Q&A with Socially Responsible Businesses Changing Vermont's Future
“Where money goes, so goes the future.”
More and more, people are realizing that what they choose to do with their hard-earned money, and how it is managed by their bank, credit union, or investment broker, makes a difference in their communities and the world around them. There is a choice to be part of an economy that supports you, and help create a more resilient and prosperous community around you.
So today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we are celebrating Banking on Values Day by talking to four of our many VSECU members who choose this way of banking and exchange every day. Their businesses are built to create benefit for their community, preserve and care for the environment where they live and work, and provide profit to support their livelihood.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED? WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION?
April Moulaert and her husband Azur were inspired to start Vermont Tortilla Company by the local food movement. “We wanted to make a product that could be made using all locally sourced, certified organic produce,” said April. “We researched possible products and discovered that we could make traditional corn tortillas using local corn. We went for it.”
Emily Hershberger is the general manager of Buffalo Mountain Food Coop. “The Co-op started about 46 years ago, in 1975, and the motivation was to get organic and local food to people in this area,” Emily shared. “There were some other stores around, but the organic and local piece was missing. A lot of people were moving to Vermont, starting homes, farms, and wanting a place to sell what they were growing.”
When Josh Ryan started the recreational trail building firm Timber & Stone fifteen years ago, he had “$400 in [his] account and about three hand tools.” Since then, he has seen Vermont’s government, local municipalities, non-profits, and land managers all realize that “if we invest in these lands sustainably, then people will come and people will recreate and get outside. We’ve been at the forefront of creating those amazing trails.”
Patrick Sullivan and his wife Melissa run Ananda Gardens, a diverse, small-scale farm with a farm stand and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program for pick-up or direct-to-kitchen delivery. “We got started just leasing land from a local community member, and the motivation was to provide very healthy food to our community and earn the same quality of food that we wanted to grow and provide to our family,” Patrick said. “We have two daughters, we wanted to offer that to the community and also make a livelihood doing something that we really believe is benefiting not just the local community, but the planet and moving in the direction that we hope to see in the future.”
HOW DOES YOUR WORK CONTRIBUTE TO PEOPLE, PLANET, AND PROSPERITY?
You have to make money as a business, but it doesn’t have to be your only focus. These businesses have made it a priority to balance profits alongside the importance of their employees and customers, the environment, and our collective ability to thrive.
April shared that they do this at Vermont Tortilla Company in how they source raw materials for their products and how they care for their employees. “We believe that supporting local growers helps the local economy. The money that is spent with local farmers and growers can stay close to home and be reinvested with businesses and services in our communities. Producing our products in Vermont allows us to provide jobs for Vermonters. We are support a livable wage for all and provide that to our employees.”
For Josh, it is about creating an environment for space and connections. “When you have a five-foot-wide accessible pathway that reaches a remote wetland with a beaver habitat, and you get somebody who's in a wheelchair or a grandmother walking next to a grandson...that's life-changing,” said Josh. “Timber & Stone creates the infrastructure that people go out and relax on, and contemplate, recreate, and make strong and powerful decisions about their own lives. I do not take it lightly that every turn I create on a trail is going to affect that person's moment in the woods, in a wetland or wherever, and those turns are where people will have these realizations. I strongly believe that we're creating these moments that change people's lives. Especially now with the virus, people need to get outside and walk and recreate and just clear their minds.”
“I see us really being able to provide something healthy so that so many others can do their important work in the community,” said Patrick. “Ananda Gardens growing food beyond organically, in a really living and healthy soil, provides the people in our community something that they can really trust is healthy and something that is contributing positively to their health and well-being. We farm using 200 yards of compost, which is just a massive amount of compost that we add to our farm every single year. We don't cultivate or till with heavy machinery, so we're able to really encourage and grow a living soil that not only produces healthy food, but a soil that's much more resilient in the face of climate change and also sequesters carbon directly into organic matter.”
STARTING YOUR HOLIDAY SHOPPING?
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HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FOR YOU DUE TO THE PANDEMIC?
“A lot has changed, even down to the roles and what we do have changed and the skills needed have changed,” shared Emily. At Buffalo Mountain Co-op, “we went to doing only curbside pick-up for a few months, and now we are doing both, and it's a lot of work to figure out how to make all that happen. It's a challenge to have been on the front line this whole time, keeping everybody’s spirits up, having open conversations, being real, and being compassionate with ourselves and others. So we've really been focused on compassionate customer service and being helpful to the members of our community. ”
When the Timber & Stone crew is out making new trails, “we’re all masked and our projects are fenced off, so people can't get close to us,” says Josh. "But these projects really bring out the community. I will have to go outside the fence to get something in the truck and there is always at least one person, if not more, just standing there watching and cheering us on. It's pretty easy to sleep at night when you have a job like that, in my mind.”
