The MCSE Friday Speaker Series: Chris Howell ’04.5, Founder, Vermont Farm Tours
by Otto Nagengast ’17
Chris Howell’s work in Vermont agriculture began when he was a student at Middlebury. During his time here he was involved with the college’s organic farm, and he helped it to grow into the integral part of campus, and our community, that it is today. After graduating in February 2004, Chris and his father founded a five-acre farm in New Hampshire. Chris says, with a chuckle, that it was an adjustment going from Midd where he could spend three hours in the dining hall with friends eating dinner to sharing parsnips with his dad on the farm each night.
Chris’ interest in agriculture eventually took him abroad, and through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), he “WWOOFed” in France, Spain, and Italy. In Italy, Chris worked with a cheese-maker who was famous in northern Italy. The man, Chris says, “was so connected” to the cheese that he crafted. The cheese also connected the man to his town, which in northern Italy became synonymous with excellent cheese. In Italy, Chris came to more fully appreciate that food can deeply connect people to a place.
After brief stints as a carpenter and a logger, Chris launched Vermont Farm Tours in 2009. The company offers a range of trips, from vineyards to maple sugarhouses to artisan cheese makers, all in Vermont. Edible Green Mountains Magazine says: “There is no one better qualified to take you behind the scenes to experience the story and flavor of our unique culinary landscape than the charismatic owner of Vermont Farm Tours, Chris Howell.” Chris says that his clients are after “a cool Vermont experience.” He builds his trips on personal connections with farmers, some of which he made during his time at Middlebury. This personal touch requires a lot of planning, but it sets his trips apart from the rest. “From a business standpoint,” Chris says, “it’s a terrible idea to have all these logistics. Could I streamline it? Yeah.” But the fact that his business model is not scalable is because his work is incredibly personal, which is what Chris loves about it.
Chris says that the biggest “why” about his work is that it matters. Vermont agriculture is at a crossroads. In 2009 the Farm to Plate Investment Program Legislation was approved, codifying a movement that had already been underway at the grassroots level and getting millions in government funding behind the initiative. The goal of the Farm to Plate movement is to help preserve Vermont’s agrarian identity. Chris is a leader in this movement. The Vermont agro-tourism industry is already about a 10 to 20 million dollar business. The industry, however, isn’t new, Chris says. In the 1890s, a member of the Vermont Board of Agriculture, Victor Spear, said that “The summer boarder is perhaps our most profitable crop.” Chris envisions that within 10 years hospitality training will be widespread among farms and a sizable portion of farms’ incomes will come from tourism.
One of Chris’ latest initiatives is promoting Vermont spirits. He sees enormous potential for Vermont spirits, because they can be 100 percent Vermont-made, including even the grains. He even hired a public-relations consultant to help promote fully-Vermont distilled spirits, and the story got national attention.
In just ten years, Chris went from pulling his first weed at the Middlebury organic farm to being a leader in a movement to preserve Vermont’s agrarian identity. By searching and ultimately finding his passion, and seeing the opportunity to turn it into a livelihood, Chris is connecting people to Vermont through farm and food. His work is not only meaningful to him but its helps farmers to sustain their livelihoods and preserve a Vermont way of life.