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.
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.”