2.14.2020 – The Farm to School and Early Childhood Program and Rep. Matt Trieber’s Resignation

Every year, we get a report from the Vermont Farm to School and Early Childhood Program. The partners in the program include public and private entities that make for a strong collaboration. Besides the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets; the Dept. of Health; and the Agency of Education, they are joined by Hunger Free Vermont, Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day), the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Shelburne Farms, Vermont Community Garden Network, and the Merck Forest and Farmland Center. The goal of the program is to get more fresh, local, nutritious food on the plates of Vermont’s school children.

What’s delightful about the yearly presentation is that children get top billing, the day off from school, and the opportunity to tell us why the Farm to School Program is important to them. This year, as in the past, we heard about the various aspects of their participation. In some cases, children who have never gardened before, learn the joy and empowerment of growing their own vegetables and how to prepare them to eat. The students from the Cabot School told us about making bread from scratch from four different kinds of flour. They even brought samples, along with some good Cabot cheddar, and it was delicious!

The students from the Berlin Elementary School described their program in a well-choreographed eight-person presentation. Aside from having an abundant garden, they are learning to compost the scraps left over from their school meals. Another highlight for many students is the opportunity to do taste tests that teach them how to cook, introduce them to new foods, and allow them to make choices about their favorite dishes.

The benefits of the program extend well beyond the walls of the schools. It is estimated that every dollar spent on local food contributes an additional 60 cents to the local economy. Vermont schools, in total, spent $16 million during the 2013-2014 school year on food. Of that, the money spent locally amounted to $915,000, which is 5.6% of the total food expenditures. When you consider the additional 60 cents per dollar contributed to the local economy, the total impact is $1.4 million.

But the numbers indicate that we can be doing better – an additional $15 million could be spent on food locally. At an agricultural meeting several months ago, someone intimately involved in agriculture allowed as how this wasn’t going to save any farms. No, it might not save farms in and of itself but the question we need to answer is what are the barriers to selling more local foods to our schools? There is a great opportunity here that we should explore.

Schools and early childhood programs that would like to receive a grant need to apply. Grants can be up to $15,000, though recently consolidated school districts may be eligible for up to $25,000 to reflect their increased size. For more information on the program and how to apply for a Farm to School and Early Childhood Program grant, please go to www.agriculture.vermont.gov/farmtoschool.

Another subject we are learning a lot about is biochar. As defined in the bill, H.798, ‘“Biochar” means material derived from thermochemical conversion of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment containing at least 60 percent carbon.’ This process is known as pyrolysis. It is interesting because once the burning process gets going, gases emitted keep it going and no more fuel is necessary to complete it.

We have heard a lot of claims being made and are interested in exploring how this might be important to Vermont. The “Findings” section of the bill includes some of the following: “Biochar has been shown to increase soil fertility by improving nutrient and water retention, lowering density, and increasing microbial activity, thereby improving water quality by reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff. The use of biochar in liquid manure or bedded pack effectively binds ammonium and ammonia, thereby increasing the plant-available nitrogen when spread on fields, along with a significant decrease in or elimination of odor. The addition of biochar to bedded pack and liquid manure has been shown to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases. Biochar can be produced from many forms of organic matter including: whole trees, residual forest materials, wood chips, wheat straw, spoiled hay, food processing waste, demolition waste, sewage sludge, invasive species, and many other forms of agricultural and municipal waste.”

We are interested in this topic, which has gained more attention outside the United States, because of its potential uses to improve soil health and water quality, reduce odors, and provide a use for our low-grade wood products. We will continue to investigate the value of biochar to Vermont’s agricultural and forestry sectors to determine if we should ask the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation to do the studies required by H.798.

It was with mixed feelings that we heard my district mate, Matt Trieber’s, resignation speech on Tuesday. Over the years, Matt has really grown into the position. He’s been a valuable member on the Human Services and Appropriations Committees and will be sorely missed. However, he has a job with the State of Vermont that is requiring more of his time, so this tough choice had to be made. We all wish him the very best!

The process for replacing him requires the Chairs of the Windham-3 District Democratic town committees to set a date for a representative district committee meeting. The committee is made up of the town committee members who reside in the representative district, in this case the towns of Athens, Brookline, Grafton, North Westminster, Rockingham, and Windham. Only the North Westminster members who reside in our district will be eligible to vote.

Members of the committees will meet to choose the candidate(s) they would like to recommend to the Governor as their new representative. The names are sent to the Governor who typically interviews the candidates and chooses one. It should be noted that the Governor does not have to choose from these recommendations, but it is customary that he/she does. It is important that this process goes forward and the Governor act quickly so that the Windham-3 district is fully represented.