Farm to Plate initiatives looks to double local consumption of Vermont-raised food

Cover from the Farm To Plate Strategic Plan. Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

Cover from the Farm To Plate Strategic Plan. Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund


Farm to Plate Gathering Steps Up Local Foods Movement
By Carl Etnier
October 5, 2011

Vermont’s food sector employs 56,000 people — or almost one in five private jobs in the state. Can the number of food-related jobs increase in the middle of an unemployment crisis? About 150 Vermonters involved in food production, marketing, and sales gathered at Lake Morey in Fairlee last week to find out.

Participants in the two-day Farm to Plate conference charted how to boost food and farming jobs. The bottom line? Selling more Vermont-produced food — both to Vermonters and out of state.

The legislature created the Farm to Plate initiative in 2009 to design a state food and agriculture strategy, and it delegated the work to the Montpelier-based Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF). They created the food strategy in consultation with more than 1,000 Vermonters. (The report is available at www.vsjf.org.)

The gathering last week was held to create a network of businesses, farms and organizations that will bring that strategy to life.

Ellen Kahler, VSJF’s executive director, leads the Farm to Plate initiative. “Ultimately what we’re trying to get at is to double the amount of locally produced food that is consumed by Vermonters over the next 10 years,” Kahler said. “The sky’s the limit, really. The market is there, the opportunity is there, people are really pumped and excited about moving this all forward.”

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross agreed that people were pumped. As the last speaker of the gathering (as well as one of the first), he commented, “You don’t get 150 people showing up for two days if what they’re talking about is not important. It’s clear to me that … you are interested. And that’s really good news for Vermont, from my perspective.”

The Farm to Plate initiative, according to its enabling legislation, is charged with:
• Increase economic development in Vermont’s food and farm sector.
• Create jobs in the food and farm economy.
• Improve access to healthy local foods.

Doubling the amount of locally produced food consumed in Vermont would create 1,500 jobs and boost the state’s economy by $135 million dollars annually, according to the report.

Creating the Farm to Plate network was entering uncharted territory, Kahler said to the participants. “We don’t know all the answers, just like none of you do. We’re in this grand experiment, this adventure together.”

The territory was not completely uncharted; its contours looked like a spider web. The walls of the main conference room were hung with diagrams of organizations and ideas connected with tangles of lines. A resource table contained books with titles like “Group Genius” and “Global Brain.” Most participants stayed overnight at Lake Morey Resort, and part of their homework for Monday night was to meet at least ten new people in the group and find out what connections they shared.

Many of the participants arrived already well networked, and some were leery of taking on responsibilities within another food-related network. Kari Bradley, general manager of Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, told the group Tuesday morning that he had been relieved to learn the previous day that a network can simply be for bringing people together to share ideas.

The just-get-together-and-talk model was not the kind of network the gathering’s organizers planned, however. They described a network structure full of words like “working” and “task.” On the second day, participants divided up into working groups tackling the themes of the initial Farm to Plate strategy, such as marketing and consumer education or dairy development. Each working group was to plan task forces to carry out some of the recommendations the group developed.

Vegetables

Local veggies at the Montpelier Farmers' Market. VTD/Josh Larkin

Members of the Education & Work Force Development working group initially bridled at lumping organizations working with general, K-12 or pre-K – 16 education about food and farming together with those training technical students in agriculture, food processing, marketing, and related fields. When the odd-couple group finally did settle in together and reviewed the top Farm to Plate strategies in these fields, they were confronted with how fast things are moving in the Vermont food sector. Ela Chapin, director of the Farm Viability Program at the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, was in a different working group, but she could have been describing the Education & Work Force Development group when she said her group wanted to scrap the listed strategies and create a new list. “Are they even relevant,” she asked, “nine months after they came out?”

At least one goal was no longer relevant, opined Erica Curry, of Shelburne Farms’ Farm to School Network, since the Farm to School goal was almost achieved. Farm to School programs include elements like buying local food for school cafeterias; education about food, farm, and nutrition; community relationships; and professional development opportunities for teachers. The Farm to Plate strategy from 2010 envisioned making sure that all schools with over 50% of their students getting subsidized lunches have a Farm to School program. “That already exists,” she said, suggesting, “Reword it to say ‘all schools have Farm to Plate programs.’”

