Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, testifies before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. VSJF photo.
Vermont Business Magazine The $2.6 billion Vermont agricultural economy has changed profoundly and Vermont must respond to local and global impacts. Representatives of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network and staff at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund presented the 2018 Farm to Plate Annual Report to the Vermont Legislature’s House and Senate Agriculture Committees, requesting the Legislature reauthorize the Vermont Farm to Plate food system plan beyond 2020 to continue the work of growing the local food economy.
Signed into law by the Vermont Legislature in 2009 as the Farm to Plate Investment Program, the creation of Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan calls for increased economic development in Vermont’s farm and food sector, new jobs in the farm and food economy, and improved access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. Implementation of Vermont’s ten-year food system plan began in 2011 by the Farm to Plate Network—over 350 nonprofits, businesses, and government officials all working together to reach the goals of the plan. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a nonprofit organization committed to sustainable economic development, coordinates the Farm to Plate Network and is responsible for reporting the progress and challenges back to the Vermont Legislature in the Farm to Plate Annual Report.
Jake Claro, Farm to Plate director at Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, said as Farm to Plate concludes its eighth full year and approaches 2020, there is strong recognition major progress has been made in implementing priority strategies and achieving the objectives identified in the plan.
“We come to the Legislature not only to report on the latest year of progress, but also to ask to open a new chapter and decade of Farm to Plate’s existence by reauthorizing the Farm to Plate Investment Program for another 10 years,” said Claro. “Our hope is that this year’s Annual Report begins to outline the challenges, opportunities, and approaches Farm to Plate will focus on now and into the decade to come.”
Impacts of Success
Vermont has seen significant economic growth and development in Vermont’s food system since 2010:
- Economic Development: Purchases of local food products in Vermont have increased by $176 million to $289 million in total (12.9% of total food and beverage sales).
- New Jobs: Vermont’s farm and food economic sector employs more than 64,174 Vermonters, with 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new businesses created.
- Food Access: The percentage of Vermont households that are food insecure has dropped from 13.2% to 9.8% in 2017, and charitable food and food access organizations have significantly improved availability of local food for Vermonters.
Over the course of Farm to Plate’s implementation efforts, Farm to Plate Network members surfaced new challenges and opportunities not identified in the original plan, many of which will require action beyond 2020.
“The relationships built within the Farm to Plate Network have been priceless,” said Jennifer Colby, Farm to Plate Network Product and Processing Working Group chairperson and UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Pasture Program Coordinator. “The strong foundation of using data to determine where we have come from, the coordination that has allowed us to connect with others doing aligned work now, and the action of bringing unlikely—but natural—partners together has energized our state to spring forward. Without Farm to Plate, we could never have accomplished what we have in the past eight years.”
Additionally, the report, “A 2018 Exploration of the Future of Vermont Agriculture: Ideas to Seed a Conversation and a Call to Action,” recently released by a number of Vermont food system thought leaders identifies Farm to Plate as a logical vehicle for carrying out the exploration and development of new strategies and ideas.
“What Farm to Plate can bring to the table is non-comparable to a state agency, and there is value to not being inside state government,” said Alyson Eastman, Deputy Secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “Farm to Plate has more than demonstrated the importance of networking and within their work has taught the importance of working across sectors. There is no time like the present to continue the work of Farm to Plate; especially with the topics of business viability, marketability, climate change and ecosystem benefits at the forefront.”
Farm to Plate Network Priorities
The Farm to Plate Annual Report details progress and challenges central to reaching the legislative goals of Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan:
- Meeting Food System Employment Needs in Positive Work Environments
- Improving Viability and Financial Profitability of Farms and Food Businesses
- Increasing Local Food Availability and Affordability in All Market Channels
- Increasing Consumer Engagement and Demand for Local Food with Rooted in Vermont and Encouraging Vermont Product Sales and Labeling at Retail Stores
- Protecting and Expanding Affordable and Environmentally Sustainable Farmland in Agricultural Production
Future of Vermont Agriculture Report
Trends and Challenges
The mainstay of Vermont’s agricultural economy for the last century has been the dairy industry. Dairy farms still contribute close to 70% of Vermont’s farm sales (~$1.3 billion annually), and manage over 80% of Vermont’s open land2, making Vermont the top state in the U.S. in its dependency on a single commodity3. While the dairy industry significantly contributed to building a strong Vermont agricultural sector in the 1900s, structural challenges affecting the dairy industry are resulting in historic farm losses across the state, negative profit margins for many farms, and slow and steady declines in farm equity for many farm families. The outcomes of this process are consolidation and farm closures: the number of dairy farms dropped from about 1,100 in 2008 to 705 in October 2018.4 Vermont lost 91 dairy farms since January 2018 alone, representing a 13% loss in the first nine months of the year.
