NEW HAVEN — Between petting cows in the 4-H barn, eating maple creemees at the Maple Barn and rubbing elbows with sheep shearers and cheesemakers, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross’ visit to Addison County Fair and Field Days last Wednesday was a busy one.
Wednesday’s visit wasn’t just an afternoon of fun at the fair — Ross spent much of his time listening to the people he met, guided by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison County and Brandon, and Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham.
Ross said he’s been to four or five county fairs around the state so far this year. To him, the fairs serve a crucial role in spreading the word about Vermont agriculture.
“Education is very important, and fairs are fun,” he said. “It’s not only the farm kids here, but also the kids who are not on farms. They see where their food comes from.”
Around him, the Children’s Barnyard was bustling. Kids ogled alpaca, rabbits, donkeys, goats, chickens and pigs, reaching across fences to pet and feed the animals.
That tangible connection to the farm is critical, said Ross.
“Vermont teenagers have the highest consumption of fruits and vegetables in the country,” said Ross. “I think it’s because they have a better understanding of where food comes from.”
Ross said it’s important to pay attention to the fascination of the crowds that flock to Field Days each year to see antique tractors, 4-H competitions and haying demonstrations.
“That connectivity isn’t just important for marketing (agricultural products) — it’s important for understanding agriculture,” he said. “It’s a microcosm of what Vermont can do out of state.”
Building that personal contact to farms for out-of-state customers, he said, is part of the Department of Agriculture’s role.
“It’s telling the story of Vermont agriculture,” he said. “(Vermont) is already renowned for our quality, top-end products, and we can connect farms and farmers to buyers. We can create that economic linkage.”
Some Vermont businesses have already built up that economic linkage — including Cabot, which markets on a national scale.
Then there’s the case of Loraine Hescock, who runs Vermont Trade Winds Farm in Shoreham with her husband, Tim. She was in the 4-H dairy barn with her children on Wednesday afternoon.
Hescock explained that her family doesn’t just tap maples. They ship their homemade pies made with seasonal fruit to homes across the country, marketing them through the farm’s website.
Ross and Hescock discussed the possibility of a list of Vermont agricultural businesses like Trade Winds Farm that are online and accessible to people anywhere — a resource that could provide Vermont-themed gift and buying ideas.
Ross said the Internet offers an important opportunity to connect personally with out-of-state buyers.
“With the web connection, you’re plugged into a huge marketplace,” he said.
And despite the frustrations with technology education that some farmers and producers face, he said, a large cohort of young, web-savvy, business-minded people are also being drawn to the field.
“We’re seeing agriculture attract some of the best and brightest, motivated folks,” he said.
In all that, Ross said it’s the Vermont Department of Agriculture’s role to be a facilitator, connector and a regulator. He said regulation — especially water quality issues — is especially present on his mind in keeping Vermont a trusted name.
“When consumers know they’re buying inspected, well-regulated products … food safety issues go away,” he said.
His department is also working to break down and approach the numerous steps of this year’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, which lays out a 10-year plan to support and build Vermont’s agricultural economy.
Key in that is supporting the push to get more fresh, local food into schools and institutions — including working with Gov. Peter Shumlin on his recent push to allow Vermont to trade the commodities it receives through the national school lunch program for vouchers that would allow schools to spend the money locally.
He said his department is also working to distribute funding allotted by the legislature to create a meat cutter training program and to develop infrastructure in the meat slaughter and processing fields, which he said are two critical bottlenecks in the farm-to-plate chain.
And Ross said he’s closely following the movement toward the national 2012 Farm Bill. Though the most prominent discussions on federal policies in Vermont relate to dairy, he said changes to federal agriculture policy next year could have a significant effect on all farms in the state.
But while he’s focusing on all that, Ross says he’s still managing to enjoy the various fairs he’s attended.
“Every one has its specialty,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.