Candidates hear farmer concerns at ag forum
MIDDLEBURY — Farmers had a chance to speak directly to prospective legislators at the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) forum on local food and farming, held on Oct. 19 at Middlebury College’s Kirk Alumni Center.
Topping the list of farmer concerns were the challenges of marketing and distribution in a rural state with a low population density.
“Sometimes there’s just not enough people here in Vermont to buy all of the local produce,” said Norma Norris of Norris Berry Farm in Monkton.
The event was sponsored by ACORN, Middlebury College and Tandem, the Bristol storefront that functions as a production kitchen for Savouré and other local-foods-based products.
Tandem co-owner Jess Messer approached ACORN with the idea after listening to candidate debates on Vermont Public Radio.
“Food is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Vermont economy. And I felt that it was in the interest of the candidates to get together with their constituents and hear some of their successes and challenges where their business intersected with government,” Messer said.
Panelists for the event included Norris and fellow farmers Will Stevens of Golden Russet Farm of Shoreham, Rob Hunt of the Pork Shop in Addison, and Hannah Sessions of Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester. Farmer Taylor Hutchison, 29, of Footprint Farm in Starksboro spoke from the perspective of a first-generation farmer. Kevin Harper spoke as a local-foods value-added manufacturer.
Candidates sat up front and center facing the panelists and opened by briefly describing their experiences with farming and the local food economy. Then panelists each shared their points of view. The floor was then opened to general discussion, followed by round-table sessions by legislative district.
All but two of Addison County’s 19 candidates for state legislature attended the event.
“Farming in 2016 looks a lot different than it did in 1981,” said Stevens, comparing challenges farmers face now with those he and wife, Judy, faced starting out.
Others — fruit, vegetable, cheese and meat producers alike — joined Norris in discussing the challenges in Vermont of marketing and distribution, with some focusing on metropolitan markets like Boston and New York.
“We need to think about exporting products because the people are not here,” Sessions said. “We’ve had a goal to sell half of our product in the state of Vermont, and probably we export now more than half of our product because that’s where the market is going.”
This concern has been heightened for many because of the recent sale of Black River Produce, a key part of regional marketing and distribution for many local producers, to national giant Reinhart Foodservice (see “Farmers are uneasy about sale of local food distributor” in the Oct. 24 Independent).
“Will they (Reinhart) still value small farms?” Sessions wondered aloud.
For products directly marketed by farmers to stores and restaurants, delivery was also a concern. Some run their own deliveries on local routes, while others have used Black River, and some rely on a combination of services.
Many were also concerned about the increasing complexity of state and federal regulations and the greater demand those have put on agriculture in terms of time and dollars spent.
“We are regulated to death, and it’s taking an awful lot of time and effort to keep up with the bookwork that is involved with all of that. I understand we need to have safety and all of that, but sometimes it really is excessive,” said Norris.
Producers also spoke of the contrast between dealing with federal and state entities, the latter being characterized as far more willing to work with farmers to find solutions.
Hunt echoed Ferrisburgh House candidate Monique Thurston’s observation that many farmers “feel unwanted.” Hunt, for example, said he feels that water quality regulations, though good in many respects, fall too heavily on farmers’ shoulders.
“It’s only for farmers. Everybody else can pollute,” said Hunt.
Other concerns and interests that came up included the needs for:
• More local slaughterhouses.
• Better resources and coordination to assist new farmers.
• Preservation of retiring farmers’ “knowledge-base,” especially given some have no plans for farm succession.
• Preservation of the state’s and county’s right to farm orientation.
• Ways to better inform and include farmers in the law-making process for agricultural legislation.
• Ways to strengthen the local food economy, including creating a co-op or food hub to help handle deliveries or a multi-use food-processing with supports for new businesses, such as the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick.
Candidates, audience members and panelists voiced appreciation for the event.
Said candidate Mari Cordes, “Having had experience as an organic farmer in Vermont, I loved hearing the perspective of the current state of agriculture in Vermont directly from Addison County food producers, and believe that it is critical that we hear from them how to best move into the future with sustainable practices.”
Organizers were pleased with the event and the turnout of about six dozen people.
“Nobody left at 9 p.m. when the event was supposed to end,” said ACORN Executive Director Jonathan Corcoran. “People kept talking for another 15 to 20 minutes until we had to ask them to leave because we had to close the building.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].