Letter from Andover, Vermont

Regional ReviewQuarter 3, 2001
by Susan Ritz

Andover is one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” towns that snuggles in the rolling hills of Vermont—a place you might stumble upon if you drive the back roads between the resort areas of Manchester and Ludlow. A tiny town hall, a white steepled church, and the Over Andover used bookstore make up the village center. The surrounding countryside shows the changing face of Vermont’s rural areas. A few hobby farms still limp along here, while others have been transformed into the B&Bs and antique shops that are replacing farming as the area’s economic mainstay. But on a high ridge above the village, one farm has managed to buck the trend, thanks to the tough-minded woman who owns it. Lovejoy Brook Farm is the home of Lydia Ratcliff and the central office of Vermont Quality Meats, a cooperative she founded in 1999 to help keep livestock farmers like herself in business. Ratcliff and other co-op farmers supply New York and Boston’s finest restaurants with top-quality lambs, pigs, veal, goats, and even deer. Thanks to Ratcliff and Vermont Quality Meats, the demanding diners of the Northeastern elite are now savoring the kind of naturally raised meat they once thought could only be found in Tuscany or Provence. And as a result of the boom in fine dining, co-op members are now getting top dollar for livestock they used to sell to auctioneers and slaughterhouses for far less.

If you stop by the farm, you may find Ratcliff busy in the kitchen of her 1810 farmhouse chopping carrots and celery for chicken soup made from her own chickens. The kitchen reflects her rugged simplicity. Copper pots hang from the rough-hewn beams, and the ceiling is darkened by years of cooking smoke from the old cast-iron stove. A steady drip of water sounds in the deep soapstone sink.

Ratcliff, now 67, lived most of her early life in Europe and in and around New York City. She started out as a business writer, coming up from New York to camp in Vermont on the weekends. The money she made writing the best-selling Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, published in 1975, allowed her to become a full-time Vermont farmer.

She began her own business selling pigs to neighbors and other local buyers, but she soon realized there was a greater market to be tapped outside Vermont. Her big city background and nose for business led her to the high-end restaurants in New York and Boston. “I figured out early on that I had to sell retail, not wholesale, so that all the money didn’t end up going to the auctioneers and the distributors.”

Ratcliff was also a front-runner in the natural meats industry, advertising “livestock raised on nonmedicated grain, homemade hay, and green pasture” on her first sales flyers back in the 1970s. She added sheep, goats, chicken, and veal to her livestock, creating one of the few diversified farms around, a practice she wishes more farmers would emulate. Remembering how animals were raised on the small Italian and French farms she’d seen in her youth, she dedicated herself to producing top-quality animals using humane farming practices. Ratcliff lets her calves roam freely around the barnyard, where they drink real milk instead of the milk substitutes that most commercial veal is raised on. The result, rhapsodizes Boston’s Sel de la Terre chef and long-time customer Geoff Gardner, is “quality not to be believed! You can tell the moment you look at it. This veal has a dark pink color and flavor that you just can’t find anywhere else.”

As demand for fresh meat and locally grown products exploded in the 1990s, Ratcliff couldn’t keep up with the orders from customers like Gardner. So she and colleague Jean Audet looked around for ways to expand. With a $6,000 startup grant, they established the Vermont Quality Meats Cooperative, and used the grant money to set up an office and recruit members. “We cast our net far and wide and brought in farmers from around here, and as far away as New York and New Hampshire.” Today almost 50 members are profiting from Ratcliff’s marketing and farming strategies.

Judith and Charles Eirmann of the Capricious Goat Dairy in Pawlet, Vermont, were among the first to join. “Our son had bought a goat from Lydia years ago; that’s how she knew about us,” says Judith. The care the Eirmanns bestow on their animals produces exactly the kind of high-quality meat required by co-op standards. “I hate to sell my goats because I raise them like pets with lots of good food and special attention.” But the extra work has paid off. “We paid a $250 joining fee,” notes Judith, “[but] made that back right away. We used to get 80 cents a pound for our buck kids. Now we get between $3.50 and $5.00.” Like other co-op members, the Eirmanns also take on some of the co-op’s administrative work. “This year,” says Judith, “I’m coordinating goat inventory.”

To find new customers, Ratcliff went through The Zagat Survey and cruised the streets of Boston and New York searching out restaurants that had “the look.” She only approached restaurants with meal prices above $35 because “they were the ones that could afford us.” Once her reputation spread, she had no trouble signing up new chefs. Vermont Quality Meats can now be found at such famous food haunts as Daniel, Chanterelle, and Gramercy Tavern in New York, and L’Espalier, Biba, and Aujourd’hui in Boston.

Direct delivery is another trick-of-the-trade that Ratcliff has passed on to co-op members, and Ratcliff still takes her turn at the New York route. When it’s her turn to drive, she loads up a refrigerated truck at the Fresh Farms Beef slaughterhouse near Rutland, and sets out with an assistant well before dawn. In 12 hours, she can hit up to 35 restaurants. At each stop, Ratcliff checks out the order—a whole baby lamb, a side of veal, or a goat—and her assistant hoists it over his shoulder and carries it into the kitchen. Sometimes, she spends a few minutes chatting in French or Italian with the chefs who have become both fans and friends. Some even plan their menus around her products.

Ratcliff remains the major force behind the co-op’s operations, although it is only one of her daily occupations. Managing her own farm, which spreads out on two sides of the road, is a full-time job in itself. Across from the house, barns for 70 sheep and 100 lambs nestle into hills that roll out across a hazy mountain backdrop. Ratcliffe cuts costs and improves sales by shipping the lambs at an early age, a technique she’s passed on to co-op members. “You don’t have to pay for months of feed, and you get the kind of tender baby lamb that chefs want.”

Up the hill, three Jersey cows head from the field to the 12-sided round barn with a gingerbread-pattern roof that Ratcliff designed in her early years on the farm. A smaller barn next to it houses 30 goats and 50 kids. With the help of only a few part-time assistants, Ratcliff does the lion’s share of work herself. “There’s a part of me that wants to do the dirty work,” she says.

For all its success, Lydia Ratcliff knows that Vermont Quality Meats is a small effort in the struggle to save Vermont’s family farms, but she says, “I believe it’s better to have a small legacy than no legacy, to do something rather than nothing.” For dozens of New England’s small towns and villages, saving one or two farms at a time is one step toward maintaining a quality of life and a quality of food that no one wants to lose.


Susan Ritz is a freelance writer and adult education teacher from Montpelier, Vermont.

 

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