By Chuck Ross
Secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets
Agriculture is critical to our communities, our economy, our landscape, and our way of life here in Vermont. As Vermonters, we have grown accustomed to a vital and robust agricultural lifestyle. But when I leave our state, in my travels as Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, I am always reminded that our local agriculture here in Vermont is special, and serves as a model for others.
Take our Farm to School program, for example. Today, 83% of Vermont students are engaged in Farm to School curriculum in their classrooms, cafeterias, and communities, compared to 42% nationally. We are creating opportunity for local farmers by serving healthy, local foods in our schools, while also providing kids access to nutritious meals and building their agricultural literacy. Our statewide Farm to School network just set the ambitious goal of providing nourishing universal meals to all Vermont students within the next ten years, purchasing at least 50% of that food from a socially just and environmentally and financially sustainable regional food system. Not only are we leading, but we are constantly pushing ourselves to do more, and do better.
Dairy is the backbone of our agricultural economy. It constitutes 70% of our agricultural sales, and 80% of total agricultural land. We are a small state, but we produce 63% of the total milk in New England. And yet the dairy industry is struggling because of persistent low prices, due to a complex and convoluted national pricing system, over which our hardworking dairy farmers have no control. Farmers must be paid a viable price for their milk. While the organic model is part of the solution, it is not the only solution. The recent proposed purchase of WhiteWave, the largest organic dairy brand in the country, by an international conglomerate, speaks to the fact that the organic market may not be immune from the consolidation we have seen plague the conventional processing market.
Despite challenging economic times for the industry, dairy in Vermont continues to be an important part of the fabric of Vermont. With over 15% of the total acres in Vermont dedicated to dairy farming, it is critical to our landscape. Our farms are growing more efficient and more sustainable, with a focus on stewardship and conservation, and producing quality products. Our cheesemakers are a force to be reckoned with nationally – this year Vermont took home fifteen blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society, as well as nine 2nd place and ten 3rd place finishes. We have more methane digesters per capita than any state in the country. Our dairy farmers are actively engaged in protecting water quality, soil building, energy production, nutrient removal, and marketing the Vermont brand. These are part of the path forward for Vermont dairy and Vermont agriculture writ large, and are good for our economy, environment, consumers, and brand.
All food, farm and forestry businesses play a critical role in our economy and our working landscape. Since Governor Shumlin took office, Vermont has added more than 5100 new jobs in the farm and food sectors. Our Agency has supported this growth through key initiatives, from working with institutional food purveyors to add local food to the menu at our colleges and in our correctional facilities, to furnishing technical assistance to dramatically increase the number of in-state meat and dairy processing facilities. We have provided grants and guidance to open new markets for local businesses, created networks for best practice sharing among producer organizations, and promoted the Vermont brand across the nation, and around the world. Everywhere we go, we are reminded, once again, that our reputation for quality food and farm products is unparalleled.
We have much to be proud of, but there is still work to do. We must continue to address agriculture and food system illiteracy and expand access to healthy food. Today, too few people understand where our food comes from, how its produced, who produces it, and what the choices and actions are required to produce food. We need to shift our priorities so that all of agriculture is understood and recognized for the critical role it plays in community health. Vermont is a leader in this regard but we must do better and more, as food insecurity and food related illnesses still haunt us here in Vermont, our region, and country.
We must also build upon, and continue to leverage, our great Vermont brand. There are millions of customers to our south who know and want Vermont products. We need to increase our efforts to connect these consumers with our outstanding farmers and food producers.
To that end, we must also support the current generation, and attract the next generation, of farmers, food entrepreneurs and innovators who understand that farming and food careers are exciting, rewarding and meaningful to our collective future. We need people who can make important contributions to our future challenges, ranging from nutrition, food security to climate change.
As I look toward the future, I have no doubt the future of agriculture in Vermont will be very bright. Vermont is on the cutting edge of community supported agriculture – we must maintain the momentum. Over the course of the past six years, I have been consistently impressed by the women and men engaged in Vermont’s food system. On our farms, in our schools, at our food hubs, here in Montpelier and across the state – some of Vermont’s best and brightest minds are at work advancing local agriculture and our role as a regional and national leader. There is tremendous opportunity for growth in this sector, and I truly believe we are poised to seize it. For our communities, for our economy, for our landscape, and for future generations, we must do all we can to support Vermont agriculture.