Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
Mark Curran was a ski bum “banging nails” and sliding the slopes of Okemo in the freewheeling 1970s when he and fellow ski bum Steve Birge had an offbeat epiphany – inspired by iceberg lettuce, wilted broccoli and canned peas.
“People in Ludlow were always complaining about the vegetables in the supermarket,” he recalls. Though it was the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement and whole-grain was the chewy buzzword, mesclun and fresh spinach were a far-off dream in produce aisles, and heritage tomatoes, chioggia beets and fresh snap peas were decades away from appearing on restaurant menus.
Cue the vision thing.
Curran and Birge decided to start a produce market by making runs to Boston to get fresh fruits and vegetables. With total capital of $600, they bought – what else – a used VW bus, painted the slogan “Give Peas A Chance” on it, and in 1978 started taking turns schlepping to Boston’s big wholesale market. To help fill the van, they got five chefs at local restaurants to agree to take some produce as well.
They had no intention then of entering the wholesale fresh- food business and running the huge company they now co-own, Black River Produce, let alone evolving into an essential cog in sustaining and fostering Vermont’s localvore, artisanal, farm-fresh cachet.
“It was a natural foods story,” says Curran, reflecting on why they started a farmstand (without a farm) in an old three-story barn in downtown Ludlow. It was also a wild flyer of an idea, their emerging entrepreneurial bent running smack into a wall of indifference hard to imagine more than three artisanal-infused decades later. As Curran notes, Vermont chefs weren’t exactly crying out for two guys to deliver fresh lettuce at their back door.
“It was a battle,” says Curran.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
Those freewheeling days have provided Curran with tales to tell, which he unspools with relish. There’s the day he came into the farmstand to find a “40-pound raccoon” feasting on their supply of bananas (which they picked over and sold anyway). Or how the ramshackle barn had shaky old wiring and a scavenged décor. Or how produce trips south were always an adventure with “old dilapidated trucks whose drive shafts would fall out on the way.”
Fast-forward 38 years. That rickety bus has morphed into 50 refrigerated trucks distributing Vermont produce, cheeses, yogurt and meats, as well as vegetables and fruits, flowers and seafood that the company hauls from regional out-of-state markets. The partners often call their company “the FedEx of fresh food.”
Today, Black River Produce has some 180 employees and is on track to count $70 million in revenue. And the vision thing? In some ways it’s even more impressive. Black River Produce has become a critical behind-the-scenes hub bringing together around 200 Vermont producers with around 3,000 wholesale customers. Think of the company as the state’s prime farm-to-table enabler, the folks who get everything from Vermont blueberries and kale to coffee and quail, grass-fed beef and succulent pork to your plate, food tray, or co-op shelf.
For almost every Vermont college or university, for hospitals and big institutions, myriad restaurants and small grocers, Black River serves as “your fresh connection,” the motto emblazoned on its trucks.
How did this happen? Partly through serendipity and lots of hard work – “it’s been a slog,” says Curran, who recently hit 60 and has a lean physique, graying moustache and hair and looks the part of a fit former ski bum turned snowboarder. But here’s the untold part of the story: Curran came to New England from Pennsylvania to go to Boston College, where he majored in philosophy before he took up independent work-study in a ski-bum gap year that became permanent hiatus. He never went back to B.C., but philosophy underlies everything he has done in business with his partner. In Curran’s shorthand, it’s a simple philosophy: “collect the money” but also “treat people right” and “be honest and fair.”
“That’s a thing that’s hard to learn in school. You learn that by example,” he says, in his case from his upbringing: A mom involved in Catholic charities and social justice issues and a dad who survived World War II, meeting the Russians in Berlin, and working as an ombudsman for the state. Curran learned “that you have to give back,” and that example sank deep into his bones and became an idea of how to run a business.
That’s why Curran was just honored at Shelburne Farms by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility with its Terry Ehrich Award for excellence, an award based on a commitment to “the environment, workplace, progressive public policy and community.”
Curran says the award belongs just as much to his partner, Birge, and to his adopted state.
“Vermont is a special place. Nobody moves to Vermont to make a lot of money,” he says. “I think what Steve and I are most proud of, is we have 180-190 people, and they all have good jobs and benefits and are able to support their families.”
Touring the Black River headquarters in North Springfield with Curran is a head-spinning and mind-bending foray into a 24/7 operation whose extensive scope and impact few people in Vermont comprehend. The building is a classic example of green renovation and reuse, converted from an existing 63,000-square-foot former Idlenot dairy plant. Inside are four refrigerated warehouses, each with temperature zones specially tailored for what they house.
It’s a beehive of bustle on late-night shifts as employees load delivery trucks that depart at 6 a.m. Behind the plant and on every inch of roof are solar panels that can provide up to 80 percent of the plant’s energy. Buyers work their headsets and computers, arranging sales and pickups and taking hundreds of orders a day.
Up the road, Curran drives his visitor to a new $9 million investment in Vermont’s future, another green reuse, this time a derelict former Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pops plant totaling 40,000 square feet. Inside is a state-of-the-art FDA-inspected, humanely designed slaughterhouse that will greatly expand the market for raisers of local beef, pork, lamb and who knows what else in the future.
Already it provides the meat for gourmet prosciutto and salami, says Curran, and three smokers are now being installed in the new plant. It will handle as many as 80 beef cattle or 150 hogs a day, easing a critical bottleneck that will further Vermont’s farm-to-table meat industry.
Curran’s mind offers a never-ending brainstorm of what-if, value-added-for-Vermont possibilities and synergies. Watching through windows as the black hide of a hanging Angus is stripped, he wonders if sustainably raised and environmentally processed leather from Vermont might be a cachet or marketable item for car seats, the biggest market for leather.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
He mentions how he’s working to entice farmers to boost hog production by connecting farmers with Vermont Creamery, whose booming yogurt production in Brattleboro produces a lot of whey byproduct – which could feed a lot of Vermont-grown hogs.
“We see the whole picture,” he explains. “… We have that sort of 50,000-foot view of things.”
At 60, is he thinking of retiring? Curran laughs. “We’re finally pretty good at this! Why quit now?” he asks.
Andrew Nemethy is a longtime writer and editor from Calais, Vt. Contact him at [email protected]