Company Finds Market For Fetching Sticks
11/10/09 1:00PM By Sarah Ashworth  Download MP3
(Host) Ask anyone to name one popular Vermont export and they'll probably answer maple syrup or cheese.
But there's a new addition to the list of Vermont-made products: sticks. That's right those little pieces of wood we throw to our dogs are being packaged and sold far and wide.
They're called Fetchstix and as VPR's Sarah Ashworth tells us, they're 100 percent pure Vermont stick.
(Ashworth) Every idea for a new product has a story behind it. In the case of Fetchstix the story involves three friends sitting around a sugar house in southern Vermont. While the sap boiled, they imbibed a potent concoction known locally as Mr. Phisters.
(Dibble) "Basically you take a ladle of the sap out of the boiling sap before it gets into syrup and you put it in a mug and you put a little Wild Turkey in there, and that kind of got the story going a little bit, and we just were fooling around, trying to get an idea for a dog toy actually, and this seemed like a good idea, and we thought, well, what about real sticks?"
(Ashworth) That's one of the would-be entrepreneurs, Landgrove artist Anna Dibble. The other two are Dorset businessmen Norman Levitz and Neil Reilly. Levitz says the three knew it might be a bit presumptuous to charge people for a product that, literally, grows on trees.
(Levitz) "At some point in the process the pet rock came to mind, and we knew we had a winning idea."
(Ashworth) Levitz and Dibble are longtime Vermont residents, but Reilly is a relatively new transplant from New York City, and as he says, he was sitting "out in the sticks" when he realized something Vermonters might not: sticks are a rare commodity in some places.
(Reilly) "Being a city person, and having a dog, I thought it was an ingenious idea, because when you're in the city you don't have a toy, you don't have access to sticks, you have rocks, and what do dogs love, they love sticks to chase, to chew."
(Ashworth) Mock them if you like, but consider this: The three friends have sold thousands of bundles of Vermont sticks in more than 30 states and Canada, and they're actually making a profit.
Part of the reason for their early success is that they had a solid infrastructure already in place. Dibble's husband runs a post and beam construction company, and Levitz and Reilly are co-owners of Wagatha's, an organic dog biscuit business. But, even so, Reilly says it's not exactly easy to sell sticks.
(Reilly) "The amazing thing is, there's actually a fair amount of work involved, we go to trade shows and people say: ‘sticks, how can you be selling sticks? I have a backyard full of sticks.' But they have to be sourced, they have to be cut, they have to be brought back, sanded, sized, and put together, so it's a real business."
(Sound of walking in woods, sticks cracking)
And the business begins by finding the perfect saplings...and to do that you have
to be able to see the sticks for the trees.
"This one over here looks pretty good to
me, not his would be fine, that's about the right width."
(Reilly) "Well, we're looking for the kind of wood first, it has to be maple, and then it has to be the right dimension, you know, it has to be free of surface imperfections like cracks, and things of that nature."
(Ashworth) Many of the saplings are collected on Dibble's own property, or that of her friends and neighbors. The three owners say they're mindful of harvesting the wood in a sustainable way. Workers at Dibble's husband's company do most of the gathering, and then on rainy days when they can't build, they'll head to Dibble's basement and cut the saplings. And, that's exactly what worker Danny Wetherald is doing.
(Wetherald) "You make two different sizes, there's an 11-inch, if we want to cut an 8-inch, we slide the saw over, then after they're cut, we come over here to the sander, we sand the edges smooth, like this, and into the bin they go."
(Ashworth) But the three friends say a perfectly sized and sanded stick is just half the battle. You still need to develop good throwing technique. And that's why they've developed an illustrated instruction manual, designed by Dibble. It even includes her home phone number for technical assistance. And as Dibble and Levitz demonstrate, with her dog Pepper, the instructions really do start from the beginning.
(Levitz) "Remove one stick from bundle, grip stick firmly in left or right hand, I've got the right, now instruct dog to wait, ask dog to sit, if dog won't sit bribe with a pig's ear, swing arm back as far as it will go, bend your elbow, propel arm forward with great force, let go of the stick and yell, fetch!"
(Ashworth) The price for those instructions and three sticks is about ten-dollars. Levitz says he knows some may scoff at the figure, but he says they're only taking into account the raw materials. Not the cost of the harvesting or all that sawing and sanding, not to mention transportation and distribution costs.
The three owners say they know most of their stick buyers won't be Vermonters, though as Dibble says, they're definitely selling the Vermont brand.
(Dibble) "This product, I think, is pretty essential Vermont. And that's one of the reasons we thought it would be a good idea, it would be hard to do this in another state, I think, New Jersey sticks just don't have the same cache."
(Ashworth) That Vermont cache may mean something to a dog's owners, but it's a safe bet that a dog doesn't really care...as long as it's got a stick to fetch.
For VPR News, I'm Sarah Ashworth.