By MICHELLE MONROE
SOUTH HERO – 2020 was a pivotal year for Alisha Utter and Kyle Bowley, leading ultimately to the opening of a new business, Arbor Farm Market.
The couple have owned a farm South Hero since 2016. The seven-acre farm has four acres of woodland and three in crops, primarily fruits, including multiple species of berries.
The berries are used to make a syrup, which is then placed on shaved ice for a summer treat, popular at both the Burlington and Champlain Islands farmers markets where the couple also sold produce and Bowley’s woodworking.
When COVID-19 arrived last March, the couple made rapid changes to their business model.
“We couldn’t in good faith sell snow cones face-to-face,” said Bowley. “We were also seeing a need in our community for healthy, accessible food.”
In March, they began putting together boxes of local foods from local producers for delivery direct to customers’ doorsteps. It was, Bowley said, totally contactless and sanitized.
By April, they had added a community donation option in which customers could purchase items that could then be claimed by those in need. The donated items were also delivered to doorsteps.
In May, Utter and Bowley created their first community supported agriculture shares, which lasted for 20 weeks and allowed people in the Islands to get deliveries of produce from the couple’s farm.
“Lastly, we also decided to build a farm stand on our property,” Bowley said.
“There’s a lot of pivots here,” said Utter, of the rapid changes the pair made to their business.
At the farm stand they offered items from other local growers as well as their own produce. It became “a focal point for people during the pandemic,” Bowley said.
The success of the farm stand led them to open Arbor Farm Market. A market had always been in their business plan, but not for a few years. “The catalyst was definitely the pandemic,” Utter said.
A grand opening is planned for Memorial Day weekend, but the market had a soft opening in April, appropriately enough, on Arbor Day.
Like the farm stand before it, the market offers items from numerous local producers. This weekend there was fresh asparagus and hanging flower baskets from Pomykala Farms.
Items in the market are divided between general grocery including staples such as milk and bread, fresh produce and the creations of Islands-based artisans and crafters, said Bowley. They describe it as a “contemporary general store.”
Anything that can be sourced locally or within Vermont is, Utter explained. For items from other areas, she investigates how they are grown or produced and the treatment of workers and farmers.
Many of the items for sale at the market can also be found at the local farmers market. Utter emphasizes that Arbor Farm Market isn’t intended to replace the farmers market, but to supplement it by offering producers another outlet for sales. Customers are encouraged to also go to the farmers market and support farmers directly, she said.
When farmers bring in produce for sale, Utter said she writes them a check right then. For many, this is their first wholesale account.
The market has been “very warmly received so far, which is great,” Utter said.
The two phrases they hear most often from people coming into the market for the first time are: “we need this,” and “you saved me a trip to Burlington,” Utter said.
While they will welcome tourist traffic, “our foundation is created in serving locals,” said Utter. “We didn’t want it to be a novelty. We wanted it to be a staple.”
Because they want the market to help meet customers’ every day food needs, “we’ve been mindful in pricing while bringing in high quality products,” she added.
The market is located in the heart of the village in a building that previously housed C.I.D.E.R. “We absolutely adore the location,” Utter said.
The market and farm aren’t their only endeavors. Utter is finishing up a doctorate in soil and plant science at the University of Vermont while Bowley is a National Guard pilot.
Because they will be focusing on launching the market, they will not have a stand at the farmers market this summer.
Those craving the snow cones, however, will be able to find them during pop up events once a month at the market, including at the Grand Opening on Memorial Day.
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