Letter to the editor: Mr. Lynn, Legislature miss the boat on agriculture
In Thomas Jefferson’s day, America’s — and by extension, Vermont’s — preeminent occupation was agriculture. But in the 1820’s, the opening of the Erie Canal, which would provide a far more efficient link between western farms and eastern markets, adumbrated the future prospects of food production in the relatively inhospitable soil and climate of Vermont.
The coming of the railroads in the mid-nineteenth century furthered the home industry’s decline and the huge federally funded water reclamation projects like the Hoover Dam in the 1930s drove one more nail into its coffin. The introduction in the aftermath of WWII of toxic chemical substances to replace the ages-old methods for achieving soil fertility and weed control would give western agriculture one last insurmountable advantage and sound the death knell for conventional New England farming.
Except for the last, these facts were salient by 1938. Today Vermonters import about 95 percent of their food from the west or Midwest and there is no reason to expect that this will change. But facts did not dissuade the satraps in Montpelier from commissioning Statehouse Sergeant of Arms Dwight Dwinell to carve a graven image — the Hebrew word for an idol — of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture that they would cause to be hoisted to the pinnacle of the statehouse, where for eighty years she would represent an ideal we hold in highest esteem.
Mr. Lynn does not find persuasive my argument that Vermont agriculture is rotten and should be replaced. He faults my proposal (Addison Independent April 5, 2018) that the state should withdraw its support from “conventional” dairy, Vermont’s preeminent form of agriculture, and shift its support to organic, a socially, environmentally and economically friendlier paradigm.
Neither does he find any irony in the fact that on April 1 (April Fool’s Day), the same day that I was writing my article — an article he had invited me to write and for which he offered me a full page — the Vermont legislature had commissioned a rigger to remove Dwinell’s sculpture from its perch atop the statehouse because it too was rotten. Neither does Mr. Lynn see any irony in the fact that when evidence is clearer than ever before that Vermont’s support for conventional agriculture has not met its objectives but has produced very problematic ones instead, the legislature plans to commission a new graven image of Ceres to take this one’s place.
Mr. Lynn finds my policy prescription “vexing” because, he says, it does not “fit every farm,” because there is not “a viable market if every conventional operation were to move to [organic]” and because “many small, conventional dairy farms would need to be culled.” I don’t know how he could possibly have missed them but I provide clear and brief answers to these objections in my article.
More to the point, Mr. Lynn appears not to understand that the state has no duty to support industry, and fixing conventional farming’s failing business model was not the problem I set out to solve. The state has a duty, an absolute duty, to protect the commons and this duty the state has consistently subordinated to agriculture, a pretty clear example of putting one’s cart before one’s horse. Accordingly, my objectives were first to help Vermont attain its water quality standards and second to reform agriculture so that it could become profitable and non-polluting. I have these goals in the right order and I stand by my prescription for attaining them.
I think before Vermont’s legislators hoist up another graven image to the pinnacle of the statehouse, where it will spend the next century representing Vermont’s highest ideals, they should perhaps think about how to represent a legislative body that seems unable to admit to a mistake it is apparently in danger of making again.
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