[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 8/12/10.] It’s a hot, humid Wednesday afternoon at Boardman Hill Farm. Driving up Quarter Line Road, I can literally see the heat: across the valley, a dense haze has rendered Pico and Killington practically invisible. I park my car and make my way out to the fields. The chickens peck quietly in the shade while the typically rambunctious goats sit lazily in their pen. Even the farm’s ubiquitous family of sheepdogs is laying low. One of them greets me with a commanding bark and tails me for about 50 yards before abandoning me for a shady spot next to the house.
Eventually, I find Joe Bossen, owner of Vermont Bean Crafters. Pant legs rolled up and baseball cap pulled down to shield his eyes from the sun, he’s hunched over a row of bean plants pulling weeds. For many people, this would be the last place they’d want to find themselves on a day like this, but for Bossen, it’s exactly where he wants to be.
Bossen grew up making frequent ski trips to Vermont with his family from his native New Jersey. Over the years, he fell in love with the state, eventually deciding to enroll at Green Mountain College after high school.
His time at GMC was both restless and productive. He quickly became bored with the common academic reality of learning without actually doing. During his sophomore year, Bossen began experimenting with biofuels, filtering oil in a vacant dorm room. Soon after, he took out a loan, bought a fuel processor and started Prudent Fuels, a kind of biofuel cooperative in Poultney.
Realizing that people had interest in biofuels but little knowledge, Prudent Fuels was created to bridge that gap, helping people convert their vehicles and get access to useable biodiesel.
Despite his hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, the company never took off the way Bossen had envisioned. “Maybe, I was a little impetuous,” he says, looking back.
The experience, however, was priceless. Prudent Fuels gave Bossen a crash course in running a business – learning by doing – which has aided him in his current business.
Making the leap from biofuels to bean burgers wasn’t planned. In the fall of 2006, Bossen returned to GMC after spending the summer touring the country in a converted Mercedes that ran on biodiesel.
He began volunteering at the college’s garden. Suddenly, something clicked.
“I’d never considered a life in farming, but I absolutely fell in love with it,” said Bossen. “For me, a life working in the soil is so much more enjoyable than anything else I can think of.”
Now, Bossen was faced with the familiar challenge of figuring out how to make a living out of doing something he loved.
Bossen stresses the importance of eating within his ethic. Vermont Bean Crafters is a manifestation of that ethic. Growing up, Bossen’s experience with food has been pretty typical.
“I was a meat and potatoes guy,” he says.
Then, in high school, his vegetarian sister helped to turn him away from meat. For him, it wasn’t about flavor or taste as much as it was about the politics of food. The more he learned about industrialized farming and the ugly realities of how our foodsystem works, the less he wanted to take part in it.
However, being a vegetarian teen in New Jersey means your options are limited.
“At school, my lunch consisted of a pretzel and a cookie,” said Bossen.
At the grocery store, he often found himself unsatisfied with the highly processed, preservative-heavy and energy-intensive veggie burger choices available.
In college, Bossen began cooking. He discovered new flavors and spices, and was constantly experimenting with how to make his vegetarian diet more interesting. He began toying with the idea of making fresh, organic bean burgers back in 2007. He developed a couple recipes, bringing them to potlucks and other meals where they received rave reviews.
In January of this year, at the urging of Greg Cox, Bossen began selling his bean burgers at the Winter Farmers’ Market in Rutland. The response was positive. He used his time at the market to test and experiment with his burgers, improving the recipes and making the operation more efficient.
Soon, Bossen realized that might be on to something, and decided to go all in with his business. He also realized that he would need to expand beyond the farmers’ market. He began shopping the burgers around to area co-ops and restaurants, and the orders started rolling in.
This summer, he has also been hitting the festival circuit. His stand at SolarFest was a huge success; the appearance there has since translated into more orders from co-ops around the state.
Bossen set up his operation in Boardman Hill’s commercial kitchen. For larger orders, he travels to the Vermont Food Venture Center in Fairfax.
In February, Bossen approached Black River Produce. They liked his product, and invited him to some food shows where the burgers were well received. Last month, Bossen received his first orders from Black River, with more on the way.
Standing amidst rows of bean plant, Bossen points out the different varieties on the one-acre parcel. (He has 11 more acres being grown for him around the state.)
In all, Bossen grows six varieties of beans for his burgers. Once harvested, they are dried and stored until it’s time to make a batch. The vegetables are picked fresh, an advantage Bossen notes, to having his kitchen in the middle of a working farm.
On a good day, his one- to three-person staff can turn out 600 burgers from their Boardman Hill kitchen. In Fairfax, they can make as many as 3,000 per day.
Despite that capacity, Bossen is cautious about his business’ growth. While he is not ruling out eventually selling to larger stores like Whole Foods, he wants to remain nimble enough to maintain personal relationships with his consumers and suppliers.
“Our community market is our first priority,” he said.
And Bossen is deeply grateful to that community for the support and resources that have been made available to him.
“It would have been more difficult elsewhere,” he said.
In particular, he acknowledges the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), which helped him connected with farmers to locally source his ingredients.
“I’ve seen a significant and direct benefit from what they’ve done here,” Bossen said.
Looking ahead, he is hoping to expand his product line to include hummus, falafel and seasonal varieties of his burgers. He is also actively working to get the burgers into area schools. Remembering his early vegetarian days, he hopes to provide children with better, more nutritious school lunch options than he had.
What started out as a political cause has evolved into something more meaningful for Bossen.
“It’s more than making a product,” he said. “It’s the opportunity to nourish people, not just feed them.”
Through it all, Bossen remains keenly aware of his quality of life, and making sure that his business keeps in line with both his values and his passions.
“I hope that this business will eventually underwrite my life in farming,” he said, surveying his crops. “The time in the field means a lot to me.”
To find out where you can buy Vermont Bean Crafters Bean Burgers in your area, visit www.vtbeancrafterscom.