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Breaking the boom-to-bust dairy cycle with 'Farm to Plate'

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In the face of dismal prices for the state’s non-organic dairy farmers, New Haven’s state Rep. Christopher Bray says the ‘Farm to Plate’ legislation passed this past legislative session may be the most important bill approved in the past decade that has to do with food or agriculture. Why is Bray so optimistic about legislation the average Vermonter has never heard of? Because the initiative encourages Vermont’s local food production to grow from what is now just 3 percent of the food consumed in the state to 20 percent in the next decade.

The “20 by 2020” goal, Bray said, could add approximately $800 million to the state’s economic activity. Today that $800 million is being imported from outside the state to feed Vermonters and is an amount that is about equal to the current dollars generated by today’s dairy farms.

It’s not rocket science to understand that almost doubling the state’s current agricultural economy would be a huge boon for the state, and that it would go directly to beefing up Vermont’s farming community. Could such a movement help rescue the state’s dwindling family farms? Perhaps, but it’s best to think of it as transitioning Vermont’s farms from predominantly dairy to a mixture of dairy and other types of farming that produce the basic food groups Vermonters consume.

“It will help us rebalance our food system and, I think, create a more stable agricultural environment,” Bray told the Addison Independent in an interview last week. “I don’t think we will 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.”

The idea, of course, is a throwback to how the nation used to get its food supply a century or more ago. Then, every town of any size had its own grain mills to mill flour, creameries to process milk and make cheese, butcher shops and slaughter houses to process locally-raised meats and more vegetable farms to support the neighboring population. Transportation of foods was less convenient in those days, thus requiring the local farms to meet the communities’ and the state’s basic needs. With gas prices in flux, and dairy prices seeing higher peaks and lower valleys than in years past, it’s also just a smart way for Vermont’s farmers to maintain the farming lifestyle they cherish and still make a comfortable living.

That’s only possible, however, if the state is successful in reducing its out-of-state food imports from the current 97 percent to 80 percent, and increases its exports. To achieve that goal, state initiatives need to be developed to help communities build creameries and granaries to allow the individual farmer to take advantage of a collective or cooperative model. That does not need to be a government entity, but surely it will take tax incentives and government encouragement to get privately-based operations underway.

Middlebury, or other communities in Addison County, should not wait for that model to be developed elsewhere, but should seize the moment and start figuring out how to make that happen right here in ‘the land of milk and honey’. We have the farm land to make it happen, the legislative support to push ideas into policy, and the creative energy to think outside the box and create new ways to prosper on the farm.

What the movement needs now is a group to move the idea forward, specific goals and structure. Perhaps the young farmers of Addison County could work with the Addison County Economic Development Corporation to get something started.

Rep. Bray is right: The farm-to-plate movement is “helping us plot a whole new course as a state … The usual dialogue about food and agriculture is, ‘Woe is me,’… (This) is very empowering.”

And certainly it is more refreshing to see this approach than to watch the histrionics of our congressional team plead to Congress for more federal funds to prop up low milk prices due to recurrent problems with over-supply. If Vermont is to have a stable and productive agricultural economy 20 years from now, it seems a given that we have to transition away from a dominant agricultural economy that is tied to a boom-to-bust dairy cycle over which Vermont farmers have very little control.

-Angelo S. Lynn

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