Ag Agency and partners release a Vermont Agriculture Economic Plan

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Ag Agency and partners release a Vermont Agriculture Economic Plan

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 3:01am -- tim
Agriculture and Forestry Joint Committee Hear Ideas to Stimulate Agriculture Economy
Vermont Business Magazine The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM) and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund/Vermont Farm to Plate today outlined to legislators on shifts happening within Vermont’s agricultural and food sector. The plan lays out a strategy to stimulate more rural economic development and bring Vermont products to people throughout Vermont and beyond. 

In May 2019, the Legislature and Governor Scott established Act 83 to encourage a new wave of agricultural development.  The new law calls for the Agency and its partners to research and develop recommendations to stabilize and revitalize Vermont’s agricultural industry.

“With the help of the Vermont Farm to Plate team our Agency collaborated with a wide variety of farmers, producers and business development experts to set the table for the future of Vermont agriculture,” noted Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts. “We identified key factors in growing Vermont’s economy while protecting farmers and making it more affordable to do business in Vermont.”

APPLES: CASE STUDY

What’s At Stake?
Apples in Vermont are behind only dairy and maple in total annual crop value. Since the 1990s, Vermont’s share of all
apples sold to eastern U.S. wholesale markets has decreased. Apple acreage fell from approximately 3,500 acres in 2001 to
1,700 acres in 2017. Local sales at pick-your-own and farm stand sales have increased, and cider markets have grown, but
have not replaced lost volume nor revenue from wholesale sales. Some Vermont orcharding communities are seeing a loss
of economic activity from crop sales and farm employment and the disenfranchisement of growers. Without supportive
policies and more investment in marketing, technical assistance, and supply chain coordination, Vermont growers will
continue to lose out to growers in regions where larger concentrations of orchards have the advantage in efficiency,
modernization, and infrastructure.

Current Conditions
Wholesale apple producers are presently experiencing very
difficult economic circumstances. Apples have historically
been one of Vermont’s primary regional wholesale crops,
and thus provide significant revenue from out of state.

Vermont orchards are planted primarily to McIntosh and
similar varieties, but consumer tastes are shifting to newer
varieties that require replanting of orchards. Recent shifts in
marketing to in-state buyers has increased per-bushel prices
paid to growers who are selling fewer fruit into commodity
markets, but the increased value has not offset reduced
sales volume that previously supported about twice the
orchard acreage that Vermont now has. This shift has led to
contraction in the wholesale market, facilitated by loss of instate
packing and distribution facilities. Some growers have
adopted direct store delivery models by assuming their own
packing and distribution systems, but limited outlets and
local population limits potential growth.

Licensed hard cider manufacturers have increased to 24 in
2019 from less than ten in 2010, but the prices paid for cider
apples are typically one half to one sixth the price for packed
fresh fruit. Higher-value cider apples require growing unique
varieties with no secondary market and sometimes unknown
production needs. Orchards take three to ten years to reach
full production, and installation costs up to $30,000 per acre.
This causes barriers to entry as time between investment
and return requires saved or borrowed capital. Apples also
have substantial, unique, and annual pest management
needs relative to most annual crops. Despite recent losses
in technical support at UVM Extension, private-sector
technical assistance has been provided by a consultant with
the primary agrichemical product dealer who works closely
with UVM personnel to expand technical assistance services
to growers.

Bottlenecks & Gaps
• Limited in-state growth in population and fruit
consumption limits the potential for increased local
apple sales.
• Lack of independent storage, packing, and
distribution facilities limits individual growers’ entry
into many markets.
• Technical assistance for growers through UVM
Extension is limited to grant-funded personnel with
multiple other duties.
• Coordinated marketing support through the
Vermont Apple Marketing Order was withdrawn by
the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture in 2009 and
cancelled by the Vermont Legislature in 2014.
• Orchards are highly reliant on seasonal labor,
including migrant labor through the federal H-2A
program, which makes them vulnerable to labor
shortages at critical times and to onerous regulations
and inspections.
Opportunities
• Older orchard systems include deep-rooted, healthy
trees that are resilient to climate and pest pressures.
Well-managed orchards are a long-term asset, although
prices for fruit from older varieties are low and many
older trees may be past their commercial prime.
• Increased production of high-value specialty ciders
creates markets for unique specialty cider varieties
and for growers to establish on-farm cideries that add
value to their crop.
• Institutional purchasers such as schools, colleges and
hospitals may be an important area for increased
local sales.
• Retail or pick-your-own apple markets are not
saturated in many areas of the state and provide
customers with a valuable agritourism experience.
Recommendations
• Collaborate across the distribution chain to increase in-state and regional institutional purchases of Vermont apples.
Local food coordinators and other market specialists should assist with USDA purchases for school lunches, contracts
at key institutions including higher education food service and hospitals, and aggregation through food hubs that
prioritize fruit from local orchards.
• Support increased purchases of apples and production of high-value ciders through farm cidery legislation that would
allow growers to more easily enter the cider market themselves and increase farm gate value for the fruit they produce.
• The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) should conduct and expand marketing programs
for all Vermont horticultural crops, including apples. Marketing programs should be two-tiered to support both instate
and out-of-state promotions. Quality standards should be established for Vermont products that are exclusive and
meaningful and thus may indicate provenance and quality of Vermont products sold outside the state.
• Increase and permanently fund technical assistance services through UVM Extension, VAAFM, or other stakeholder
organizations. Include pest management, horticultural, food safety, and economics expertise in technical assistance
programming.
• VAAFM should work with Vermont’s federal delegation to urge sensible reform to immigration and labor rules that
affect fruit and vegetable growers (e.g. H-2A, Title 29, Part 780 of CFR Agricultural Labor Exemption Rules).

 

 

 

The plan is part of a larger report that will be developed throughout 2020. The 23 topic-related briefs contained in the report addresses training, conservation, regional competition, marketing, innovation, planning, succession and more.

“This report recognizes that Vermont farmers have adapted to market changes and opportunities for 150 years but may need some additional assistance over the next decade. National and international economic influences and changing demographics and consumer trends are shaping today’s markets, and will continue to do so going forward,” said Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.  “It’s essential for Vermont businesses to continue to leverage quality, authenticity and creativity while continuously adapting to what customers want and need to buy.”

The report’s goal is to stimulate greater collaboration and stronger approaches to product development, storage and processing, marketing, and distribution.  All of these ideas will be further developed in the coming year. 

To explore the report, click here: Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan: 2020

A Facebook live recording of the presentation is available here.

Read Secretary Anson Tebbetts’ Op-Ed: Setting the Table for Vermont - What Would You like to See on Our Plate

Source: Montpelier, VT - Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets 1.22.2020