Lamoille County is not generally viewed as a commercial hub, but it is home to some thriving small businesses. This year three of those businesses are being recognized with awards from the Small Business Administration.
An organic seed company in Wolcott, a bakery in Hyde Park and a sporting goods shop in Morristown are among seven businesses statewide being recognized by the SBA. That’s a surprisingly high percentage for a rural county with no interstate highway, no functioning railroad and cell phone coverage that’s spotty at best.
The biggest honor, Vermont’s Small Business Person of the Year, goes to Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds. Stearns started the business as a hobby 20 years ago. Now he has around 70 employees. He says he’s happy to accept the award on behalf of his High Mowing team. And, in a way, as a recognition of his industry.
"There’s only been a few organic farms ever to win this award, across the country," says Stearns. "And that tells me that organic farming, organic agriculture has achieved a new level of recognition in the business community."
Stearns says he chose to start and grow his company in Lamoille County because that’s where he wants to live.
"This is a beautiful place to live and it's really fertile ground for creative ventures and people thinking out of the box." he says. "And so ... for me, being in a place where other people are committed to a holistic view of business and the natural world and human communities, is essential."
While High Mowing is considered a small business, the company deals in some pretty big volumes. Last year, Stearns estimates, they sold about 3.5 billion seeds, all of which were sorted, weighed and packaged in Wolcott. Stearns points out that translates to even more of something essential.
"It’s a lot of bites of food," he says. "And we really take seriously, and with a lot of joy, that we’re supplying this really important ingredient for people that are feeding themselves."
Joyful bites of food are a formula that’s worked well for Debbie Burritt, owner of Sweet Crunch Bake Shop and Catering Company, in Hyde Park. It’s the recipient of Vermont’s Woman-Owned Business of the Year award. Burritt says the bake shop portion of her business has evolved from a Main Street eatery to wholesaling some of her most popular treats. She has a line of gluten-free products that’s a hot seller at co-ops and natural food stores. But there’s one product that has really put her on the map.
"The most popular is the Vermont Maple Cookie, by far," she says.
Like High Mowing Seeds, Sweet Crunch Bake Shop has strong online sales. And, especially during the holidays, Burritt says orders for the Vermont Maple Cookie come in from across the country.
"In December I really notice who’s been to Vermont to have them," says Burritt. "There is one woman for the past five years, in Texas, she’ll order like 40 dozen – only in December. So she must have visited Vermont."
In between Hyde Park and Wolcott lies Morristown. It’s the shopping hub for much of Lamoille County, and home of Power Play Sports. Shop owner Caleb Magoon is the recipient of the SBA’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Vermont. Unlike High Mowing and Sweet Crunch, Power Play’s bread-and-butter is serving retail customers. The clientele is largely local athletes and sports enthusiasts.
Magoon worked at the shop as a teenager, then came back and bought the business when he was in his 20s. Now in his early 30s, Magoon has expanded the store and opened another sports shop in Waterbury. Magoon says, for him, the secret to success is being an active part of the community.
"Really taking an interest in the good of the community because the health and survival of the community is the health and survival of your business," says Magoon.
Magoon sits on several boards and committees, and he says he encourages his employees to get involved too. He says Morristown is going through something of a renaissance, but it isn’t going to happen on its own.
"It does take the invested business owners in the community to put in some legwork, to put in some sweat equity, not just into their businesses but into the community, in order to grow both businesses and community," he says.
Who better to promote sweat equity than the owner of the local sports shop and Young Entrepreneur of the Year?