebury, in the town’s industrial park, and provided them with business advice and application assistance for some of the loans and grants they’ve received. Most recently, Agricola Farm won a $200,000 USDA/Rural Development grant, to which the ACEDC made a $20,000 loan as part of the match. Rellini said loans such as this one provided the capital needed to afford necessary equipment and rent at a time when their growing business wasn’t yet profitable.
The Rural Development grant was in addition to an earlier regional economic development grant of $14,000; a Working Land Grant of $50,000; and a Vermont Community Loan Fund SPROUT loan of $60,000. With that money, they’ve purchased, among many other things, two Pagani curing cabinets imported from Italy, two aging chambers, a meat grinder and a meat stuffer. The most recent grant also provides funding for marketing and a sales effort, while the $14,000 award helped them renovate, flip and equip the facility on Exchange Street.
Kenney said their willingness to work hard, create an adaptable business plan and stay persistent were qualities that made them good candidates for the grants.
“We noticed in Alessandra and Stefano a persistence and an ability to overcome adversity and roadblocks,” Kenney said. “Even before COVID, they showed that they had what it takes to succeed with a start-up and then during COVID they continued to pivot to make it work. We encouraged their pursuit of pork products cured in the Italian tradition because they exhibited the talent and know-how to bring this new product to a marketplace that is demonstrating demand for locally produced cured meat products.“
Kenney also noted that timing is critical in the grant-approval process.
“Agricola Meats, and the needs they had at the time, made them eligible for the grants. That is, timing is often critical,” Kenney said. “… they were willing to put in the hard work to generate basic business documents and complete the applications. Two key elements: be willing (and persistent enough) to do the work up front to generate a good business plan, business projections, and a project budget; and stay in touch with ACEDC so that as grant and loan programs become available, we can match projects and programs together.”
MAKING IT POSSIBLE
For their part, Rellini and Pinna were just grateful for the financial assistance to make growing possible.
“Cured meats take a long time, and you’re just sitting on your meat for six weeks before you can even sell it,” said Rellini. “Those grants have allowed us to get to know the facility and get to know the new equipment to then have a higher quality product.”
Going forward, Agricola Farms is hoping to establish an out-of-state consumer base, as the market for cured meats in Vermont is not large enough to support their business. Rellini said Agricola Meats has already begun selling its products in specialty stores throughout Vermont and Massachusetts, and plans to continue selling to restaurants and specialty shops, in particular, throughout the region.
“We’re working towards restaurants, but more so specialty stores,” said Rellini. “Stefano has contacted many of the specialty stores in Vermont, but we can still expand.”
Producing cured meats also allows Rellini and Pinna to support local farmers by purchasing pork at a premium. Rellini said their current goal is to be able to support at least 12 local farms.
While Rellini and Pinna are business partners, over the past five years they have expanded their business to include a large social component. They host dinners within the community, sell specialty foods, and with the new curing and processing plant they hope to bring even more high-quality foods to the region as a way to share part of their Italian culture with the community while growing as a business.
Pinna summed up their five years together on the farm succinctly and with insight into what’s to come.
“After several months of working together we realized we were more than business partners and our values, goals and ways to face difficulties lined up perfectly. We complemented each other in everything,” Pinna said.
“So we decided we wanted to continue our path together and build something bigger than our farm, something that could tie our cultural heritage with our passion for sustainable agriculture, and that something became Monti Verdi Salumi, a meat manufacturing facility that specializes in the production of cured meats such as salame, but soon also pancetta, guanciale and coppa. A facility that leverages the value added of pastured pork raised in Vermont and is able to pay a premium to farmers allowing them to engage in sustainable agricultural practices.”