Future of Agriculture report urges immediate action to strengthen Vermont food system

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Future of Agriculture report urges immediate action to strengthen Vermont food system

Mon, 02/07/2022 - 4:55pm -- tim

Vermont Future of Agriculture Commission Action Plan Amplifies Strengths, Identifies Vulnerabilities in Vermont Food System

Commission delivers report to governor with strategies to strengthen and enhance Vermont’s food systems and infrastructure

Vermont Business Magazine As with many societal challenges we have all faced in the past two years, the pandemic uncovered vulnerabilities in Vermont’s food system, while at the same time highlighting our capabilities and strengths. In response, Governor Scott appointed a Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture to grow our food economy. This includes establishing a $20 million VAAFM Strategic Infrastructure Grant Program with $10 million dedicated to storage, distribution, and other infrastructure needed to increase producers' access to Vermont distribution networks and out-of-state markets, and the remaining $10 million directed toward investments in the meat processing and waste industry. 

The governor appointed 12 citizen commissioners to study the issues and propose solutions, and appointed Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Lindsay Kurrle and Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Anson Tebbetts as co-chairs to lead the charge.

The commission’s work was framed by the heightened awareness that Vermont needs to both appreciate, and address, the critical importance of Vermont farms and local food. The annual economic output of Vermont’s entire food system is approximately $11.3 billion. As its first year of inquiry draws to a close, the Governor is releasing the Commission’s report with its recommendations to stimulate rural Vermont farm and food production and provide better access to local food.  

The report, delivered to the governor in November of 2021, helped shape the Administration’s budget proposal to the Vermont Legislature for Fiscal Year 2023.

Action Plan

The Commission has identified action steps that it recommends the governor implement immediately. The details of these and other strategies are further described in subsequent sections. This section simply names each action and why it should be an immediate priority. The order of these action steps is not intended to indicate a hierarchy or suggested sequence for implementation.

Action 1: Establish a $20 million VAAFM Strategic Infrastructure Grant Program with $10 million dedicated to storage, distribution, and other infrastructure needed to increase producers' access to Vermont distribution networks and out-of-state markets, and the remaining $10 million directed toward investments in the meat processing and waste industry. (See Strategy #5 below for additional details.)

Rationale: A lack of scale- and sector-appropriate infrastructure is the most critical barrier preventing agricultural entrepreneurs from reaching more consumers, growing new businesses across a wider range of industry subsectors, and scaling up to attract and retain new employees. Using ARPA and/or other funds to support strategic infrastructure investments would jumpstart innovation and growth across the sector while building long-term capacity.

Action 2: Establish a First-Time Farm Enterprise Owner Purchasing Assistance Program funded at $2.5 million annually for an initial five-year term to provide matched down payment assistance and other supports. (See Strategy #12 below for additional details.)

Rationale: First-time farm enterprise owners face significant challenges accessing money to make down payments to purchase land and/or housing, which limits dynamism and growth and exacerbates the aging demographic of our farmers. A matched down-payment assistance program would help address this critical barrier for the next generation of Vermont farmers while attracting new citizens to the state and expanding opportunities for increased diversity and entrepreneurism within the sector.

Action 3: Create an incentives program to support adoption of scale-appropriate agricultural technologies that will increase operational efficiencies including broadband, GPS, robotics, and blockchain, funded at $3 million annually for five years.

Rationale: Vermont farmers need better access to technology driven production techniques to drive down costs and facilitate innovation and efficiencies, so they can compete nationally and innovate locally and regionally. An incentives program would increase productivity, decrease costs, and support workforce solutions that are critical to long-term industry growth, in particular within the critical dairy sector. These scale-appropriate technologically advanced investments are needed now to shore up dairy and other sub-sectors facing intensified regional and national competition.

Action 4: Establish a new full-time permitting, regulation, and funding “navigator” position at VAAFM to assist a range of farm and food businesses streamline their experience of government programs and resources. (See Strategy #10 below for additional details.)

Rationale: Commissioners and stakeholders voiced strong support for dedicated staff to help farm and food businesses efficiently navigate emerging business opportunities and supports, regulatory complexities, and financing opportunities, and to support more effective interagency coordination. This action is powerfully aligned with the Governor’s priorities to expand the economy and workforce, modernize government, and reduce costs for businesses. Eventually, the Commission believes at least two staff members to serve the entire state, will be critical.

Action 5: Immediately initiate a portfolio of high impact strategies from this Report that are already under discussion and/or broadly supported; evaluate the potential for initiating the remaining recommended strategies in future years.

