ESSEX JUNCTION — Farmers, policymakers and consumers took a detour from their usual route to the annual Vermont Farm Show this week.
The 78th annual show, which officials said is the largest in Vermont’s history, is being staged at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. To accommodate rising demand for event space, the Tuesday-to-Thursday show was moved to Essex Junction after more than 60 years in Barre.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said the farm show’s new location right in between two major agricultural areas — Addison and Rutland counties to the south and to the north Franklin and Orleans counties — makes it a convenient destination for many of the state’s farming community.
But, he said, it also allows the event to widen its scope for the first time, offering events for consumers of agricultural products as well as producers.
Wednesday evening was consumer night at the show, featuring state Farm-to-School awards, a local products market, and the “Capital Cook-Off,” which pitted legislators and workers from state agencies against each other in a cooking competition.
It’s a change from past years, when a milking competition has headlined the show. But Ross said the change is one that reflects the fact that a wider slice of the population is becoming interested in agriculture.
“This is a reflection of what we do as farmers, which is to produce products for consumers to eat,” said Ross. “That whole emphasis is something we’re trying to share.”
The show boasts farm services and vendors, a product contest that brings in entries ranging from baked goods to Christmas trees, and three days full of competitions, award ceremonies and banquet dinners. Many agricultural associations also held their annual meetings at the event.
Central to the show are two cavernous rooms filled with vendors representing farm equipment and fertilizer companies, health agencies and farm advocacy organizations — some 277 in all.
Farm show president Ron Greenwood said the event gathers services and resources into one place, and provides a good opportunity for farmers to catch up with each other.
“It isn’t all about the tractors — in one visit, (farmers) can take care of a lot of business,” he said. “And it brings the farmers together at a quiet time of the year.”
Greenwood emphasized that the show isn’t a county fair; its main focus will always be on the farm.
“We try hard to keep the show strictly agriculture,” he said.
The farm vendors are the bread and butter of the show. The price tag, which Greenwood said was around $75,000 this year, is largely offset by vendors at the show.
The mix of tables was geared to farmers. Throughout the exposition, tractors and milking equipment shared the floor with organizations like Rural Vermont and the University of Vermont Extension.
Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic was at the show helping to address health services needs of farmers. Under a banner reading “A Healthy Farm Starts With A Healthy You,” staffers from the clinic, Fletcher Allen Health Care and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont checked blood sugar and blood pressure for free and offered information on health services. In front of the tables were several massage chairs, and on Tuesday the area was already proving to be a popular destination for attendees.
Carol Causton, a volunteer nurse with the Open Door Clinic, was testing blood sugar. She said these sorts of events provide perfect opportunities to do the testing that busy people might otherwise skip.
“We usually pick up one or two people who are borderline diabetic,” she said.
Margaret Gilman of the University of Vermont Extension focuses on rural health issues. She said the range of services at the farm show tries to cover as many aspects of health as possible, from basic health care and insurance to stress management.
“We’re raising awareness of issues that are common for farmers,” she said. “We try to break down barriers to regular health care.”
Fletcher Allen and Cornell University representatives also offered information on telemedicine, which is being explored across Vermont and northern New York for the purposes of routine check-ups.
Bourdeau Brothers of Middlebury also had a station in the big hall, where owner Jim Bushey was busy handing out popcorn and chatting with passersby.
Bushey said he’s been attending the show for many years, and already on Tuesday this one was shaping up to be a big year. The growth, he said, goes to show that farming is going strong.
“Farming is a huge economic driver in this state,” he said.
Andrea Ochs, president of the Addison County Farm Bureau and promotion and education chair of the Vermont Farm Bureau, was staffing the Vermont Farm Bureau booth. Her hope was not just to promote membership in the organization; the farm show also provides a chance for the organization to reach out to farmers around the state and to find out about their biggest concerns.
“It’s a chance to meet farmers so they can tell us what’s going on, and it’s also a chance to educate farmers on what’s happening in the Legislature,” said Ochs.
Anna Jo Smith, a New Haven resident and state president for Future Farmers of America, was looking forward to Wednesday’s FFA banquet and meeting, which included a winter forestry competition and a dairy products competition.
And for those done making the rounds and collecting information on goods and services, vendors scattered throughout the venue offered samples of emu summer sausage, ice cream, goat cheese, yogurt and maple cotton candy, and a pair of young alpacas wandered around a pen in one corner of the show.
The depth of presenters, said Ross, is a good representation of just how big Vermont’s agricultural economy is.
“It’s bigger than just the production on-farm. It’s the businesses that take those materials and add value to them by processing, and the organizations and companies that take those products and market them.
“Agriculture has a big reach in the state economy, as well as in our state community,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.