Similarly, a high-priority goal from 2010 was to create an educational program for skilled meat cutters and butchers. This year, the legislature appropriated $50,000 to fund such a program, and representatives of numerous schools said they had submitted proposals to teach meat cutting. The next step is for the Agency of Agriculture to select the winning proposal.

Lynn Coale of the Hannaford Career Center pointed out the value to Vermont workers of just this one type of education. “Farm labor jobs pay $7 an hour,” he said, “while meat cutting pays $20 an hour. If we send cutting out of state, that’s a problem.”

Another working group struggled with how to help find affordable land for new farmers or for farmers expanding their production. University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture used to run a Land Link program to match farmers with owners of farmland who did not want to farm it themselves. Land Link was phased out a number of years ago, and numerous organizations reported local, state-wide, or regional programs to replace it.

Ben Waterman of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture described a new program to create a New England database to help farmers and land owners find each other. In May of this year, UVM Extension’s New Farmer Project created a similar database at the state level, the Vermont Agriculture Land Access Database. Also, the Vermont Land Trust helps farmers find land that the VLT holds conservations easements on.

Access to farmland is more than matching people who want to farm with people who own land—leasing arrangements call for a special relationship between the lessor and lessee, and often technical education for both. To address these needs, the young Vermont Farmland Access Network not only acts as a matchmaker for farmers and land owners, it also works as marriage counselor once the match is made, so the relationship can be sustained.

Financial programs are key to affordable farmland access, the group noted. They emphasized the importance of the Current Use program, which taxes land in agriculture or forestry at a rate appropriate for that type of use. They wanted to see funding for farmland conservation kept at current levels or higher, and they proposed a revolving loan fund to buy farmland and then sell it to farmers while retaining the conservation easements, so it could not legally be developed in the future.

By the end of the gathering, it was clear that participants’ overall goals for the Farm to Plate network varied. Kye Cochran of the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction said that she wants Vermont to prepare for a time when the state needs to feed itself because importing large quantities of food is no longer viable. Others, like the Agency of Agriculture’s Diane Bothfeld, emphasized the jobs and economic development. Bothfeld said that she learned that dairy herd managers earn sixty to a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she joked that she was going to quit her state job to get one of those jobs.

Some tried to keep the big picture in mind. Willie Gibson works as dairy and livestock field representative for the Vermont chapter of NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association). He summed up his feelings about the dairy working group, saying, “It was gratifying to have very frank, very honest discussions with each other, having a total agriculture perspective. I thought it was encouraging that we were looking at this as all of agriculture in Vermont, even though we called ourselves the dairy group and we talked about dairy things.”

The gathering organizers encouraged their working groups to meet again this year to select a chair and continue working on priorities, and to meet at least once in the first quarter of next year to keep the momentum going. Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross challenged them, “Get to the points of action that are going to inspire people to stay involved, get involved, and make a difference. Otherwise it’s all hot air.”

Carl EtnierCarl Etnier

Comments

  1. James Maroney :

    While Governor Shumlin and Secretaries Chuck Ross, Lawrence Miller and Doug Racine were addressing 150 concerned Vermonters tossing around ideas on how to double “local” purchases of Vermont raised food from 5% (I think it may be more like 3%), a handful of state officials gathered in Berlin Vermont with one official from the EPA to talk about the state’s TMDL. Last February, the EPA revoked Vermont’s Total Maximum Daily Load, a budget for how much pollution the lake can absorb without impacting water quality.

    The Clean Water Act (1972) states that discharging pollutants into the nation’s navigable waters was to be “reduced” by 1983 and “eliminated” by 1985. Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) rule, upon which the state’s efforts toward compliance with CWA was quite lately predicated, states just as clearly that the intention of the rule was “not to eliminate but to reduce” pollution due to agriculture. Vermont’s Clean and Clear Program (2002) which spent $120M to reduce pollution attributable to conventional dairy farming without burdening the industry has been a failure; Vermont is consequently not in compliance with CWA and it must come into compliance now.

    Vermont has a long history of farming and protecting and promoting farming is an important aspect of our culture deserving of strong policies. Indeed, Vermont is widely known for its dairy farms, which the public assumes are “green.” The public also knows that Vermont dairy farms are in trouble but if the application of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides to farmland in order to grow corn to feed to cows so that they will produce more milk is an example of an “accepted agricultural practice,” why are our farmers who are following the AAPs going out of business?

