1.25.2019 – Inspirational Agricultural Leaders and the Role Farms and Farmers Play in Dealing with Climate Change

This week House Agriculture and Forestry continued with introductions to some of Vermont’s inspirational movers and shakers in agritourism, cheesemaking, food hubs, and farmers’ markets.

Long before Airbnb, Beth Kennett was welcoming folks to her home for stays that introduced them to life on a farm. Everyone is welcome to help with the barn chores, which involve milking 270 cows and feeding calves. They are then treated to breakfasts that includes Beth’s famous pancakes and farm-fresh suppers.

Beth was one of the “pioneers” in agritourism and it happened almost by accident. Her first guests were folks whose planned accommodations weren’t quite up to snuff and they landed with Beth and her husband, Bob, at Liberty Hill Farm (www.libertyhillfarm.com), a working dairy farm, in Rochester. The business now includes their son, David, and his wife.

Liberty Hill Farm offers a wonderful representation of classic Vermont beauty and hospitality. Their farm sits in a picturesque location and their milk is made into Cabot cheese, so a natural partnership exists between the two businesses. Guests come from all over the country as well as from other countries. When Beth uses the delicious cheddar in her cooking, guests are usually able to access Cabot in their own supermarkets when they return home. Vermont has a relatively small population so anything that expands our markets and brings money into the state is very important.

Also visiting our committee this week was Andy Kehler, founder along with his brother, Mateo, of Jasper Hill Farm (www.jasperhillfarm.com) cheese. They started Jasper Hill Farm with a relatively small herd of cows in 2003 and realized that making a value-added product was the way to go. Cheesemaking became their focus and they have excelled in that effort. One of their goals was to enrich their local area and between 2003 and 2017 their total expenses amounted to $84,419,701. Of that, $69,487,085 has been spent in Vermont – nearly $53 million was spent within 15 miles of home!

In 2008, they invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art cheese cave – The Cellars at Jasper Hill. They now produce international award-winning cheeses and export cheese to France. In 2007 they employed 7 people, they now employ more than 80 and Andy reports that one of their greatest challenges is local housing for their employees.

Robin Morris is the founder of the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield (www.madriverfoodhub.com). I remember attending the opening in 2011 and what an exciting, innovative project it was and still is. It provides incubator space for young, small businesses trying to get their feet on the ground. It is, perhaps, the first and only such facility that includes USDA meat and non-meat processing. It allowed Joe Buley of Joe’s Kitchen at Screamin’ Ridge Farm to produce his delicious vegetable/meat soups (www.screaminridgefarm.com).

Robin reports that a number of businesses have “graduated” from Mad River Food Hub and that one challenge is getting new folks to participate. He attributes this in part to a low unemployment rate in the state and with people not thinking about going into business for themselves.

Greg Cox of the Vermont Farmers Food Center (www.vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org) in Rutland gave us an update on the progress there. Their mission has been to “ increase access and availability to locally-produced food through the development of infrastructure, educational programs and markets necessary for the growth of a vibrant and sustainable regional agricultural system that has the capacity to feed its citizens regardless of economic status, increase the personal health of the population, and add to the economic well-being of the community.”

The facility at 251 West Street now hosts a year-round farmers’ market with 87 spaces for producers to sell their wares. Coordination and collaboration occur to help provide a variety of fresh or frozen products year-round. A “Farmacy” program was created for people with health problems that can be treated and improved with locally-produced, healthy food. Greg is also a farmer in his own right, so he understands to ups and downs of farming.

On Friday, we held a hearing with four legislative committees present – House Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife and Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources. The title of the presentation by UVM Extension scientists and farmers from around the state was “Understanding the Role that Farms and Farmers Play in the Water and Climate Conversation in Vermont.

Chuck Ross, Director of UVM Extension, reported that 6,500 jobs exist because of farms and the agricultural sector. It is acknowledged that agriculture is responsible for 40% of the nutrient run-off problem in the Lake Champlain Watershed. Farmers have taken responsibility for this and are willing to shoulder 68% of the clean-up. This is because it is way more cost-effective to remediate farmland than it is developed land.

After World War II, with the destruction in Europe, the United States was looked to as the bread basket of the world. Phosphorus was brought to Vermont by the railroad car load and was applied injudiciously – if a little bit is good, more would be better, right? Farmers did what they were encouraged to do, and no one thought about the impact it was having on the lake. I have also been told that there is evidence that the injection of nutrients to the lake goes back much further than the 1940s.

The message that Joshua Faulkner, Jeff Carter, and Heather Darby of UVM Extension shared with us is that the amount of rainfall has increased dramatically in the last 30 years and there has been a 74% increase in the number of extreme weather events in the northeast in the last 50 years. If farmers employ good conservation practices, they can build the organic matter in their soil, which will sequester carbon and retain additional moisture like a sponge. Then in times of drought the moisture is released slowly.

As climate change causes more, extreme weather conditions the ability to retain and release moisture will become even more important as we try to raise crops to feed our people. An additional question raised was how we can reimburse our struggling farmers for the ecosystem services they provide.

I will write more about this topic in coming weeks because of the great challenges and opportunities it presents but if you’d like to watch the video of the hearing it is available on the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Market’s website (www.agriculture.vermont.gov). Under “VAAFM News”, click on “Study: Vermont tops nation in conservation practices; farmers willing to do more.”