St. Albans Messenger: Welch Visits Richford
RICHFORD – Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., spent Wednesday morning touring sites in the small town of Richford, touching base with both the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH) and the workers of the Blue Seal Feed mill.
“What an incredible facility,” Welch said at the start of his tour of the NOTCH facility. “They’ve got nothing without you guys.”
NOTCH is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a not-for-profit primary care practice with health centers across Franklin County. From these health centers, NOTCH can provide comprehensive primary and preventative care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay or their health insurance status.
In Richford, NOTCH inhabits the old Sweat-Comings Furniture Factory, with the second and fourth floors of the building converted into a functional medical center. The first floor, meanwhile, houses a grocery store, and 12 affordable housing units spread across the retired factory’s third floor.
Welch’s tour of the NOTCH facility started where most patients’ do: the lobby.
“You know, the last time I was here, they were doing the fit-up in the building,” Welch said, tracing the crisscrossing support beams from the original structure that now framed the NOTCH lobby. “This was under construction when I was here.”
The congressman was particularly concerned about the grocery store that used to call the first floor home. NOTCH Executive Director Pamela Parsons, the president of the NOTCH Board of Directors Dan Carswell and NOTCH Medical Director Dr. Edward Haak explained to the congressman that a grocery store was alive and thriving on the first floor, as the Associated Grocers of New England took up management to guarantee its services.
“They value the community that much, that they were willing to go into the grocery business to maintain the community,” Haak said of the Associated Grocers’ ownership of what is now a Vista Foods.
They continued through the building, stopping at the pharmacy before passing by a floor of affordable apartments on the way to the fourth floor’s dental office. “In the last 12 months, we’ve served 14,000 unduplicated names,” Parsons explained, before she pointed out a white building across the street from the Sweat-Comings Factory.
“That’s where we started. We had two providers, four rooms and dental in the back,” she said. “From there, we started with the second floor here, filled the fourth floor, and we’ve been on a growth since.”
During the stop in the dentist office, Haak and Dr. Patrick Paldino, the family dentist at the NOTCH’s dental office in Richford, discussed why it was important that NOTCH also maintain dental facilities with their medical offices.
“When you think about it on the medical side, some of the worst life-threatening infections can come from the mouth,” Haak explained. “It’s a very important part of what we do.”
“We’re able to draw from your medical experience as well,” Paldino added. “It makes a very much rounder experience for our patients.”
Near the end of the tour, Welch met with Dr. Erick Lavallee, the doctor of family medicine at the Richford site. Lavallee, who hails from Sutton, Quebec, shared with the congressman his reasons for wanting to travel across the border to work at NOTCH.
“I started medicine when I was 18-years-old,” Lavallee said. “My idea, and I was maybe naïve back then, was to try and make people healthy. Everybody was telling me ‘Yeah, well, you’ll change. You’ll see.’” “I did change, but it wasn’t a good fit,” Lavallee continued. “And then I saw Richford and thought ‘Oh, there’s a lot of work needed here,’ and that, if you want to make a difference, you go where the problems are.”
Lavallee shared some of his thoughts on how to address health problems facing towns like Richford. The best preventative measures come from education, he suggested.
“Kids need to learn how to diet. They need to learn about food. They need to learn how to cook. You can say to a kid ‘Eat more eggplant,’ and they’ll ask ‘Oh, what does it look like?’” said Lavallee.
“Now we’re finding that 85 to 90 percent of diseases are caused by diet,” he added. “The solution isrelatively simple. Grow your own food, cook it and eat it – something all of Vermont has been into since
Ethan Allen, I think.” Haak, who oversees NOTCH’s work to address the opioid epidemic, spoke about NOTCH’s addiction treatment program.
“What we’re doing is we’re actually recreating… the Hub and Spoke,” said Haak, who had served on the government board that developed the state’s Hub and Spoke system of regional hubs for Medication Assisted Treatment. “I never thought it’d be effective until we got a community hub. I didn’t think the regional hubs would be enough to service everyone where the tire hits the road.”
“We’re developing a mini-hub… within NOTCH,” Haak continued. “So people will enter our program through me in Swanton and then they will be decentralized to all the sites where we now have providers.”
Haak added it isn’t easy to cure addiction, speaking from his own experiences with alcohol. It wasn’t until he had changed his life completely, he said, that he was able to recover.
NOTCH has an employee certification program for addiction patients – many of whom are unemployed, Parsons noted – secure a job with NOTCH’s assurance that that potential employee is seeking treatment.
According to Haak, 15 to 26 percent of all employees struggle with some kind of dependency. NOTCH’s employee certification program could be beneficial for employers, Haak said, because it could confirm who at least some of those employees were and guarantee they were working to address that dependency.
“I love that,” Welch said. “That’s really, really good… People need jobs and employers need workers.”
Blue Seal Feeds, Inc.
At Blue Seal, Welch met Mark Labelle who shared some insights about one of Richford’s largest employers.
“So you guys do cow feed, bird feed, sheep feed?” Welch asked at the start, confirming that Labelle was serious when he said Blue Seal Feeds produced food for all kinds of animals. “You guys really do everything.”
“We don’t do a whole lot of bulk grain anymore, as most of our business is bagged grain,” Labelle explained. “When we do, we might bring 80 tons a day to farms on milk trucks.”
“That’s tough now, isn’t it?” Welch asked. “It’s tough for you guys and tough for the farmer.”
“It’s a competitive market,” Labelle shrugged, adding that the local bulk grain needs from farmers tend to be met instead by Cargill, Poulin Grain and the Bourdeau Brothers.
Labelle also talked about some of the inputs received at the Blue Seal Feed mill, saying that they’ll get roughly half of the ingredients from Canada and the other half from American producers. He explained that those ingredients will be mixed or processed at the plant before being bagged and sold around the eastern United States.
“We even used to sell to Puerto Rico,” added Andy Pond, another employee on the mill.
With Richford’s population sitting at only 2,300, according to the 2010 census, Blue Seal Feed’s 64 employees make it one of the town’s largest employers Still, Labelle was quick to point out that the mill staff used to be noticeably larger.
“It used to be, I would say, 80 to 100 easily,” Labelle said. “[It’s hard] to find quality employees.”
Labelle explained that, after being bought out by Kent Nutrition Group in 1988, starting wages at Blue Seal Feed, Inc., had been decreased, creating a divide between the wages of older employees who maintained their original wages and younger employees who started, Labelle estimated, at $4 less.
“We have our older guys who have been here 30-40 years, and that group is dwindling,” Labelle said. “And we have younger guys who are making $4 an hour less than the older people doing the same job.”
“That has to be tough,” Welch said. “That’s real money.”
Labelle also added that there’s some turnover with the employees they do have that make keeping up the mill’s staff difficult. According to Labelle, Blue Seal Feed frequently pulls from a temporary employment agency based out of St. Albans. The best temporary employees, he said, he’ll bring on fulltime.
After speaking with Labelle and a few other members of the mill’s management, Welch was brought on a tour through the bottom floor of the Blue Seal Feed mill. Labelle highlighted some of the particular machines that mixed, chopped and bagged the feed, all the while introducing Welch to some of the mill’s employees working in the plant.
“People know how milk gets to their grocery store, but they have no clue how their bird seed gets there,” Welch said at the end of the tour. “There’s a lot of work, a lot of systems, a lot of attention to detail.”
“I think it’s really good to see what it takes to get that bag of feed into that feed store,” he concluded.