As we contemplate Vermont’s future, one of the big questions some of us are asking is what will happen in agriculture? Dairy farming, the anchor of our agricultural economy, is struggling due to low milk prices and higher input costs. Diversified agriculture has, in many cases, prospered as a result of the pandemic and farmers who were able to pivot from restaurant sales to more CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture) and direct-to-consumer sales have actually done the same or better than pre-COVID. But without dairy, the infrastructure (equipment dealers, feed and seed companies, etc.) are in a fragile situation and may not survive as we have witnessed in Windham County.
For some people, it might not be top of their minds because they are used to going to the supermarket or food coop and choosing the food they want when they want it. For some of them, ag literacy is lacking and food has little to do with agriculture. Some others raise a lot of their own food and are more closely tied to the earth through that activity but realize they can’t source all of their needs from their own farms. And for still others, access to food is a challenge and they find themselves food insecure, relying on food shelves to nourish themselves.
What many of us learned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there are serious cracks in our food supply chain. Who ever thought that there would be no flour, beans, meat, chicken, or pasta on the store shelves? Ten months ago, some of our grocery shelves looked like the photos we used to see of those in post-World War II European cities.
In Vermont, we were very fortunate that we have many local food producers who were eventually able to make some changes to their business model and fill in that gap as the rest of the food infrastructure recovered but it was a wakeup call that we might want to be thinking ahead. Those of us who raise animals for food have also been confronted with the fact that capacity at our slaughter/processing facilities is limited and we are making appointments a year in advance.
Some of the questions we are asking ourselves are: What do we want that future of agriculture in Vermont to look like? Would it be possible to create a regional food supply chain system that would not only make us more food secure, in case of another pandemic or climate change, but also reduce our carbon footprint through reduced transportation of goods? If so, how much land would it take and what changes would we have to make to our diets? What would it take to diversify even more in terms of products that we grow and produce?
In 2019, the Vermont Legislature tasked the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets along with the Vermont Farm to Plate Investment Program and others to recommend ways to stabilize and revitalize Vermont agriculture. The first edition was released last year covering 23 areas and it was clear that to do a thorough job, additional time would be needed to complete the work. This week, the Vermont Agriculture and Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030 was released, and it is an amazing accomplishment that will guide us well into the future.
We should take a moment to remember that ten years ago the Farm to Plate Initiative under the auspices of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (www.vsjf.org) estimated that if we could double the consumption of Vermont-produced food and products from 5% to 10%, we could generate $135 million in economic output and create 1,500 food system jobs over ten years. Those numbers were far exceeded in half the time and a new appreciation for the value of Vermont agriculture was born.
The new Strategic Plan is an in depth look at 54 subject areas including product, market, and issue briefs. From “Agroforestry” to “Swine”, “College and Hospital Procurement” to “School Food Procurement”, and “Access to Capital” to “Water Quality”, it’s all covered. Each brief includes a section on “What’s at Stake”, “Current Conditions”, “Bottlenecks and Gaps”, “Opportunities”, and “Recommendations”.
The Introduction includes some facts regarding food system growth between 2011 and 2020. “Vermont’s food system economic output expanded 48%, from $7.5 billion to $11.3 billion, which includes $3 billion (26.5%) from food manufacturing – Vermont’s second-largest manufacturing industry.” We added 6,560 net new jobs in the food system, which is an 11.3% increase. When we compare this to the ten-year estimates mentioned above, it is impressive. “More than 64,000 Vermonters were directly employed by over 11,500 farms and food-related businesses” and “Local Food purchases rose from $114 million (5%) to $310 million (13.9%) of the total $2.2 billion spent on food in the state annually.” In other words, the original estimates were well-surpassed.
What is important about these numbers is that they clearly demonstrate the impact the agricultural sector is having on the economy. When we look at the Farm to Plate Initiative through the Results-Based Accountability lens, we see that the investments we have made, including those made in the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, have been extremely productive and well-placed.
The new Strategic Plan offers us a detailed roadmap to the future. We may not have all the money needed to make all the investments right away, but the contents will provide guidance for those wanting to embark on new agricultural adventures.
What I am also proud of is that at the very beginning of the Plan there is a recognition that we are on land that was inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years before we white folks got here. That “In that spirit, we acknowledge that we are guests in this land. We need to respect and help protect the lands within our use. Those who implement this Strategic Plan have a responsibility to help make this truth visible, to support efforts toward indigenous sovereignty and well-being, and to dismantle the legacies of colonialism here in Vermont.” Included, also, is an Issue Brief on Racial Equity in the Vermont Food System that acknowledges that “Inequalities exist throughout Vermont’s food system, from land and farming to food security, the workforce, and beyond.”
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 52 lead authors and 111 expert contributors who helped make the 200+ page Strategic Plan possible. More than 1,500 Vermonters participated in creating what I am referring to the “agricultural bible” that took 18 months of hard work to produce. The Strategic Plan is available online at www.vtfarmtoplate.com/plan.