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Toby Talbot, Associated Press
Connor Gorham shows the kitchen space at the Vermont Food Venture Centerspace on Friday, Jan. 6, 2012 in Hardwick, Vt. The food products incubator has opened with kitchens and food processing equipment for new food businesses that officials say will play a key role in Vermont's agricultural renaissance.

HARDWICK, Vt. — With nine crockpots going in her kitchen at once, Lisa Johnson feared she would short out her circuit breaker.

She knew her home business of making roasted sweet potato dips had outgrown her Norwich home. But she was nowhere near ready to build her own food processing building.

The new Vermont Food Venture Center, which had its grand opening Friday, saved her from giving it all up.

The 15,000-square-foot space offers startup businesses an industrial kitchen, bakery and freezer and refrigerator storage space and helps with marketing, packaging and developing recipes. Officials say it's key ingredient in helping farmers and entrepreneurs offer more diversified foods from the farm, including artisan cheese, yogurts and salsas.

"If this place didn't exist, I would've had to shut my business down," said Johnson, who started making the dips to get her kids to eat sweet potatoes.

Now, she drives an hour and half each week to Hardwick, where she spends about 10 hours roasting sweet potatoes in ovens, mixing them with organic beans, jalapenos, lime or lemon juices, and honey, bottling the dips and labeling them with her company name, Yummy Yammy.

The space sits on the edge of Hardwick, a hardscrabble town in rural northeastern that has become a center for local food and farm entrepreneurs. They include artisan cheese makers, vegetable farmers, a winery, a soy company and a community-supported restaurant that serves locally raised food.

"It's a place where the community invests and believes in agriculture and agriculture has invested in this community," said state Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross.

Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont moved into center once it first opened in August, making artisan cocktail syrups including black currant, yellow ginger and blackberry from fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Lisa Unger, of Stowe, who started the Vermont Cheesecake Company using local dairy ingredients and fruits, hopes to use the Hardwick space soon as her frozen cheesecake company grows.

Josh Karp and Maria Schuman now sell apple syrup and vinegars from their orchard in Greensboro. They hope to use the space to possibly make applesauce or bottled juices as they expand their orchard business, Cate Farm Orchard.

The Cellars at Jasper Hill, an anchor tenant in the space, will be mentoring new cheese makers and producing cheese.

The center charges from $28 to $38 an hour with an introductory rate of $20 for the first 16 hours that includes four hours of help from a kitchen processing assistant.

The $3 million building was built with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agricultural Rural Business Enterprise, $1.5 million in stimulus money, an $800,000 grant from the Community Development Program and $450,000 secured by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who attended the grand opening.

Leahy, a Democrat, called Hardwick "a national model for the future of agriculture."

"I wanted to be here just so I could say thank you to all of you for making me especially proud to be a Vermonter. And to say by jeezum crow, we can do things," he said.