4.17.2020 – Rep. Kelley Tully, Farmers’ Markets to Open May 1, and the Food Chain System

I want to start this week’s report off with a big welcome to my new district-mate, Kelley Tully from Rockingham. She is taking her seat in the Vermont House during this unprecedented time. She drove to Montpelier this week to be sworn in and sent me a photo of her taking the oath of office with House Clerk, Bill MaGill, both wearing surgical masks. The photo needs to be sent to the State Archivist!

Kelley is jumping in with both feet, she was assigned to the Judiciary Committee and is participating in the Zoom meetings that are preparing us to work on legislation and vote remotely. I look forward to the day, and hopefully there will be one soon, when she can take her seat in the House, presumably Seat #120, that has been occupied by a representative from Rockingham for nearly fifty years.

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee met this week and discussed a couple of important topics – farmers’ markets and the food system.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been hearing from farmers as a result of the Stay Home, Stay Safe policy. They were concerned that they weren’t being allowed to hold their markets, even with strict social distancing practices including remote preordering and curbside pickup. This, at a time when dollar stores are allowed to stay open by virtue of the fact that they are selling food.

Our committee agreed to send a letter to the Governor and members of his Administration asking them to provide guidance for the farmers’ markets so that they can open and function in a safe way. Income at this time of year is particularly important as our farmers try to get seeds in the ground that will provide us with food this coming year.

We know that members of the Administration have been live streaming our meetings on YouTube, are aware of our concern, and the message seemed to get through. Without sending our letter, on Friday the Governor announced that farmers’ markets could open on May 1 and that guidance would be provided as to how they can conduct business. We are thankful to the Governor for allowing this to happen.

Ellen Kahler, the Executive Director of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), visited with us to talk about our country’s food system and how cracks are appearing that are both worrisome and an opportunity. The food chain system has been consolidated to point where an event like the pandemic has caused various aspects to grind to a halt. A good example of this is the crops in some of our southern states that are ready to pick but there is no one to pick them. Workers, many of them Central Americans, have not been able to come into the country due to closed borders.

Ellen is working with others in the Northeast states to talk about a regional approach to food supply for our core necessities such as vegetables, meat, fruit, and legumes. As one of the movers and shakers behind the Farm to Plate Initiative, now ten years old, this is right up Ellen’s alley.

Important questions are being asked. How many acres would it take? What crops would we need to grow? How much storage space would be needed? What would the distribution system look like? Are there critical pieces of land that are under threat of development that would be needed to feed the people? These are all questions that are being investigated by the group Ellen is working with.

They are looking at what percentage of the food we need could be grown here. It is estimated that we would be able to grow all of our produce and some grains. With a reduction in meat consumption in our diets, we could produce enough grassed-based meat. However, to get to 50% of our needs, we would need two million more acres in agricultural production. There are states, like Maine, that could make this possible.

The conversation is aspirational, but one we should be having. While COVID-19 has been the catalyst that has revealed the cracks in the food chain system, climate change may have similar effects and we should start preparing for it. We know that the Vermont Land Trust is accelerating their farmland access plan. They have $15 million dedicated to the effort but really need $50 million if anyone is interested in donating – www.vlt.org.

We also heard from Jackie Folsom who wears a couple of hats in the State House. She represents the Vermont Farm Bureau and the Vermont Fairs and Field Days. The sad news is that it is unclear if the fairs will be able to open this year due to the virus. It is complicated in that contracts with the companies that provide the midway rides have to be signed and the future is unclear. The people who organize the fairs, mostly volunteers, are asking themselves if they hold the fair, will people come?

Our fairs offer a wonderful opportunity for families to enjoy a relatively low cost, ag-related experience together. I was able to get to the Addison County Fair and the Tunbridge World’s Fair last summer and had a wonderful time at both. The hope is that perhaps some of the ones that happen later in the summer will be able to open.

Jackie also briefed us on some of the things that are happening from the Farm Bureau’s perspective. As we know, dairy is in trouble with ridiculously low milk prices, processors running 24/7, the dumping of milk, and some grocery stores still limiting milk sales. We are concerned for the farmers who are having to dump the product they work so hard to produce into their manure pits. If you know of any farmer who is experiencing challenges, please suggest that they contact Farm First any time day or night at 1-877-493-6216.

Farm First is a program that is funded by the Vermont Agencies of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and Health and Human Services. It was established after a farmer in New York State tragically shot his cows and himself during an economic downturn. It provides confidential financial and mental health services to all Vermont farmers who gross a minimum of $10,000 a year from agriculture or are working with a disability or injury. It is also available to farm-based family members of eligible farm owners. It is there to be used – please don’t hesitate if you know someone who needs it.