Panel looks at what drives the Addison County economy

MIDDLEBURY — Agriculture is one of the key supports in the economy of Addison County.
Middlebury dairy farmer Bob Foster was part of a four-member panel organized and moderated by Bruce Lisman of the Campaign for Vermont, or CFV, that spent the snowy evening of Feb. 19 at the Ilsley Library discussing how to improve economic security and prosperity for everyone.
Key questions discussed that night include: How can the community and the state support the 200 dairy farms that supply milk to the Cabot processing plant in Middlebury, producer of 55 million pounds of cheese annually? Can Middlebury capitalize on its No. 2 ranking by Yankee Magazine for prettiest foliage in New England? What are the common traits of success for Middlebury area start-up businesses? Has a 13-bed healthy living home on a side street in Bristol discovered how to control the skyrocketing cost of elder care? The panel discussion was the second by CFV, that Lisman notes is a “non-partisan, non-political campaign for good ideas” to improve prosperity.
Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, noted that Middlebury College is the county’s largest employer and an economic bellwether: “(The college) keeps us on an even keel in tough times, and helped us come out of the recession a little more quickly than we might have.”
The county’s business base is broad, but not deep. “We have one or two of everything, we don’t have a plethora of businesses,” Mayer said. “What has worked here are businesses that are home grown — Otter Creek brewery, the soap factory, businesses that started here with local resources and people who are committed to being here.”
You can’t get any more “home grown” than the multi-generation family farm. Bob Foster and several other family members operate the 1,800-acre, 700head (420 milkers) Foster Brothers Farm. He’s a fourth generation farmer who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in agricultural engineering and economics at the University of Vermont and then came home and put his training to good use.
Foster is bullish on the future of Vermont dairy farms. His family’s farm alone produces enough milk to meet the entire dairy needs of 66,000 people. Vermont has fewer farms than it once had but still produces about as much milk, in part because of improved techniques. Despite the rapid growth of diversified, organic farming, conventional farms still produce 83 percent of the state’s total agricultural product.
Foster also has a strong, practical environmental bent, finding ways to improve both the environment and the bottom line. Years ago whey was dumped as waste into streams. Now it is processed into a product sold worldwide. As for manure — Foster Brothers installed a “cow power” biodigester that made electricity (until a heavy snowfall collapsed the roof of its building). Bob Foster is active in the national “25 x 25” initiative by farmers, forests and ranchers to provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed and fiber.
He’s also a local industry leader in converting manure into marketable compost. A few years ago the state of Vermont decided — illogically, Foster believes — to tax compost while leaving other fertilizer untaxed. Even though state law urges aggressive composting, the selective taxation punishes the very people who trying to help Vermont reach its goals, Foster said.
When Lisman mentioned agritourism — a fairly new practice of turning picturesque farms into tourist destinations — Foster noted that this emerging business will benefit when the insurance liability problem is solved. At present farmers are liable for accidents that occur to tourists during their visits.
When people mention tourism, Robin Vaughan’s ears perk up. The manager of the Courtyard Marriott on Rte. 7 believes Addison County has enormous tourism potential, which can be tapped if people inside and outside the industry work together. As an example she cites the town of Lincoln — not Vermont, but New Hampshire — which has created a “competitive drumbeat.” As with employment, the big player in local tourism in Addison County is Middlebury College. But there is so much more here, including the stunning foliage, and she wonders how long the county will be “a best kept secret.” A Certified Ambassador through the Vermont Department of Tourism, she laments that Middlebury is seen by some “as a drive through to get to Manchester and Burlington, and not as a destination. Woodstock is a destination. Manchester is a destination. Middlebury can be that, too.”
Certainly a major hurdle to prosperity in people in agriculture, tourism, and small business — and everyone else — is the high cost of healthcare. And that’s where Paul Kervick joined the conversation that night. He’s the developer of a 13-bed home for the elderly with a daring mission: focus on wellness, not illness. “Being elderly isn’t a problem,” he said. But, he explained, a post-World War II, warehouse-style model of nursing homes that requires 75 percent of its participants to be heavily insured “is failing, it’s not sustainable. We’re paying for a system that’s not based on wellness.” Every dollar spent on wellness saves $30 on illness, he said.
Kervick operates Living Well, a small-scale, community-based, wellness-oriented care home in an old Victorian building on Maple Street in Bristol. Living Well practices a combination of holistic medicine and nutrition and caring for the whole person. “Each person has value, you are a resource to your community,” Kervick said. Isolation is strongly discouraged — cooking, cleaning, and other chores are shared when possible. Food is bought from local vendors or grown onsite. And here is the remarkable thing: even though 75 percent of the patients have only Medicaid insurance, the home has been financially “in the black” since its inception.
“It’s a family. People have a reason to live,” Kervick said. “It’s caring, touching, music, food, breathing, drumming — basic things that all of us can do at home. It’s simple, it’s not rocket science, but it’s looking at people and knowing who they are.”
And it’s a system that works, its founder claims. “We should be able to do this in every town in Vermont,” Kervick said.
At the end of the evening, a Starksboro man asked the panel how his town can keep its five — soon to be four — working farms in operation. Kervick offered: “What can we do as a community? Get to know your farms. You can work together to keep this in the community long term,” including identifying the would-be farmers among us.
The panel discussion ended with this buck-stops-here observation by Kervick: “We can only change ourselves.”
Editor’s note: This article was provided by Bruce Lisman.

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