Dutton Berry Farm: Growing Strong for Three Decades

By | September 03, 2017
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Dutton Berry Farm
Photos courtesy of Aysegul Sanford

Remember that funky little veggie stand next to the Pancake House in Manchester around 1990? Or the small shed adjacent to Mary Meyer’s teddy bear shop in Townshend in the early 1980s?

Those humble structures were the original homes of Dutton Berry Farm, which has developed over the last 35 years into a highly successful fruit and vegetable operation, with three bustling farm stands in southern Vermont. And George, that adorable little boy with big dark eyes who used to hang around his mother’s knees? He’s 27 now and helps to run the family business.

Wendy and Paul Dutton grew up in Windham; Paul’s family owned a dairy farm and Wendy’s father managed a retail grocery. The young couple gravitated to small fruits and vegetables. After graduating from UVM with a degree in agriculture, Paul worked on a commercial berry farm in Michigan for four years. He returned home in 1981, bought 32 acres of land in Brookline and started growing strawberries and veggies with Wendy. The couple married in 1986.

The subsequent years were a whirlwind of expansion as people embraced the “buy local” concept. The Duttons renovated an old auto garage in 1985 and established a significant farm stand on Route 30 in Newfane that still serves as command central for the multi-layered business.

Meanwhile, Wendy started bringing produce in 1987 to the Friday Manchester Farmers’ Market, located where McDonald’s now stands (how’s that for irony?) “My customers kept asking me why I wasn’t in town the rest of the week,” Wendy said, “so in 1990 we rented an old gun shop next to the Pancake House from Walter Hayes. He fixed it up for us and I sold there for a few years until we opened our current Manchester location on Routes 11/30 in 1993.”

Those 28 acres heading out of town toward the mountains boast 20 acres of sugar bush, so the Duttons set up their sugaring operation there. “The owner was happy to see the land stay in ag,” said Wendy, “and the location gives us great road frontage with plenty of parking.” Their third retail shop opened on Route 9 in West Brattleboro in 2003.

For more than three decades, Dutton’s has provided a quietly remarkable service: reliable, one-stop shopping. Beyond the obvious veggies and fruits, locals and tourists can load up on dairy, eggs, cheese, jams, baked goods, Vermont-made sauces and condiments, dried pastas, granola, gelato, crackers, salsa and chips. Newfane and Manchester also stock an admirable selection of craft beers, ciders and wine, the majority hailing from Vermont.

Not surprisingly, 85% of the produce is Dutton-grown. On display right inside the front doors are artfully arranged pints and quarts of fresh fruit—strawberries, red and black raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, even currants—picked that day. Other tables showcase peppers in stoplight colors, a multitude of heirloom tomatoes, bunches of sweet carrots and jewel-tone beets and a dazzling array of summer squash, eggplant, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower. Come fall, bushel baskets brim with potatoes, winter squash, onions and garlic. Even in the dark months, Dutton’s harvests fresh winter greens from their Brookline greenhouse.

Supplying the Newfane, Manchester and West Brattleboro stores requires a deep inventory. The Duttons tend 16 greenhouses and cultivate more than 150 acres in several large tracts from Windham County to Manchester. Most of the berries and some crops grow in the fields alongside the serpentine stretch of Route 30 in Newfane. That pick-your-own location is open daily from strawberry season through the end of August. Additional fruits and other crops are grown on their Brookline farm. Paul Dutton and his crew maintain two separate orchards with apples, peaches and nectarines in West Brattleboro and Windham.

Newfane serves as the primary storage hub. Cider is pressed fresh here each week and delivered to all three stores. The majority of the jam making and the baking—breads, pies, cookies and donuts—happens in Newfane’s commercial kitchen. “My mom still does some and she taught everyone to make the pies,” Wendy explained. “Paul’s sister also works in the bakery as do some local girls. My daughter, Lily, helps out and so does my second son, Joseph, when he’s home on vacations.”

How do the Duttons share responsibilities? According to Wendy, “Paul orchestrates the field work, gets the seeds and plants going in the greenhouse and oversees the orchards. But he’s starting to share more of those responsibilities with George, who can fix anything and does whatever needs doing.”

Wendy handles all the sugaring, boiling the sap from their 3,800 taps in Manchester, Brookline and Windham. Last winter, Dutton’s produced 1,200 gallons of syrup. She focuses on the retail aspect and delivers product to all three farm stands every day, trekking up and down Route 30 in her white box truck. “We didn’t want to sell wholesale, so that’s why we have three farm stands. We’d rather sell direct to our local customers.” And sell they do, 364 days a year. “We close on Christmas Day but we’re open till two on Thanksgiving because someone always forgets the Gilfeather turnips or needs another pie.”

It’s this level of service that distinguishes Dutton’s. “We’re not competing against other local businesses,” Wendy noted. “We’re up against Home Depot and Tractor Supply. Here we know our customers and can cater to their needs. We provide a level of service and connection that big-box stores can’t. People trust us because they can see how we grow things. We’ve had some customers who’ve been coming for 30 years.”

Dutton Berry Farm in Vermont
Dutton Berry Farm in Vermont

Dutton’s sustains about 12 full-time employees year-round, and a legion of seasonal and part-time workers. “We’d love to hire more locals to pick berries, but fortunately we’ve had a group of 16 Jamaican workers who come every spring and stay through early December, some of whom have been with us for 28 years. They’re like family.”

Speaking of family, the four Dutton kids, aged 27 to 14, have all helped on the farm at whatever level they desired. “It was nice to have them grow up on the farm and be with us,” Wendy added. “It’s healthy for them to get away but they always know they can come back.”

What does Wendy love most? “Developing relationships with customers. I also love the changes that go with each season. Just when you get tired of sugaring, the greenhouses get going and then the field work starts. When it gets cold in November, we come inside and start making wreaths. The variety keeps it interesting for all of us. Paul’s vacation comes in January when he can get out in the woods and cut trees. He loves that.”

Wendy and Paul never envisioned their business would expand to this level. “We just wanted to supply local produce, and people got on board. They know everything is picked fresh that morning. Sometimes managing three farm stands and growing on different locations can feel a little overwhelming. But the most important thing is that people can buy direct from a farmer or producer. They know exactly where their food is from, and that helps farmers like us to stay in business.”

Maria Buteux Reade has been a loyal customer—and grateful friend—of Wendy Dutton since 1989. And yes, she has made the emergency trip to Duttons on several Thanksgiving mornings…

Article from Edible Green Mountains at http://ediblegreenmountains.ediblecommunities.com/eat/dutton-berry-farm-growing-strong-three-decades
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