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Vermont ‘Farm to Plate’ to Create Jobs and Strengthen Local Food System

August 11, 2011 |

In 2009, the Vermont Legislature approved the Farm to Plate (F2P) initiative as part of the state’s 2010 jobs bills.  The F2P initiative tasked the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) with creating a 10-year strategic plan to strengthen and expand the state’s food system. Two years and a $400,000 later, the VSJF released a plan that contains 33 goals and 60 high priority strategies to create new jobs, increase market share, and improve environmental and economic health in the state’s agriculture sector.

The central aim of F2P is to promote and enable the production and consumption of locally grown foods in Vermont, said Erica Campbell, who became the VSJF Farm to Plate program director in July. She said the plan supports sustainable agriculture by virtue of its core focus.

Representative Will Stevens, who is also an organic farmer, explained how Farm to Plate became a part of Vermont’s 2010 jobs bill: “Part of the genesis for Farm to Plate came about through a recognition that agriculture is a business too. From a policy perspective we haven’t really treated it as such in the past.”

Generating new jobs and increasing state GDP

According to the F2P plan, a 5 percent increase in overall food system production in Vermont would generate 1,500 jobs over the next decade and an annual increase of $88 million in the state’s gross domestic product. Currently, 12.9 percent of private businesses and 16 percent of private jobs in Vermont are in the food and farm sector. In 2007, the state’s agricultural and food output totaled $2.7 billion.

Campbell said she thought that Vermont would see more than 1,500 jobs because the VSFJ’s estimate was “fairly conservative.”

The F2P plan notes that if families doubled the amount of local foods they purchased – substituting local foods for imports – it would help Vermont achieve that 5 percent increase in overall food system production.

“The big wild card is how fast the system will change,” said Ellen Kahler, executive director of the VSJF. “That’s going to be driven largely by how far and how fast consumer demand changes.”

Nuts and bolts

The VSJF spent 18 months speaking with 1,200 state citizens, conducting 250 one-on-one interviews and analyzing heaps of data on Vermont agriculture. It synthesized this research to show how challenges and opportunities in specific sectors of the food system could potentially impact the future of Vermont agriculture.

Based on this analysis the VSJF formulated its 33 goals. It then laid out 60 high priority goals. These priorities have the potential for the greatest “ripple effect,” Kahler said. “Any given issue that we identify as a bottleneck or a challenge, there’s no one simple solution to that problem. You have to hit it from all these different directions.”

Among the challenges that F2P will work to overcome are those related to increasing consumer demand for local and regional food in Vermont. The goals that F2P has come up with to combat these challenges include increasing consumption of Vermont-produced food by Vermonters and regional consumers, encouraging K-12 schools, colleges and universities to consume more locally grown food, and preventing Vermonters from experiencing health problems related to low cost imported foods. The F2P plan says that to achieve these goals a comprehensive consumer education campaign that provides Vermont residents with information about the social, economic and environmental benefits of purchasing locally and regionally produced food will need to be created.

Goals related to food security, include providing all Vermonters with access to local foods that they can afford. To improve local food access and availability for food insecure residents, F2P recommends instituting a state refundable tax credit for a percentage of the value of all donated food to reimburse farmers for their participation and thereby encourage them to agree to below cost sales to schools or food outlets (food shelves, meal sites). To increase food availability F2P proposes that the state should fund organizations that sustain community and school garden programs such as Friends of Burlington Gardens and the Vermont Community Garden Network, which recently secured funding through the efforts of Senator Sanders.

(For more detail and the full list of F2P goals and strategies, check out the recently released executive summary (PDF 16.5MB).)

Farm to Plate as a model

Thomas Vogelmann, Dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Sciences and a member of the Farm to Plate (F2P) process development team, said he has received complements from deans in other states on the F2P initiative.

“They say to me, ‘wow, this is really amazing. We’re going to try and copy what you guys did,” he explained.

Other states can learn from the initiative, Koi Boynton, a development coordinator at the Agency of Agriculture, said.

Kahler explained that she thought Farm to Plate would ultimately be successful because of the VSJF’s data and research methods. “We had this whole stakeholder engagement process; they own the plan,” she said. “This is not the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Plan. It’s not the Agency of Agriculture’s plan.”

Hans Estrin, a local food network coordinator for UVM Extension who has been working on improving the accuracy of F2Ps statistical data, said that the key to the success of local foods systems is contingent on relationships at local levels.

“On the one hand, these initiatives and efforts are crucial,” said Estrin. “On the other hand, when you do these kinds of big efforts, it’s sort of impossible to really involve everyone in it. It tends to be a sort of top heavy effort.”

Interest in the Farm to Plate initiative has varied by farmer. