By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — Three hundred farmers packed into the Statehouse on Feb. 17 for a legislative hearing on the future of agriculture before the Senate and House Agriculture Committees Tuesday night, and legislators listened.
Farm and farm-related sectors in Vermont are responsible $503.3 million in total cash receipts each year, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and the agriculture industry and allied businesses account for roughly 17,000 jobs in the state.
But a report released in December by the Council on the Future of Vermont found that the nature of agriculture in the state is changing as the number of small, non-dairy farms rises while the number of dairy farms declines.
Last week’s hearing came just days after Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, introduced legislation designed to do exactly what many farmers at the hearing requested: promote strong local foods systems.
Bray argued that better “farm-to-plate” food systems would circulate more money back into the hands of Vermont’s farms. The issue is particularly important in Addison County, which accounts for 22 percent of all agricultural sales in Vermont.
Right now, according to Bray, 3 percent of the average Vermonter’s diet is made up of food grown in Vermont. Upping the amount of local food that Vermonters eat by 10 percent, he estimated, would have a $500 million impact on the state.
“We export roughly $2.6 billion a year by bring in food from out of state,” Bray said. “We say we have a food system, but our food system is a bit like Swiss cheese. There are a lot of holes in it.”
Bray, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, teamed up with Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee to draft a bill — H. 231 — that they hope will find and fill those gaps.
H. 231 calls for the creation of a “farm-to-plate” investment corporation — essentially a network of third-party food hubs where individual farmers could send their products to be compiled into larger orders. Hubs like this, Bray said, would make it easier for Vermont universities, school districts and hospitals — and other large organizations accustomed to making bulk purchases — to invest in local food.
The Farm-to-Plate initiative grew out of a series of conversations that Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility organized last summer and through the fall to brainstorm about creative — and economically viable — solutions to farming challenges.
The discussions married hopes for strong farming communities with a realistic approach to earning money and building strong economic systems.
“To me, that seems like a very healthy trend in talking about food and agriculture,” Bray said. It’s a conversation, he went on, that veers away from talk about subsidies and government aid and leans more on market economics. “It’s good for us to be thoughtful and make sure that we’re trying to develop a stronger market that can sustain itself.”
Accordingly, the legislation is being considered now in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
It’s a natural fit, according to Bray, because the legislation isn’t just about supporting local agriculture — it’s also about building a stronger Vermont economy.
“It’s not about new spending,” Bray said. “It’s about shifting the money that we already spend.”
Bray envisions the investment corporation as an independent, nonprofit group that would likely need some state funding to get up and running — “to prime the pump,” as Bray put it.
“But I would want to see it become self-sustaining,” he went on. With one of the goals of the legislation being to create self-sustaining food markets, Bray said it would be important that the agency creating those markets also be profitable.
Of course, the benefits of local food hubs are clear for Vermont farmers, too. Bray said that establishing a pattern of larger orders would build a predictable, more lucrative market for farmers.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee with Bray, said that he sees the Farm-to-Plate proposal as an ambitious first step.
“It’s heading in the right direction … toward defining a more self-sufficient Vermont food system,” said Stevens, who is working on a complimentary bill that calls for a statewide plan that looks at coordinate local foods systems.
Stevens, who owns an organic vegetable farm, said that bills like H. 231 and his own food systems legislation come at a more hopeful side of agriculture in the state than the dairy industry. Because the state doesn’t have any leverage in setting milk prices, Stevens said the House Agriculture Committee is faced with a fair amount of frustration when it comes to considering the flagging dairy market.
Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and farm stands, on the other hand, are more characterized by optimism, Stevens said.
“That’s where a lot of excitement and growth opportunity is right now,” Stevens said.