MONTPELIER — Agriculture employs an estimated one in six people in Vermont. On Wednesday a statewide economic development organization released a strategic plan that looks to strengthen this critical component of Vermont’s economy.
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s “Farm to Plate Strategic Plan” — 18 months in the making — lays out a roadmap to encourage growth and new infrastructure in Vermont’s food and farm sector, create new jobs in that sector, and improve access to healthy, locally produced foods.
The release of the first part of the plan came less than a week after new Gov. Peter Shumlin designated agriculture as a key focus of his administration. Shumlin’s secretary of Commerce and Community Development, Lawrence Miller, voiced his support for the plan.
“It’s incredibly important for us to help the agricultural economy continue to be one of the anchors of Vermont’s economy,” he said.
The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan — a wide-ranging plan that attempts to provide a vehicle and a context for a development of the state’s agricultural infrastructure — provides a “soil to soil” perspective on the state of agriculture in Vermont, said VSJF Executive Director Ellen Kahler. After setting the stage, the plan examines possibilities for expansion of the food system and supporting infrastructures, and states 33 goals for the year 2020.
The Wednesday release of the 53-page executive summary, which was followed by a local foods feast, is the culmination of an 18-month process that drew input from all sectors of Vermont’s agricultural economy, from farmers all the way to consumers.
Kahler, a Starksboro resident, said that her Montpelier-based organization will release chapters of the plan over the course of the next two months. The separate parts examine all aspects of agriculture in the state, including food production, processing, distribution, education, energy inputs, policy and regulation and consumer interest.
Kahler said her goal for the plan extends beyond a one-off document to a resource that is regularly being maintained and updated, and that will reflect the progress the state makes toward each of the 33 goals.
The Farm to Plate initiative emerged from legislation that former Rep. Chris Bray of New Haven introduced in the House in February of 2009, attempting to address what a report by the Council on the Future of Vermont said was the drastically changing face of Vermont agriculture. The bill tasked the VSJF, a nongovernmental organization not directly connected with agriculture, with the responsibility of building the strategic plan.
From its infancy, Farm to Plate took an unusually broad look at agriculture. Bray, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, teamed up with Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee to write the legislation.
Bray said on Wednesday that his inspiration for the bill came from watching groups across the state attempt to build local food systems while many farmers were struggling to stay in business. Farm to Plate aimed at what the state could do to build on the local movements.
“I had been on the Agriculture Committee for two years, and had been watching us lose dairy farm after dairy farm,” said Bray. “It seemed clear to me that there was a lot of interest in growing more of our own foods. This was really looking at … planning and development on a scale that no localvore group (can).”
Bray said it became clear that any long-term attempt to support agriculture in the state would have to have a broad base of support to survive. The research that has gone into the Farm to Plate plan has supported that.
“The state government has not expected that much of agriculture (in the past),” he said.
But he said that the report's analysis proves that any addition to the food infrastructure would be a boon to the state economy: the report found that a five percent increase in local food production and consumption would generate $135 million in new economic output each year, as well as 1,500 jobs.
Bray said he’s stepped back from the initiative at this point, but he said he will continue to watch closely as the current administration and state and local organizations begin to use the plan as a guide in the coming years.
“You want to see your child grow up and thrive,” he said. “I felt like my job was to get this going. Now a lot of people have been working on it, making it theirs.”
From plan to action
Kahler said that so far, Gov. Shumlin’s focus on agriculture as an economic driver is a good sign for the future of the Farm to Plate plan. The preface to the executive summary includes a letter in support of the plan, signed by Gov. Shumlin, incoming Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross and Miller.
And Miller, a Ripton resident, said that though he wasn’t involved in the process of writing the plan, he’s been following along as it developed, and he said it’s shaping up to be a key focus of his position. He said he has already begun to work closely with Ross on plans to further agricultural development in the state.
Miller said he hopes to identify sources of business funding that can help to carry out many of the goals of the plan, and to rework some areas of state funding in order to bolster the agricultural economy. With Vermont’s thin wallet, he said, the focus will be on finding new ways to use existing revenue.
“We’re looking at changing the way state dollars are focused,” he said. “The old priorities were right for their time. We’re going to refocus our opportunities.”
But Miller said that state government and the commerce department will have another role in carrying out the plan: identifying obstacles to agricultural growth and entrepreneurship and making sure that they are not prohibitive.
“We want to make those obstacles more speed bumps than walls,” he said.
Addison County voices
The plan is designed to give a statewide perspective on agriculture, and to provide guidance for business and state leaders hoping to further its goals.
But Shoreham vegetable farmer and state Rep. Will Stevens (I-Shoreham) said that Addison County has had, and will continue to have, an important role as the plan goes forward.
Stevens, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, was a member of the team that met once each month to look over the plan as it was being developed, bringing suggestions and an outside perspective to the VSJF’s process.
On source of information was the county Farm to Plate summit in November of 2009, which gathered input and information from Addison County farmers, food processors and consumers. Going forward, Stevens said the plan’s detailed look at distribution and production in the state will prove useful for local groups and individuals hoping to size up business potential or find a way to start farming in the county.
Bridport dairy farmer Marie Audet agreed. The co-owner of Blue Spruce Farm also sat on the working committee for the plan’s development, and she said that the plan’s strength is that it will create more accessible information on the statewide level, and for farmers themselves.
“It’s information that will be available to (help) a farmer: Where should I go to get this finance? How do I get started?” she said.
Audet added that there are many aspects of the plan that she hopes will help guide the struggling dairy industry. For instance, the plan voices support for a federal milk supply management program that’s on the table in Congress. It would establish controls on the overproduction that has sent milk prices plummeting for dairy farmers in recent years.
And Audet said that as a collective look at agriculture in Vermont, “there’s all kinds of things coming together. It’s a very exciting time.”
On the legislative level, Stevens said the plan will also guide a newly created agricultural development board that he and four other Addison County residents sit on. The board will make recommendations to the legislature, and he said that the plan provides concrete goals that will help the group focus its efforts, as well as data to support any recommendations the board makes.
But Stevens also emphasized that the plan is just a preface to efforts to bolster the state infrastructure.
“The value of this effort so far is that it creates a foundation from which we can plan for our agricultural future,” he said. “(The plan) is the paper that the blueprint will be written on.”
The open-ended nature of the plan, he said, is also its strength.
“Our job now is to chunk it down and prioritize,” he said. “That wasn’t the plan’s job.”
Before the plan’s first introduction on Wednesday, there was a widespread sense of optimism about Vermont’s agricultural prospects.
“The model of agriculture we’ve had so far isn’t working any more,” she said. “It’s time to come up with some new ideas, and to step outside the box.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.
Correction: This article was edited on Jan. 14 to reflect a correction in the report's findings. Unlike originally stated, the report found that a five percent increase in local food production and consumption would generate $135 million in new economic output each year, in addition to 1,500 jobs.