Additionally, 92% of New England farmers 65 and older have no one under 45 working with them to succeed them5, and relatively few incoming farmers are interested or prepared to assume responsibility for large-scale operations (including the debt that may come with them). Although a reasonable portion (21.6%) of Vermont’s agricultural land is conserved, we must confront the possibility that much of Vermont’s agricultural land may be underutilized or at risk of being lost, potentially permanently, to development or alternative land uses in the near future.
Agriculture has changed globally, driven by technology, consolidation, consumer demand, federal policies, and international trade. In response, efforts to return to more local and regional food systems, and consumer interest and willingness to pay premiums for such products, have helped build new markets for smaller scale, niche businesses as well as wholesale and larger scale opportunities for Vermont farmers outside of commodity markets. While the majority of Vermont’s agricultural products are still commodity dairy products, our agricultural economy has diversified widely over the past two decades, there is a more entrepreneurial spirit across the industry, and many young individuals are interested in diversified, rather than dairy, farming in our state and region.
Despite this innovation and diversification, the resulting agricultural activity is not happening at the scale necessary to utilize the vast acreage that is leaving dairy production. Some of the more profitable farm business models in Vermont today utilize less farmland than the traditional dairy farm model, including those that focus on on-farm dairy processing, vegetables, livestock production for beef or meat products, or downsizing a dairy herd and transitioning to organic. The number of agricultural acres in Vermont dropped from 1,315,315 in 1997 to 1,251,753 in 2012; over that same period of time, the number of farms in Vermont increased from 7,063 to 7,338.6 Thus, we are seeing a trend towards smaller farm operations in terms of acreage in active production.7 When small and mid-sized dairy farms sell their herds, we often see one of two outcomes: either a larger dairy farm leases the land for additional corn and/or hay acreage, or the farm is converted to a smaller farm that utilizes less acreage. We expect to see the latter trend grow over the coming years, and expect Vermonters to notice more fallow farmland.
In our opinion, the magnitude of this issue may be historic: the marketplace has failed the farmer and in our lifetimes Vermont may lose the agricultural foundation of our working landscape, with all it means to our quality of life and the statewide value from agricultural exports ($776 million annually), the agricultural economy ($2.6 billion annually)8, the recreational economy ($1.51 billion annually9), and the tourist economy (almost $3 billion annually10). And this is occurring at a time when more consumers want to buy local and know where their food comes from, and are concerned with the safety of our food supply. It is also occurring at a time when climate disruptions may necessitate more local production for overall food security.
Given these trends, public policy makers, organizations, and community members who care about our critical resources of land and soil, and wish to protect them for the future of Vermont, have the opportunity and obligation to determine how to support our agricultural enterprises as they work to adapt and innovate through what we anticipate will be a significant shift in the course of Vermont’s agricultural economy. We believe the response should not be tied to any particular agricultural product, but should instead embrace the necessity of conserving agricultural resources alongside the reality that Vermont agriculture may look different in the future than it does now. The question we wish to examine further is which combination of activities and investments are best suited to that purpose.
2 Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, 2015. Milk Matters: The Role of Dairy in Vermont. https://vermontdairy.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VTD_MilkMatters-Broc...
3 Parsons, Bob, no date. Vermont’s Dairy Sector: Is there a sustainable future for the 800 lb. gorilla? Opportunities for Agriculture Working Paper Series, Vol. 1, No. 4. Food System Research Collaborative, UVM Center for Rural Studies. http://www.uvm.edu/crs/reports/working_papers/WorkingPaperParsons-web.pdf
4 Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, 2018. Vermont Dairy Data – October 23, 2018.
5 Land for Good and American Farmland Trust, 2016. http://landforgood.org/wp-content/uploads/Vermont-Gaining-Insights-AFT-L...
6 We will gain a more recent picture of these trends when the 2017 Census of Agriculture data is released in February 2019.
7 Average farm size dropped from 189 acres in 2002 to 171 acres in 2012; median farm size dropped from 100 acres in 2002 to 80 acres in 2012. Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/.
8 VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, 2016. Agriculture in Vermont: Highlights. http://agriculture.vermont.gov/sites/ag/files/pdf/news_media/VT%20Ag%20%...
9 Outdoor Industry Association, 2018. https://outdoorindustry.org/press-release/outdoor-recreation-thriving-ve...
10 VT Tourism Research Center: http://www.uvm.edu/tourismresearch/?Page=tourism.html
About Farm to Plate
Farm to Plate is Vermont’s food system plan being implemented statewide to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. The ten year Farm to Plate Strategic Plan (2011-2020) to create a viable, sustainable, and resilient food system to produce and distribute our food is being implemented by the Farm to Plate Network—over 350 farm and food sector businesses, non-profits, institutions, and government agencies from across the state. Farm to Plate is a program of the Vermont Legislature, administered by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Montpelier, Vermont. www.VTFarmtoPlate.com
Source: Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund 1.23.2019