Montpelier’s Soup Guy

Customers Warm to CSA, Products from Screamin’ Ridge

Story and photography by Maria Buteux Reade

Joe in one of his greenhouses filled with winter spinachBy now, everyone knows that CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. However, Joe Buley pushes the concept to new levels with his version, culinary-supported agriculture.

Since 1999, Joe has merged his two loves, cooking and farming, to create a cutting-edge model of local food production and distribution. Classically trained in Paris as a chef and self-taught as a farmer, Joe is known around Montpelier as “the Soup Guy.” His ever-expanding line of soups and sauces are available at the Capital City Farmers Market and Hunger Mountain Co-op.

His vats of hot soup are a welcome sight on winter days, and in summer cold vegetable- or fruit-based soups bring equal relief. Joe sources as many of his ingredients as possible from Vermont and neighboring Massachusetts. In fact, many of the soups start from vegetables he grows at Screamin’ Ridge, his farm a few miles outside Montpelier.

Screamin’ Ridge Farm consists of three acres of garden beds, several greenhouses and a large fenced-in area where Joe raises some laying hens. A breezeway abutting his family home has been converted into a washing and storage annex, with a stainless-steel triple sink, counter and walk-in cooler. Piles of flattened packing boxes wait in neat stacks. A couple of scales and some mesh bags of garlic and onions hang in the rafters. Everything is clean, efficient and organized, the mark of a French-trained chef.

“I used to teach sanitation at NECI [New England Culinary Institute] so, trust me, this place is as clean as they come,” says Joe.

“Farmers typically can experience waste of 15% to 20% and most of that winds up in a compost heap,” Joe explains. “I started using my culls, or veggies which are perfectly fine but might have a surface blemish, and turned them into soups. By taking this approach, I reduced my waste to 2%–3%. I also make tons of pesto from my greenhouse basil and people go crazy for it at winter farmers’ markets.” Feedback from market customers or CSA shareholders helps him determine which soups are keepers and which need tweaking.

Joe maintains a lively and informative website. The clear writing at ScreaminRidgeFarm.com reflects his background as an English major, and the inspiring recipes and preparation tips confirm his talent as a chef/farmer.

Joe makes his soups and sauces at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. He was one of the first clients to use this space when it opened in January 2012. The 4,000-square-foot facility had once been home to the American Flatbread pizza company. Robin Morris, former CFO of that company, bought the warehouse and converted it to a food hub where producers can rent the commercial kitchen, processing rooms, or sign up for dry, refrigerated or frozen storage space. The facility is USDA-inspected and maintains stringent requirements for handling, processing and storage of all products. Visitors must don a blue hair net or baseball cap, and food processors sport knee-length white industrial lab coats.

Robin envisions this hub as an incubator for entrepreneurs to develop a product and create a successful business that can ultimately “graduate” from the facility and function independently. He wants to ensure that the person who leaves has the knowledge and access to resources in order to transition to the next logical step.

The Mad River Food Hub provides processing, storage and distribution services as part of the rental fee. Joe Buley pays a daily rate for the commercial kitchen with gleaming stainless-steel tables, powerful convection ovens and 45-gallon steam kettles. He spends most Tuesdays at the facility, working a 10-hour shift with one or two other assistants.

During the winter months, he ramps up to two or three production days a week at the warehouse as demand for soups, sauces and stocks increases. He hires a couple more staff during these busy times. In September and October, Joe and his crew transport the bountiful harvest from his Montpelier farm to this Waitsfield facility to process and pack vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, chard and sweet peppers. This produce is then frozen and stored on site for Joe’s winter CSA or reserved for future use in soups. Summer tomatoes are turned into sauce, a welcome addition come February.

People want convenience. Not everyone wants to deal with cooking, canning or freezing a whole box of CSA farm veggies. However, they do want to eat healthy local foods and support Vermont farmers. So producers like Joe Buley are creating ready-to-eat prepared foods such as soups, sauces, pestos and pastas that use local or farm-raised ingredients.

