Editorial: Excitement in ag policy?!

What’s exciting in agricultural policy today is the culminating effort to put into action former Rep. Chris Bray’s, D-New Haven, “farm to plate” initiative.
Eighteen months in the making, the Vermont Sustainable Job Fund released a “Farm to Plate Strategic Plan” in Montpelier this Wednesday with 33 goals that explore the possibilities for expansion of the state’s food system and supporting infrastructures; that’s policy talk for figuring out ways to produce varied products on Vermont soil, processing that food close to home and getting it to market locally at a price at which Vermonters can keep farm land in production.
The initiative does not exclude the immensely important role of dairy farming in the state, which produces the vast majority of farm income statewide. But it does recognize that traditional dairy farming doesn’t always work. In the past couple of decades, Vermont has seen the number of dairy farms dwindle from 4,500 to 1,000 farms today. At the same time, however, the state has seen more non-dairy farms come into being, spurring new mini-industries and cooperative farms that yield good-paying livelihoods for a growing number of Vermont farmers.
And while this movement has been talked about for the past several years, this week marked the official embracement of statewide farm policy that will — decades hence — change the face of agriculture for the better.
One doesn’t need to understand all the intricate possibilities within the scope of this initiative to understand the impact. Rather, focus on the big picture: Today, Vermont farmers produce locally about 3 percent of what Vermont residents consume each year. Just 3 percent. If we can increase that amount by 5 percent — that is, grow 5 percent of the food Vermonters consume locally — we’ll add $135 million to the farm economy. And, if that’s achievable, we will have created 2,500 new jobs.
It’s also important to recognize that agriculture already employs one in six people in the state. That’s huge, and, it can be fairly stable: these are not manufacturing jobs that will leave because they can be outsourced to China. We know that if we can consume more of what we grow, those will be among the more secure jobs in the state.
Addison County would do well to embrace this initiative with creativity and enthusiasm. We live in what we proudly proclaim as “the land of milk and honey.” The land, by Vermont standards, is relatively flat on its western flank, fertile and productive. We are the state’s largest grower of apples, second largest producer of milk, have ample honey bee operations, and a considerable amount of logging on the county’s eastern flank. We also sit adjacent to the state’s most populous county. For this economic sector, we have many natural advantages and enormous assets.
And, yet, areas like Hardwick, Stowe, Burlington and other less-likely areas, have grabbed headlines for their creative initiatives in forming food cooperatives, processing plants and other markets that are profiting by selling to a Vermont and New England market.
We don’t think Addison County should shun its dairy prominence, but we do think there are many opportunities in these new areas of farming that can add value to almost any farm — and cash to the bottom line, if only new ideas are embraced and pursued. To that end, the “farm to plate” strategic plan offers advice, contacts and help to farmers and other entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to make a business out of the local food movement.
Locally, that’s good news for Addison County farms, for the multiplier effect on local economies, for better food quality at our stores, and for our over-all health and connectedness to the land.
Statewide, the hope is to incorporate these 33 goals into our daily lives by 2020; and if we put more effort into it and truly embrace the concept from head to toe — reaching 15 or 20 percent — we could add even more dollars ($750 million, perhaps) and more jobs, another 12,000 to the state. That’s the big picture, and it’s worth keeping our focus on that objective — and not let this initiative get waylaid by fighting over details.
By pitching in and working together, like barn-buildings of years past, much can be accomplished.
Angelo S. Lynn
Correction: This article was edited on Jan. 17 to reflect a correction in the report’s findings. Unlike originally stated, the report found that a five percent increase in local food production and consumption would generate $135 million in new economic output each year, in addition to 1,500 jobs.

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