“I think that Vermont already had a pretty strong sense of why it's important to have farms embedded within our communities, and I think that that has only increased in the pandemic,” says Patrick. "It is also made us be more conscious about how we interact with the public, how we sanitize all the areas where we're processing the food, washing, and packing. This year we have been really focused on providing our customers with really good value. We’ve always been focused on value but this year, when in doubt, give more quantity and make a bigger difference for people when they really need it.”
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR MONEY TO SERVE PEOPLE AND STAY IN OUR LOCAL ECONOMY AND COMMUNITIES?
At Buffalo Mountain Co-op, “it is incredibly important to us, and it is something that we have continuous conversations about,” says Emily. “We talk about how we can have decent margins and an okay bottom line, but also really serve the community. There's a lot of frustration with the current financial structure and system that we have, and a lot of desire to be a part of something different and a better way of doing things.”
“I have little to zero experience with this alternate universe of ‘money making money’ as opposed to real money and the exchange for goods and services,” said Josh. “Timber & Stone is a profit-sharing company and I guess to me that's tied to real money. Every decision we make out in the field—from how long we decide to work in the snow, to custom welding this crazy cart that is going to hall our gear to the job site deep into the boardwalk so we do not have to carry them—all these decisions either make or lose money, and my crew knows that because we all share equally at the end of the year; based on how many hours you put in, you get a slice of the pie.”
At Ananda Farms, the need to support people comes above supporting outdated systems. “The more that we can use capital to really promote healthy livelihoods and businesses that contribute to the earth rather than just mining resources off the earth? That is incredibly important, for our community and for the planet,” said Patrick. “Money is something that creates so much anxiety and feelings of ‘not enough’ in our culture. If we can use it to back projects and get people going, or get people’s businesses going or help them through tougher times, then I think that's really how we should use money rather than propping up systems that just aren't working anymore.”
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE SUPPORT OF A VALUES-BASED BANK LIKE VSECU FOR YOU AND YOUR BUSINESS?
“It’s very important to us because VSECU is also a cooperative,” said Emily. “I believe cooperatives are a part of that different way of doing business. So, doing our banking with a cooperative is a really important part of that difference. At one point the Buffalo Mountain Co-op community was even looking at seeing if we could get cooperative banking going in Hardwick.”
“As I've seen it, VSECU has evolved, and knowing that there is a value base behind that is very important,” said Josh. “I hear what you guys are supporting through the radio spots and that what I hear is community-minded. It makes me feel like Timber & Stone is part of something bigger. The choice to bank at VSECU is in line with a lot of other decisions we've made in the last five to eight years where things just started clicking.”
Patrick shared how the relationship helped Ananda Gardens and his family’s home. “It's made a big difference. Our line of credit has helped us advance infrastructure, including putting up two big greenhouses, that are so necessary in this climate to really build a prosperous farm,” said Patrick. “We also have a Home Energy loan, and honestly, that's been crucial for our business too, because it's really helped our family have a safe, healthy, and comfortable place to live.”
For April at Vermont Tortilla Company, it is just how to do things. “We try to do business with Vermont businesses whenever possible,” she said. “It just makes sense. VSECU is local banking with staff that live and work here. They understand the local business climate and can work with us so we can all do better together.”
WHAT FUTURE VERMONT DO YOU DREAM OF?
“Healthy, good food for all people in the state, that's easier to get to, and more cooperatives honestly!” exclaimed Emily. “More structures with a different way of doing business that really serve the people in the community that they're a part of.”
“I was asked to be part of the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative, a Governor's Initiative to really push this idea of recreation as an economic driver for the State of Vermont,” said Josh. “I have sat at the table with the Governor and discussed this. I see a future of not only breweries, not only just a unique style of parenting and community, but a welcoming spot where people can come from afar to recreate in Vermont. I would love to see Vermont just continue to focus on the unique recreation opportunities we have and how that can help everybody... Gas stations, lumber yards, quarries, educators. It is just amazing... we built this 900-foot boardwalk in Monkton, and now that's where multiple schools go to learn wetland ecology. They didn't have anything like that before.”
“I would like Vermont to maintain its character of a lot of small family businesses and a living natural working landscape,” said Patrick. “I would also really like Vermont to be an example of how to get off fossil fuel and move towards renewable energy... Vermont can lead the country towards that goal. The next presidential administration is saying they will work towards 2050 being carbon neutral. I would really love if we could all be part of really making that happen a lot quicker in Vermont on the time scale that we need it to happen. And that Vermont can continue to provide a really comfortable and safe place for family and for people to live.”
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of VSECU.
About Simeon Chapin
Simeon Chapin is the community impact officer at VSECU, a values-based credit union located in Vermont, and has over a decade of experience driving business, brands, and engagement toward social good. Simeon specializes in business development and manages strategy and execution, measurement, public and community relations, impact investing, and philanthropy. With a creative, integrated, and rigorous approach, Simeon brings people together to propel positive change and culture forward. Simeon is continuously inspired by the natural world and the innovation that comes out of challenge and perseverance. When not at work, Simeon likes to be with his family in the mountains, on a bike on Vermont gravel roads, or listening to music from all corners of the world.