A family of Norwich dairy farmers has sued the Vermont State Colleges System following a failed cheese-making partnership.
The suit, filed Friday in Washington County Superior Court, alleges that Vermont Technical College, which operates within the state college apparatus, lured Chris Gray and his wife, Laura Brown, into the partnership under false pretenses, then entered into a secret contract with the Upper Valley Land Trust that nearly forced the family off the property. The suit seeks $500,000.
In the summer of 2015, Gray and Brown moved from West Pawlet to the 358-acre Norwich Farm Creamery to teach cheese-making classes to Vermont Tech students. The educational component of the operation had allowed Vermont Tech to secure the 358-acre farm, then valued at some $2.5 million, as a donation from the previous owner.
The thinking behind the venture, according to the suit, was that the program would generate student revenue for Vermont Tech; Gray and Brown, in turn, would enjoy access to free labor and a state-of-the-art facility built, in part, with grant funding from the college. Gray and Brown signed a five-year lease with Vermont Tech, and the two parties developed a business plan, with the eventual goal of producing a line of European-style cave-aged cheeses to be sold for profit, a portion of which would go to Vermont Tech.
The suit asserts that while Vermont Tech repeatedly assured Gray and Brown that they were committed to the 10- to 15-year timeline Gray had told them was necessary to make high-end cheeses, the college, unbeknownst to Gray and Brown, signed a contract in July 2015 that granted the Upper Valley Land Trust the right to acquire the property, "free and clear of any tenants," in the event that the farm ceased its educational activities. Meanwhile, according to the suit, Gray and Brown invested some $500,000 of their own money to launch the cheese-making operation, significantly adding to the value of the property.
In the fall of 2016, the suit alleges, Vermont Tech stopped promoting the program and offered minimal institutional support to the students who enrolled in it. The following year, college president Patricia Moulton notified the Upper Valley Land Trust that the farm was no longer being used for educational purposes. Shortly afterward, the suit claims, Gray and Brown received a letter from the Upper Valley Land Trust demanding that they vacate the premises.
Initially, Todd Daloz, a lawyer for Vermont Tech, interceded on the couple's behalf, the suit says, and told the Upper Valley Land Trust to refrain from threatening Gray and Brown. Then, a few weeks later, Daloz informed the couple that their lease was being terminated due to the college's contract with the Upper Valley Land Trust, which, in turn, sued the Vermont State Colleges System for housing tenants on the property. The suit was settled in 2019 for an undisclosed sum, and Gray and Brown were ultimately allowed to remain on the farm.
According to VTDigger.org, Gray and Brown are still living on the property, now devoid of cows. Vermont Tech has since divided the land into two parcels and listed them for sale at $1.2 million and $485,000, respectively. In February, Norwich residents attempted to buy the properties from Vermont Tech for $610,000, raised through a crowdfunding campaign, but the state college system, currently in dire financial straits, declined the offer.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, the State of Vermont and its students to maximize the proceeds of the sale,” Vermont Tech president Moulton told VTDigger.
Katherine Levasseur, the Vermont State Colleges System's director of external and governmental affairs, declined to comment on the pending litigation.