By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — In a year when dismal federal milk prices have slammed Vermont’s dairy industry, unmooring the cornerstone of Vermont’s agricultural industry, some state legislators might be hard pressed to sound a note of optimism about the future of agriculture in Vermont.
Not Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven. Ask Bray, and he’ll tell you the silver lining to the doom and gloom agriculture forecast boils down to two words: economic development.
And that, as it turns out, is the backbone of the “Farm to Plate” bill Bray championed this winter in Montpelier, legislation that he hopes will eventually support the production and consumption of drastically more local foods in Vermont.
“I’m a little shy about saying this, but to me, I think it’s the most important bill I’ve seen in food and agriculture in a decade,” Bray said.
He’ll speak about that legislation on July 23 in Philadelphia as part of a legislative summit sponsored by the National Council of State Legislatures, the largest national legislative gathering of the year.
The Farm to Plate bill aims to map the state’s local food system, draft a development plan growing the local foods industry, and create an “overall framework” for putting local foods into the hands of Vermonters and Vermont schools and businesses.
Though Vermonters buy their food directly from farmers at a rate five times the national average, Bray said the state still imports 97 percent of its food.
His goal is to see Vermonters’ local food consumption grow from three to 20 percent over the next decade. The “20 by 2020” goal, he said, could add approximately $800 million to the state’s economic activity. Currently that’s money being sent out of state to bring in food from afar.
That’s a figure that is roughly on the scale of the dairy industry’s contribution to the state’s economic activity, Bray said — and that’s where he sees reason to be excited about what Farm to Plate’s contribution could be in the long run.
“It will help us rebalance our food system, and I think create a more stable agricultural environment,” Bray said. “I don’t think we’re going to be creating food that’s on the sort of pricing roller coaster that dairy farmers are on. … This will be market driven, and much more predictable.”
In what was what Bray jokingly dubbed a “BYOM,” or “bring your own money,” legislative session this year, drumming up funding for the Farm to Plate legislation turned out to be one of Bray’s biggest obstacles.
“In a time when we’re cutting programs of known value, there was no way I wanted to have Farm to Plate competing against school funding and health care when we’re already making cuts in those areas.”
In the end, legislators patched together the $200,000 needed to fund the bill — and a lot of that new money came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the economic stimulus bill. Stimulus funds set aside for “state stabilization” accounted for half, or $100,000, of the funding for the Farm to Plate legislation.
The rest came from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Community Foundation, which each contributed $50,000 to the pot.
“That collaborative funding really echoes the whole collaborative nature of how this bill was developed,” Bray said.
That collaboration happened on the legislative front — the bill was a joint effort of the House Agriculture and House Commerce and Economic Development committees — but was also championed by statewide organizations like Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Rural Vermont and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
It’s the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund that will shepherd the work of the bill over the course of the next 18 months. The group is a good fit for the Farm to Plate study, Bray said, because of similar work it has done to assess the statewide logging industry.
The first step will be to create a “food map” of all the growers, processors, distributors and markets in Vermont. Right now, the foundation of that system is in small pockets around the state, evident in farmstands, CSAs (in which customers pay up front for shares of a farm’s harvest), farmers’ markets (of which Vermont has the most per capita of any state in the country), and natural foods co-ops.
Some money will also head to established local foods organizations in communities around the state, which will use the money to update their own food directories.
But in order to increase the amount of local foods Vermonters can grow, sell and consume, Bray thinks it is important to grow the infrastructure of the local foods network. That means looking at the current food map — which he likened to a block of Swiss cheese — and identifying the holes.
Those holes are especially evident on an intermediate level — that is, the step between food growers and consumers. An example Bray offers is creameries, which he says were once prevalent in Vermont but are now few and far between.
The lack of these intermediate processors also means that large-scale food buyers — like schools, hospitals, prisons and other institutions — have trouble filling their orders. There’s no “bank,” Bray said, where one of those institutions could order 800 pounds of local potatoes a week, for every week of the year.
“Every place where there’s a bottleneck or a gap also represents an opportunity,” Bray said.
Bray hopes that the Farm to Plate food map and development plan, once created, will not only inspire farmers and businesspeople, but will also do away with some of the legwork new businesses need to do to jump into action. He and other officials at the Vermont Economic Development Association think that fledgling businesses can borrow from this plan in writing up their business models, making their own entrepreneurial efforts more feasible, profitable, and competitive for grant assistance.
Bray’s excitement about the Farm to Plate legislation comes in large part from the plan’s efforts to make food creation more profitable for Vermonters — but that’s not the only perk he sees of the legislation.
He’d love to see Farm to Plate dovetail with “Farm to School,” a four-year-old program that brings local foods, gardening and compost into schools but that Bray says is seriously under-funded.
And Bray thinks the health benefits and savings of a local foods program, on a statewide level, could ultimately outweigh the dollars and cents the Farm to Plate program will generate in sales alone.
“Pediatric obesity is an epidemic in this country,” Bray said, citing an National Institutes of Health report that found that children born today have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. “People are worried about H1N1 (flu virus), but we’re already facing an epidemic (of obesity).”
Given the potential health and economic benefits of this legislation, Bray feels he has reason to be excited about Farm to Plate.
“It’s helping us plot a whole new course as a state,” Bray said. “The usual dialogue about food and agriculture is, ‘Woe is me.’ … (This) is very empowering.”