Energy & Environment

Schubart: Building a regional food supply system out of the pandemic

Pig and piglets
A sow and her piglets drink water at the Agricola Farm in Panton. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Bill Schubart is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is a retired businessman and active fiction writer, and was a former chair of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization for VTDigger.

Opportunities lurk in every downturn. To recover and move forward, we must do more than scramble back to the past, we must ferret out and explore better and more secure ways to live and thrive.

Such is the case with our food supply chain. As in so many areas of consumer consumption, we have since the 1960s sought to minimize price and maximize profits by using “just-in-time” and “lean” manufacturing processes, creating a cadre of unaccountable monopolies over which we have little practical control. When nature rebels, as she always does, our sophisticated human processes show little resilience and often break down.

Dairy farmers here and elsewhere are dumping milk, some of which leaches into our riverine systems and lakes. Around the U.S., industrial truck farmers are plowing under crops they have no seasonal workers to harvest. Beef and pork producers are discussing euthanizing their animals as industrial meat-processing facilities close down when Covid-19 infects their workers.

We blame the animal wet markets in China where the virus appears to have jumped to humans, but our own hyper-efficient food-chain technology is equally ripe for nature’s attacks. One cannot visit a modern hog farm without surgical suite protocols, biohazard clothing – not to protect the visitor but to protect the pigs living cheek-by-jowl in small pens. Remember the 50-odd industrial hog farm manure lagoon overflows during Hurricane Florence that poisoned the water systems of people miles away?

Feedlots gorge steers with corn and grain to create the fat marbling that we relish in our steaks. But the nature of bovines is to forage for a mix of grasses. Diets too rich in corn and grain overwhelm the rumen’s microbiome causing acidosis and diarrhea. Feedlots where steers are fed in close proximity to their own excrement require them to be treated with subtherapeutic antibiotics. Long considered essential to good soil maintenance, manure from the beef industry’s feedlots is treated as toxic waste because of the antibiotics, medicine, and ionophores it contains.

Vermont’s small farms operate in stark contrast to the industrial food chain. Steers, lambs, goats, and poultry graze in open spaces living off what nature provides while enriching the soil on which their feed depends. I remember the 4-H fairs and Grange meetings where young Vermonters paraded the beloved farm animals they were husbanding, even though they were being raised to provide food.

As consumers watch the news and see in savage detail the disrupted supply chain that has delivered their food to supermarket shelves, they’re turning in greater numbers to their neighbors for food and local farmers are seeing an upsurge in direct local buyers. Farmers markets and on-farm food stands with advance ordering and payment and distanced pickups are burgeoning. The Intervale Food Hub, drawing on the food resources of multiple Vermont farmers, has quadrupled in size since the pandemic began.

I remember some years back visiting with a Danish friend and hearing of Copenhagen’s sophisticated farm-to-table supply chain. Danes log on in the morning to see what seasonal food products are available at over 500 Danish farms, place and pay for an order, then pick it up on the return commute, driving through a plaza not unlike our highway toll stations. One’s multi-farm order is consolidated in a pick-pack warehouse and left at the toll station for drive-through pickup — pre-pandemic social distancing.

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Vermont’s farm and food economy has grown over the past decade through intentional production increases, market expansion efforts, and increased consumer demand – from $7.5 billion in 2007 to $11.3 billion in 2017. Some 65,000 Vermonters earn a living from our 11,000 farm and food enterprises. But still Vermonters only spend about 14% of their food budget ($310 million of $2 billion) on local food. Imagine the economic impact on our rural communities if we increased our spending on local and regional food to 50%.

At the behest of the Legislature, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets in partnership with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has produced An Economic Development Plan for the Stabilization, Diversification and Revitalization of Agriculture in Vermont. The plan is forward-looking and thorough, although perhaps additional attention might have addressed the technical, transactional, and co-warehousing/fulfillment options that could enable our 600 farms to expand their direct-to-consumer service options.

Vermont farmers are also seeing opportunity in regenerative agriculture, a set of farming principles and practices that restore and enrich farming soils and watersheds. Industrial farming ignores commonly accepted principles of humane animal husbandry in favor of process efficiency and low cost. Monocropping requires chemical applications, some of which have been found to be cancerous or otherwise deleterious to human health.

Now that our dairy industry is inextricably bound to the broken national food supply, we are actively reimagining Vermont’s and the region’s food supply in a way that stimulates family farms, their communities, and the state economy, while offering reliable quality food options for Vermonters. Rather than trying to shore up our vast dairy farms currently losing money producing milk for which there is a declining market, the ag agency should continue to focus on the growing number of diversified, regenerative farming operations. Our large-scale dairy operations can also de-commodify to current market demand, then specialize and diversify, which many are trying to do.

Like the banks in 2008, our massive national food supply monopolies have become too big to fail. The outsized influence and profit in the current system prevents it from rightsizing to market, resilience, and sustainability.

One of our local CSA/farmstands in Hinesburg is Trillium Hill. Another is Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s Full Moon Farm. Both sell direct to local Hinesburgers and Trillium sells wholesale to Lantman’s Market next door. There are over a hundred community farms selling direct to Vermonters and local groceries. It’s in our best interest to support them and the rural economy they’re supporting in our harder-hit communities.

It’s intriguing to catalog the emerging farm descriptors, precisely because they reflect the real concerns of customers: humanely raised, antibiotic-free grass-fed, free-range, cage-free, all natural, and organic. With the exception of the ill-defined descriptors like “all natural” and “organic,” our national food supply is incapable of responding to these marketplace demands.

If we let emerging market forces prevail, our agriculture systems will continue their move to local, diversified, regenerative agriculture that supports our working landscape.

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Bill Schubart

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