‘Farm to Plate’ plan on table at food summit

MIDDLEBURY — Again and again on Tuesday, participants at an Addison County “farm to plate” summit pointed to the biggest roadblock impinging the expansion of a local foods movement in Vermont: the infrastructure for aggregating, processing and distributing locally grown food is all but nonexistent.
That sentiment came out of one of several summits organized by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and taking place throughout Vermont this fall and winter. The summits are the next step in the Farm to Plate Initiative drummed up by Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, during the last legislative session.
The initiative is working to develop a 10-year strategic plan for Vermont’s food and farm networks, with the goal of fostering economic development and job growth in the food industry. Bray hopes to ramp up Vermonters’ intake of local foods from 5 percent now to 15 percent over that time, a move he thinks could revitalize Vermont farms while keeping more money in-state.
The summits are the first step toward drafting that strategic plan being drafted by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. The fund is looking at the state’s current food map — which Bray has likened to a block of Swiss cheese — and identifying the holes.
Jonathan Corcoran, the president of the Addison County Relocalization Network, told the roughly 100 participants at Tuesday’s meeting that the summit marked the beginning of a “10-, 15-, 20-year project.” But he encouraged the farmers and local foods advocates to dive into the project with urgency.
“The time to move is now,” Corcoran said. “Each of you is holding a piece of the puzzle.”
The bulk of the day was devoted to small-group discussions. Based on their interest in topics like marketing local foods, growing more farmers, producing more local foods or infrastructure, participants at the summit scattered into corners of the American Legion hall, pulling their folding chairs into tight circles.
In a group discussion about challenges facing young farmers, long-time area farmers like Addison County Farm Bureau President Bill Scott and Middlebury dairyman Bob Foster pulled up seats alongside people like 20-year-old Galen Helms, a Mount Abraham Union High School graduate who aspires to be a farmer.
One of the biggest roadblocks aspiring farmers face, everyone quickly agreed, is capital: The land for sale and grant money available often is targeted at large, 200-acre farming operations, while many young farmers are interested instead in smaller, diversified farms.
Another problem, according to University of Vermont student Eric Kauppla, who has worked for several seasons on Eugenie Doyle’s Last Resort Farm in Monkton, is that many young farmers don’t have the business training necessary to keep their farms financially afloat. Kauppla suggested setting up paid internships to partner young farmers with mentors where they could work
But Shoreham vegetable farmer Will Stevens, a legislator in the Vermont House, pointed out the “gorilla in the room.”
Cultural norms have changed, Stevens said, so much so that the farming is seen as dirty, undesirable work.
“It’s the idea that work is bad,” Stevens said.
“Working with your hands,” Foster chimed in.
“Or your back,” Stevens said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, a different group hashed out another challenge facing Vermont farmers today: the lack of infrastructure for storing, processing and distributing local foods.
Harvey Smith, a New Haven farmer who raises beef and grains, pointed out that over the years Vermont has made some great strides in this area. He mentioned the ubiquitous Black River Produce trucks that make daily deliveries of local produce to restaurants in New England.
“We’ve come a long way,” Smith said.
But he acknowledged that some of Vermont’s local food infrastructure has simply vanished. Addison County, he said, had 16 slaughter facilities or butcher shops in the 1970s; now, they’re all but nonexistent. Another farmer recalled the small creameries that used to thrive in towns.
“We had that all in place not that many years ago,” Smith said.
But Spencer Blackwell, a farmer in East Middlebury, pointed out the trouble that comes with discussing infrastructure issues among farmers. He, for one, aspires to grow vegetables, not to run a processing plant; other farmers nodded their agreement. Processing, the group seemed to agree, calls for a different type of businessperson.
“I don’t want to drop everything else to build a grain facility,” Blackwell said.
Nearby, a circle of farmers concentrating on producing more local foods had circled around to the question of infrastructure, too, while focusing on the types of infrastructure that might be appropriate in Vermont.
Bill Suhr, the owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, mentioned the refrigerated rail cars now transporting food across country, a method Suhr said is “extremely cost effective.”
“Do we want to fight that?” Suhr asked. “Let’s keep looking at crops that make sense to grow here.”
But as Orwell farmer Paul Stone pointed out, what Vermont is suited to growing is dairy — and without a network of local creameries, commodity dairy does little to boost local foods consumption in state.
The question is, quipped Starksboro dairyman Eric Clifford, “How do you get the business student excited?” Another participant joked that farmer could provide the business model so long as someone else could step in to run the business.
As the meeting wound down, these smaller groups reported back to the body as a whole with suggestions that included encouraging microlending to new, small farms, and providing a “matchmaker” service that pairs up farmers with large institutions looking to buy local foods. Local institutions encouraged growers to consider growing more local wheat, beans and grains, and a group dedicated to marketing pushed for education in schools about the benefits of eating locally.
Corcoran, after the meeting, said that arguably the most valuable aspect of these events is simply the opportunity for individuals to come out and meet one another.
“It really is extraordinary how things happen because of those connections,” he said.
For him, the summit illustrated the demand for local foods, and it highlighted the importance of building better infrastructure and, most important of all, encouraging more growers to produce food for the local market. Corcoran said Addison County is already a leader when it comes to local foods, so he’s optimistic about the picture moving forward.
“We’re just way out there in terms of the rest of the state,” he said. “Addison County is, without any question, the most important agricultural county in the state. I think we have a lot of the players and pieces here. The most challenging thing is supply, and getting more growers to start planting for the local food market.”

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