    Historically, the state has adopted a wide range of subsidy programs to “help” farmers all of which (including Current Use or cost sharing for manure digesters) are intended to lower costs and/or boost or maintain production: cost sharing, low interest loans, tax abatements or exemptions and outright cash payments. Vermont has also compensated farmers who sell conservation easements without taking land out of production and others who take land out of production for set backs along streams and rivers. But empirically, Vermont’s farm subsidy programs have not helped dairy farmers whose numbers have dwindled from 11,500 in 1940 to 980 today, an attrition rate of 93%.

    A popular aphorism suggests that when you subsidize something you get more of it; in this case, “it” is not farming, which we want more of, but milk, which we do not. The reason subsidy programs have failed is simple: farmers have converted subsidies to new capacity with which to produce more milk. More milk is the dairy farmers’ first and most powerful enemy. The national supply is 9-12B lbs in surplus and growing. The classic law of supply and demand tells us that surplus production drives low milk prices, which is what drives our small and medium-sized farmers—the ones tourists come to see—out of business.

    To combat low prices, progressive farmers do the only thing available to them: they consolidate, take on more debt with which to expand capacity—more land, more cows, more, bigger machinery—to make more milk. Vermont’s legislators are encouraging this trend perhaps without realizing that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the logical end result of subsidies that encourage milk production. Vermont farmers currently house 140,000 cows a growing percentage of which are in large conventional CAFOs. CAFOs are the business model for producing the most milk most efficiently: the business model is predicated upon over production, low prices, farm attrition and lake pollution. It works: the paradigm cannot be invoked without inviting these results and the markets are awash in milk that has no value above cost.

    It is time to ask if Vermont can continue to regard conventional dairy farming as a reasonable and beneficial use of the state’s ground water or if the paradigm and its unavoidable consequences does not constitute an abrogation of the state’s duty to guard the public trust. In fact, conventional dairy farming cannot be construed as reasonable or beneficial to anyone in Vermont. We do not need the milk (Vermont farmers make about 2.6B lbs/year, 20 times more than Vermont consumes, which demand could be met milking 7,000 cows. Close to 100% of Vermont’s milk is shipped out of state to subsidize the richest demographic in the world. If all of Vermont’s remaining dairy farmers were to go suddenly out of business, our stores would still be stocked with cheap milk made at a loss by farmers in other states and shipped here for sale); Vermont farmers continue to fail at the rate of 5-8%/year, they lose millions for themselves, their industry, their suppliers and for the state’s current account, they pay few if any taxes increasing the burden for essential services—schools, hospitals, roads—upon productive taxpayers; and they pollute the lake.

    Vermont desperately needs a way to help its farmers but help cannot be accomplished through policies that encourage farmers to maintain milk production. Conventional milk is a fungible commodity: all conventional milk whether made in Vermont, Pennsylvania, California, Maine or Wisconsin is identical and it returns to the majority of Vermont’s farmers, 80% of whom milk 60 cows or fewer, less than it costs to make. It does not help Vermont dairy farmers if Farm to Plate purchases “local” milk when local is conventional because conventional milk returns prices below the farmer’s cost and pollutes the lake by design. Incontrovertibly, before Vermont farmers can prosper, they must make a product to which consumers assign a higher value than the fungible commodity. Milk made without polluting the lake with artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides is just such a product and the market for it is expanding.

    In sum, Vermont cannot redraft its TMDL to meet its obligations under CWA by ignoring or attempting to assuage the major contribution made by conventional dairy. The major contributor to lake pollution is not “excess” fertilizers and manure from “poorly managed” conventional dairy farms, it is conventional dairy farming itself. It is almost forty years beyond time for Vermont to acknowledge that Nutrient Management Plans and voluntary guidelines for conventional farmers neither help farmers nor clean up the lake. Vermont cannot come into compliance with CWA without revamping Vermont’s AAPs to prevent the transportation, sale and application of all artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides not just to lawns and gardens but to farms, golf courses and roadways. Vermont has at hand the rare opportunity to cure two, pressing, social ills, at little or no cost, with the same medicine.

    James H. Maroney, Jr.

  2. Kristin Sohlstrom :

    “The bottom line? Selling more Vermont-produced food — both to Vermonters and out of state.”

    Was there discussion as to how inter-state commerce is now going to be limited thanks to the passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act earlier this year?

    http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FSMA/ucm247548.htm#SEC102

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