Sanford: Food for thought

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Gregory Sanford , Vermont’s state archivist. It first appeared on the Vermont Secretary of State’s July-August Web site. Sanford writes a monthly column on the site called “ Voice from the Vault.”

Serendipity and a short attention span play significant roles in selecting column topics. I was going to write a reflection on the first three years of the State Archives and Records Administration, established in July 2008. I decided, however, to use other outlets for those reflections and write instead about our project to put a legislative history of the public records act online.

So there I was being as diligent as a rather weak central nervous system allows, rooting around in Gov. Tom Salmon’s records (Record Series A-183). His Committee on Administrative Coordination supported strengthening the existing open meeting laws and adding a new law to address public records. Then I got to Box A183-00006, at which point my planned column unraveled.

There, nestled next to “Administrative Coordination,” were two folders marked “Governor’s Commission on Food, 1975-76.” What could be the harm if I took a quick squint? Gov. Salmon’s press announcement on why he was creating the “Emergency Commission on Food” warned that “never have food prices spiraled so high. There are people in this country who are finding it difficult to afford to eat.” Therefore “we must now re-examine our entire food production system. We must reach out for new ideas and new techniques. We must re-evaluate Vermont’s position in the market place, especially our dependence on external sources of food and the high price that this dependence demands.”

Those of you of a certain age will remember this as the time of an energy crisis fueled by the OPEC oil embargo. The committee’s responses to the crisis are fascinating. There are numerous overarching recommendations such as developing an “input/output economic model…for determining the importance and impact of various sectors of the State’s economy” to determine the value of Vermont agriculture to the State’s economy. There was a call for the State taking the lead in “assessing the fundamental resource base of land and water and develop plans for their allocation and utilization” for agriculture, forestry, tourism and “other resources related industries.”

Then there are page after page of specific recommendations. We should attempt to bring dehydration facilities to Vermont so we could have local food in the winter. The State should support the development of “food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, small scale food processing and direct grower-consumer sales” to increase supply of “nutritious, wholesome foods.” The state should “develop plans for a pilot municipal composting project.” Cheese making “should be increased and diversified, especially in the area of specialty cheeses…” The State Agriculture Department should “continue to provide meat inspection services and not yield those to the USDA, thereby preserving our present slaughterhouses.” Vermont agricultural products should be given priority in all nutritional programs and nutrition should be taught in all public schools. There were a host of tax proposals to lessen property taxes on working farms. And these are just a quick harvest from a bumper crop of recommendations.

The Food Commission’s deliberations were not without tensions. Some members worried that the broader mandate to achieve Vermont food sufficiency was being hijacked by the “dairy interests” with their narrower agenda. In contrast, Brendan Whittaker, who served as commission vice chair, saw broad public support for food self-sufficiency. He noted that support was “coming from both sides of Vermont’s current population, older natives and “new” Vermonters…. The single, perhaps the only, statewide perception Vermonters do have is that of the land.”

Mr. Whittaker warned that legislators who “believe that cutting taxes and slashing at government structure is the only concern of “the people,”…are in grievous error” and out of touch with this “upwelling of feeling about food and land…” Some of the commission’s recommendations were quickly enacted. Others took longer, often by different paths than initially envisioned. Almost all remain part of our current dialogues and concerns. I hope this brief squint at the commission will cultivate enough interest so these archival records receive the research attention they deserve.

 

Comments

  1. The goals of the Commission on Food in 1976 and those of the Farm to Plate Initiative in 2011 are too similar to miss. And yet thirty five years later these goals are not accomplished.

    The conventional farm paradigm, the application of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer and petroleum-based herbicides and pesticides, was invented after WWII in order to raise farm yields and lower farm costs, specifically the costs of crop rotation, soil fertility, weed control and labor. The paradigm works: in 1940 the average family’s budget for food ate up 35% of household income but today it is down to about 8%, a threefold difference! These costs did not disappear: they went in the form of cash into the pockets of those who make and distribute the chemicals, in the form of cheap food into the pockets of urban consumers, in the form of layoffs out of rural economies and in the form of pollution into the lake. Governor Salmon’s Commission on Food failed in 1976 because the commission did not question the legitimacy of conventional agriculture. Today’s Farm to Plate Initiative cannot succeed unless and until it disrupts the conventional farming protocol because that is the root cause of the crisis it was formed to address.

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