1.31.2020 – The Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan: 2020, Part 1, and Dr. Ruth Potee

It is very clear that we are experiencing a transition period in our agricultural sector. Dairy farming is the anchor agricultural industry and accounts for nearly 65% of our agricultural sales. Dairy farmers are struggling to survive due to low milk prices, which are set on a federal level and they are going out of business at an alarming rate. In many cases the land and cows are being absorbed by larger farms and milk production is about the same or slightly higher but the effects on some of the auxiliary businesses have been devastating as well. For example, in the past if our baler broke down while we were baling hay, I could drive to Walpole to get parts. That business closed so then I had to drive an hour to Keene. That business closed so now the drive is to Randolph or Middlebury, which is an hour and three quarters each way.

Our working lands are incredibly important to the economy of Vermont. Dairy is responsible for $2.2 billion per year to the state. Forest products are worth $1.5 billion per year. It’s safe to say that tourists don’t come to Vermont to look at housing subdivisions in South Burlington and Williston (no offense!), they come to look at the pastoral beauty of our working landscape.

The question is, what can we do to get ahead of this problem and plan for the future? Last year, we passed S.160, the Agriculture and Forestry Economic Development Bill, which became Act 83. One of the provisions called for a report to the House Agriculture and Forestry and Senate Agriculture Committees on the stabilization, diversification, and revitalization of the Vermont agricultural industry. We asked the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) to work in consultation with the Vermont Farm to Plate Investment Program to write the report, which was due on January 15, 2020.

We asked the authors of the report to do the following:
“(1) summarize the current conditions within particular subsectors, product categories, and market channels that comprise the Vermont food system, including the most recent data synthesis, research, reports, and expert documentation of challenges and opportunities for diversification and growth;

(2) recommend methods for improving the marketing of Vermont agricultural products;

(3) compile technical assistance and capital resources available to farmers to assist in the diversification of agricultural products produced on a farm; and

(4) after consultation with the Northeast Organic Farming Association and Vermont FEED, provide an assessment of the potential to increase the amount of Vermont agricultural products that are purchased by school nutrition programs in the State, including an inventory of agricultural products, such as beef, eggs, or cheese, where demand from schools would create a viable market for Vermont farmers.”

The result, Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan: 2020, Part 1, is nothing short of amazing, especially given the amount of time they were given to complete it. Included are ten product briefs, four market briefs, and nine issue briefs. Each one includes a section on What’s at Stake, Current Conditions, Bottlenecks and Gaps, Opportunities, and Recommendations.

The Product Briefs include our top selling products, not in order: Apples, Cheese, Dairy, Food-Grade Grains, Goats, Grass-Fed Beef, Hemp, Maple, Produce, and Lightly Processed Vegetables.

The task of putting this report together involved significant work. Twenty-three subject matter experts were asked to write the briefs with up to eight additional expert contributors for each topic. A total of more than 130 Vermont public and private sector contributors helped write this report. An additional thirty-two briefs are being worked on and will be available in the near future.

The Introduction details the fact that in the ten-year period from 2007-2017 the “Vermont food system economic output expanded 48%, from $7.5 billion to $11.3 billion.” Food manufacturing accounted for $3 billion of that amount making it, perhaps surprisingly, the second largest manufacturing industry in the state. This is indicative of how important the production of food is to the Vermont.

There are more than 11,500 farms and food-related businesses in Vermont, employing more than 64,000 people. An additional 6,529 jobs were created in this sector between 2009 and 2018.

This Strategic Plan provides us with valuable information and a potential roadmap as we consider the future of agriculture in the State of Vermont. The report finds that “Based on this initial set of recommendations, there is a clear need for greater investments in marketing, market development, business and technical assistance service (in the form of additional personnel) and product research and development”.

This makes a lot of sense. Farmers are good at farming and producing their crops. They’re not necessarily good at marketing them. It remains to be seen if we will have the political will and resources to make the investments recommended. It is estimated that an additional twenty-one full-time positions would be necessary to do the work. It should be noted that not all twenty-one people would be employed at the AAFM.

If you are interested, I invite you to take a look at this important piece of work by going to https://agriculture.vermont.gov/sites/agriculture/files/doc_library/Vermont%20Agriculture%20and%20Food%20System%20Plan%202020.pdf.

On a final note, I want to thank the folks who reached out to me after my column ran regarding my niece’s death to a fentanyl overdose. It truly struck a chord for those who have gone through a similar experience.

As a result, one of my friends in Windham who is a nurse emailed to suggest that I watch a YouTube video by Dr. Ruth Potee called Addition is a Brain Disease. I found Dr. Potee’s 44-minute presentation to be clear, easy to understand, and very informative. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of this terrible disease called substance abuse disorder and what it takes to see someone through it.