MIDDLEBURY — Last Thursday, one of the creators of an important report on Vermont agriculture stopped by Middlebury to highlight the pivotal role Addison County plays in the local food economy and to encourage those involved in local food production to keep at it.
“You guys rock. We all rock,” said Ellen Kahler to the approximately 40 county residents, food producers and college students who gathered at Middlebury College for her presentation on the statewide Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.
Addison County, with its 773 farms, leads the state in the percentage of agricultural land and in per-capita spending on locally produced foods, said Kahler, a Starksboro resident and executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. The VSJF produced the report, the first part of which was rolled out this winter.
But Kahler said that the county and the state must keep pushing forward and expanding their local food economy. With every 5 percent increase in local food sales in the state, she estimated that Vermonters would see 1,500 new food-related jobs and $135 million in new economic activity within the state. And since that money would be circulating locally, she said the economic boost would be multiplied to $177 million.
Kahler’s organization spent nearly two years researching and compiling the Farm to Plate plan beginning in 2009, when former state representative Chris Bray of New Haven introduced the farm-to-plate bill that commissioned the plan’s creation.
The strategic plan, which the VSJF began rolling out in January, is both a comprehensive, data-filled look at the current state of agriculture in Vermont — from farming to consumption to composting — and a 10-year plan for enhancing the state’s agricultural economy. Bray, who introduced Kahler’s presentation last Thursday, said that extensive look is a boon for policymakers and members of the food industry alike, and something that the Legislature could never have accomplished itself.
“The Legislature is not the executive branch,” he said. “Any good architect needs a good builder.”
Bray said the long view that the plan takes will be important in setting goals and achieving them, and its flexibility will allow it to expand and adapt as the agricultural economy in the state shifts.
“My hope is that it’s just the first 10-year plan,” said Bray.
When Kahler took the stage, she emphasized that the plan’s findings don’t just represent the work of one organization behind closed doors. Rather, it represents the input of thousands of members of the state’s agricultural infrastructure through extensive interviews, summits, consulting and data collection that the VSJF conducted.
“This is ourplan,” she said, encompassing the broad range of players who attended the meeting.
Kahler also said that the hard data in the plan would provide a resource for policymakers looking to craft legislation that would be beneficial to county agriculture.
“A lot of times, policy is made by anecdote,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The report includes a look at the data available for the agricultural structure of the state. The report found that the food system accounts for 55,581 jobs in the state, or 18 percent of private sector jobs.
Kahler honed in on some of the agricultural specifics for Addison County:
• At 36 percent, Addison County has the largest percentage of agricultural land in the state, followed by Franklin County at 30 percent (1997 National Resources Conservation Service data).
• In 2007, Addison County had 245 farms devoted to forage crops, 180 dairy farms and 348 other farms, for a total of 773 farms (USDA Census of Agriculture).
• Also in 2007, the county had 140 acres devoted to vegetables, putting it tenth in the state. Chittenden County, which was first, had 717 acres. (USDA)
• Addison County topped the state for most forage cropland in 2007, with 6,164 acres (USDA).
The report also takes a look at sales of local food directly to the consumer through farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSAs. Kahler said that Vermont residents spend on average $36.77 per year on direct food sales, but that Addison County tops the state at $148.19 per capita each year. Grand Isle County is second, at $71.21 per capita. And Addison County also tops the list of total money spent on direct food sales, at $5,434,000 per year (Chittenden County is second with $2,915,000).
Kahler said that in total, she estimates that 5 percent of Vermonters’ food purchases are locally produced (which the plan defines as encompassing the state of Vermont plus 30 miles on all sides. And while 5 percent may seem small, Vermont tops the nation in local food distribution.
“We’re off the charts compared to the rest of the country,” Kahler said.
GETTING TO 2020
The plan lays out specific goals for bolstering the agricultural and food economy in the state over the next 10 years. The goals revolve around making the system more circular and decreasing external inputs. A circular system uses as little petroleum-based fuel as possible, and uses available waste products like compost and manure for fertilizer.
Thus, said Kahler, to reach a goal of 10 percent local consumption by the year 2020, composting facilities need to be encouraged. Good land should be prioritized for agricultural use, and farmers should have increased access to land. And she said farmers should produce with an eye to providing what consumers demand — more meat, fruits, vegetable, oats, grains and value-added dairy. Farmers should have access to processing resources and slaughter facilities, and modes of distribution from the producer to the consumer should be enhanced.
During the question-and-answer session, county residents expressed concerns and areas of interest in the plan.
Elizabeth Golden-Pidgeon wondered how many acres of land are farmed by people who will retire in the next few years, and how younger people can be convinced to enter the farming business.
Kahler said that land access is of particular concern in the state right now, with organizations like the Vermont Land Trust and the new Farmer Network at the University of Vermont working on programs that will support new farmers in getting access to affordable land and technical assistance. This is important, she said, because the average age of the American farmer is 56, and many are nearing retirement age.
“Access to land is key for the next generation of farmers,” said Walter O’Donohue, who helps run the Mount Abraham Union High School garden.
And Cheryl DeVos, a Ferrisburgh organic dairy farmer, spoke about two college-educated employees who work for her.
“How am I going to keep them there if I can’t pay them more?” she asked.
A Middlebury College student spoke up to ask how the push for local food can be reconciled with food insecurity in Vermont. At least 14 percent of Vermonters are considered “food insecure,” meaning they can’t be assured they can afford food. Audience members said part of that problem came from government programs that resulted in unnaturally low prices for foods coming from larger farms, and others in the audience mentioned agricultural subsidy reform and rising gas prices as factors that ultimately will help Vermont farmers by making their products more competitive against foods that come from mega-farms a long way from Vermont.
“If we combat false incentives for big farming, local products will be more competitive,” said Spence Putnam of Weybridge.
And Annie Harlow of Bristol spoke up about pricing research she has worked on for ACORN. She said that wholesale prices can be distorted depending on the size of the middleman selling the food, and the price markup once the product hits retail store shelves.
“We found that often, prices that (local) growers were hoping to get were commensurate with or lower than (produce) from California,” she said.
LOCAL MEAT PRODUCTION
And an audience discussion about stringent meat slaughter regulations brought in voices like Rob Litch of Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven and Carl Cushing of Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing in Ferrisburgh. Litch raised the food safety issues of slaughter, and Cushing said that it’s a matter of scale.
“If you see it as food, you’ll treat it that way,” he said. But, he added, there are many people who see slaughter as a business, and would be willing to cut corners with less stringent regulations.
“When (regulation reform) is done, it needs to be done right,” he said. “Let’s support the infrastructure to do that.”
Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham voiced his gratitude for countywide support of the efforts that are allowing more local storage, processing and distribution.
“Thank you for asking questions and supporting what we already have here,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]