Many of Joe’s soups are vegetarian or vegan and gluten-free. “It’s not that difficult to adapt a recipe for folks who have dietary considerations,” says Buley.

Thai curry squash, a thick orange soul-warming concoction, is one of his most popular offerings. Joe roasts and purées winter squash, blends in coconut milk and spices it up with Thai green curry, ginger and lime. At the other end of the spectrum is a winter favorite, cheddar ale soup.

“That one has all the good ‘bad’ stuff: flour, beer, cheese,” he jokes. Mainstays of his popular repertoire include broccoli cheddar, roast fennel potato, miso soup and black bean chili. Buley makes a light yet rich New England chowder that emphasizes the briny clams rather than chunks of potato.

Knowing that many people prefer to make their own soups or stews, Joe also offers three stocks: chicken, beef and vegetable. He roasts the USDA-inspected beef and chicken, adds aromatics like deeply caramelized onions, garlic and carrots along with celery or fennel and seasons the heady base with fresh herbs, ginger, wine, salt and pepper. A quart or two of these stocks can make cooking at home a lot easier, especially for busy Vermonters. Joe’s Soups have become one of the most popular fixtures in the Hunger Mountain Co-op deli.

In addition to selling to the co-op and at the Montpelier farmers’ market, Joe has developed his own workplace CSA. Once a week during the summer and twice a month in winter, a refrigerated truck from the Mad River Food Hub shows up at one of a half dozen locations in the Montpelier area, including Vermont College of Fine Arts, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and National Life, and delivers the pre-packed boxes directly to the shareholder’s workplace. Joe explains, “One truck delivers boxes to 200 customers within a few-mile radius as opposed to 200 cars coming up the road to my farm. That’s just another way to reduce our carbon footprint.” Every box is labeled with the shareholder’s name and loaded with the items he or she has selected from the online grocery store earlier that week. Each share contains a 50-50 mix of fresh or frozen seasonal vegetables and fruit along with other locally sourced products. Most shareholders whisk away their boxes within the first hour of the two hour delivery window.

Joe works with 10 to 20 farmers and producers in north central Vermont and incorporates their products into his CSA, thereby providing employees of some Montpelier businesses with convenient, high-quality fresh and prepared food. Partners include well-known names such as Red Hen breads, Blackwell Roots in Cabot, Woods Market Garden in Brandon, Champlain Orchards, Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield. He also offers bacon or sausage, chicken from Misty Knoll, tofu from Vermont Soy, tempeh from Rhapsody Natural Foods and bean burgers from Vermont Beancrafters, another mainstay at the Mad River Food Hub.

Ninety percent of his workplace CSA customers have never before been part of a CSA; new shareholders often mean no preconceived expectations. Some companies even help subsidize employees who opt to participate in the workplace CSA; the human resource staff considers it part of the employee’s overall wellness package.

Preparing his soups and sauces in a USDA-inspected facility allows Joe to market his fare across state lines through distributors such as Black River Produce and Farmers to You. The latter is a web-based marketing and distribution group that brings products from thirty Vermont farms to drop-off sites in the greater Boston region. Every Tuesday morning, the Farmers to You truck picks up cases of Joe’s soups and, by dinnertime, his broccoli cheddar or Thai curry squash may be warming on a Cambridge stovetop.

Places like the Mad River Food Hub and the state agencies have been so supportive, says Joe. “Governor Shumlin and his administration have put their foot on the gas pedal. They embrace the fact that small-scale agriculture and value-added products can be an economic driver for Vermont. They know that if I stay in business, I create jobs and develop additional markets.” Thus the Vermont “brand” continues to expand and strengthen.

Screamin’ Ridge Farm’s logo—a scarlet tomato with a lopsided grin—conveys the playful side of this serious chef, dedicated farmer and innovative entrepreneur. However, it takes a spoon and a bowl to truly appreciate Joe Buley’s culinary supported artistry. For more information on Joe’s Soups or his CSA, visit ScreaminRidgeFarm.com.

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