Business & Economy

Entrepreneur plans to revamp historic dairy Nordic Farms as a new agritourism center

Will Raap stands for a portrait in front of the Nordic Farms barn, which he hopes to renovate into a center for agricultural advocacy and education. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

A Vermont entrepreneur plans to transform Nordic Farms in Charlotte into an agritourism hub, replete with walking and skiing trails, an agricultural museum, and places to eat and drink in an attempt to bring new life to the state’s historic dairy landscape.

Will Raap, who founded Gardener’s Supply and the nonprofit Intervale Center, announced plans Wednesday to purchase the 583-acre property in Charlotte.

Once a thriving dairy farm, Nordic Farms went through bankruptcy in 2017. It now hosts a few agricultural businesses on site, including shrimp aquaculture and malt brewing, but most of the farm has not been operational for the past five years. 

The new design — which Raap calls Nordic 3.0 — would include an array of commercial and nonprofit enterprises, including an outpost for Shoreham-based WhistlePig whiskey and a “botanical commons” selling food, skin care and CBD products.

Also at the site: a grain co-op of seven growers, an energy innovation center with two solar arrays, a regenerative agriculture advocacy center, and a museum focused on grain-growing and Cyrus Pringle, a 19th-century botanist at UVM. 

“We think we need multiple businesses to be able to maintain the economics of a place this size,” Raap said. “Dairy was able to do that when dairy’s heyday was good. But now we think we need multiple other businesses.”

Raap said he is forming an LLC to purchase the land, buildings and farm equipment. He estimates it will cost about $4.4 million and expects to get most of that money through a Vermont State Employees Credit Union loan. He said the rest would come from about a half-dozen investors.

Raap’s team expects the deal could be finalized next week. 

Jay Canning, who co-owns the farm with Andrew Peterson, said in an email he expects Raap to “get this transaction across the finish line.”

“He has great credibility, determination and a large network of allies, of which I am certainly glad to be one,” said Canning, owner of Hotel Vermont. 

In the 1980s, Raap founded Gardener’s Supply, an employee-owned gardening retail business, and the Intervale Center, a nonprofit built to advance community food systems.

The development rights on the land are owned by Vermont Land Trust, which places restrictions on the farm’s usage and subdivision. Raap plans to form an additional nonprofit that will develop some of the larger facilities to work within the conservation guidelines. 

The new nonprofit will need to raise an additional $3 million to $4 million to renovate the 130-year old barn, which will house its educational and advocacy programming, as well as cafe and conference space, Raap said.

“We’re going to go out looking for grants, looking for fundraising, looking for community development block grants,” Raap said. “Charlotte can apply for those.”

Community development block grants are a type of federal funding open to state or local governments, which can apply for funding to act as a middleman between a private developer and the feds. Governments requesting these grants must show at least 51% of the people benefiting from the proposed development have low or moderate incomes. 

“That then creates an equity focus we have here because how do low- and moderate-income families benefit from this facility?” Raap said. “Well, that’s not going to be that hard because farmers typically are low- and moderate-income.”

The view looking west across Route 7 from Nordic Farms in Charlotte includes a private residence and barn, plus the north end of the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Riley Robinson/VT Digger

Charlotte Town Planner Larry Lewack said he has seen no written proposals for the Nordic Farms development and has only had “general conversation” about it with Raap.

“You can’t exclude, and you wouldn’t want to exclude people who don’t live in [Charlotte] from those jobs, should they become available, but then you’d have to show there’d be some lasting benefit to the town that would reach people of low- and moderate-income,” Lewack said. “And frankly, Charlotte doesn’t have a lot of those folks because it’s the most expensive community in Chittenden County to live in.”

Lewack estimated the city approval process for a project of this scope would be at least two to three months. A spokesperson for Nordic Farms said developers hope the first part of the project, a farmers market, will open in August. 

“It’s not a slam dunk that some of the things that they’re proposing will automatically get approval either at the municipal level or at the level of just complying with the conservation restrictions,” Lewack said. 

Raap and his collaborators see Nordic Farms as promoting economic development and environmental development simultaneously. 

“The dairy industry has been declining for 30, 40, 50 years. That’s the majority of the land base in Vermont, so the declining industry means no margin for renovation, restoration and protection,” Raap said. “So how do you get that back? You have industry that has enough margin for people to invest in the long term.”

Raap has been working with University of Vermont Extension agronomist Heather Darby to plan crop rotation and other farming processes. The plans often use the word “regenerative,” which Raap and Darby said generally refers to soil health.

“I think sometimes people say regenerative, and that means something different to different people. It’s not very well defined,” Darby said. “Managing the land, with an eye on producing high quality agricultural product, and enhancing sort of the environmental aspects of the land, is, in my mind, what’s regenerative about it.”

Darby said the crop rotations should minimize soil tilling. Lessening the soil turnover should help retain more carbon in the ground, which is another of Raap’s goals. 

Darby said the project pushes back on ideas that agriculture and conservation are inherently at odds. 

“I think like, where Vermont is — and this farm is an example of that — is bringing [agriculture] and environment together because we need them both,” Darby said. “We need to eat, and we need a clean environment. It’s not one or the other.” 

Corrections: In an earlier version of this story, Lewack’s name was rendered incorrectly in one instance. Due to an editing error, a caption misidentified the properties visible in the second photograph.

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