The following actions reflect available opportunities that the Commission recommends for immediate implementation:

Provide an initial one-time allocation of $250,000 to initiate a Vermont Agriculture and Food Strategic Brand Initiative to engage consumers, buyers, farmers, producers, restauranteurs, and others to actively support products grown and made in Vermont, followed by ongoing funding to support marketing assistance and coordination. (See Strategy #17.) Rationale: The first step in establishing this agriculture and food marketing initiative is extremely low-cost and low risk. The potential long-term upsides of a strengthened and more unified Vermont brand are enormous.

Request that the legislature fund a long-term program to reimburse K-12 schools for purchasing healthy local foods beyond FY22. (See Strategy #2.) Rationale: The legislature has initiated a local food incentives program to be launched this coming year. The Governor should keep this initiative moving forward and direct the necessary support toward lasting local food procurement for K-12 schools.

Direct VAAFM to endorse and operationalize the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Policy. (See Strategy #4.) Rationale: Endorsing the NASDA principle is a common-sense, low-cost first step towards a more comprehensive plan of action for the agricultural sector on racial equity.

Provide $3 million in annual base funding to the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. (See Strategy #6) Rationale: The program is established and provides a successful model for making catalytic investments in working lands businesses and service providers. The grants are highly effective and existing demand far exceeds current annual funding levels. Funding increases are currently under discussion and the time is ripe to implement a more consistent base allocation for the Working Lands Program.

Endorse the maintenance and strengthening of the Current Use program. (See Strategy #7) Rationale: The Current Use program is arguably the most essential state incentive program supporting the agriculture sector and retention of Vermont’s working lands. The program would benefit from a strong endorsement by the executive branch and even further strengthening through enhanced appraisal values and rate structures, among other measures.

Announce the Governor’s intention to provide continued, robust support for the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Soil Health Working Group. (See Strategy #11.) Rationale: The PES Working Group is engaging in critical work and poised to become a central point of coordination and connection among PES research and design efforts. $1 million is needed to set up a pilot program offering initial payments and tracking participant outcomes and maintain the PES working group efforts to help Vermont develop a successful and sustainable PES program.

In future years, the commission recommends that the governor move forward on each of the commission’s additional strategies, as further detailed in the report. Funding for additional initiatives, like $3 million for the Farm & Forest Viability Program and grant or incentive programs focused on healthy local foods, climate smart farming, mentorship, continuing education, and new marketplace hubs should be carefully considered for FY23 budget requests or beyond. (See Strategies 1, 8, 9, 13-15, 17 & 18.) New staff positions focused on food security and marketing could emerge from ongoing or future planning processes. (See Strategies 3 & 17.)

Governor Scott said, “This comprehensive report highlights the value of investing in Agriculture and our food system. I thank members of the Commission for focusing on strategies that ensure we can feed our people while growing our rural economy. The pandemic has repeatedly challenged us, but we now have access to a rare infusion of resources that can strengthen our agricultural infrastructure and help us innovate and rebuild.”

In creating the report, the Commissioners shared their ideas, and tapped the expertise of young farmers, members of the public, and organizations working on environmentally sound farming practices, climate adaptation and resilience, and diversity. 

Some of the highlights:

  • Vermont is a small state defined by its rural character, but its population and land management practices are changing.  Vermont’s iconic brand is defined by agriculture; even though the state is evolving, our red barns, green valleys, black and white cows, and open pastoral lands are still appreciated by Vermonters and help attract visitors and new entrepreneurs to our State.
  • Agriculture is a principal engine for Vermont’s rural economy.  Small towns cannot thrive without economic opportunity and agricultural innovation; open land must offer Vermonters a sustainable living, or it is vulnerable to development or under-utilization.
  • Dairy remains essential to Vermont’s agricultural future.  While dairy farms were once ubiquitous, Vermont’s dairy farms still generate approximately 70% of the State’s agricultural sales and utilize over 80% of its working land. 
  • Times change, and Vermont food and agriculture needs to grow, attract new and diverse farmers and workers, and adapt.  Vermont farmers are adapting, diversified businesses are on the rise, value-added producers are evolving and responding to market opportunities, farmers markets are popular, many Vermonters are passionate about their landscape and local food, and the Vermont brand is robust.

Commission Co-Chair Secretary Kurrle noted, “The Commission’s overarching mission is to help ensure that Vermont remains a vibrant agricultural state. It found that while Vermont agriculture is resilient, it needs attention and care.”

Secretary Tebbetts added, “The Commission reiterated that investment in a robust agricultural sector is essential to supporting Vermont’s residents, building its rural economy, employing its citizens, drawing visitors, and maintaining Vermont’s unique character and beauty.”

Moving forward, the Commission will engage the Legislature and all Vermonters on strategies to realize Vermont’s goals.

Click here to read the full report.

February 7, 2022 | Montpelier, VT - VT Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets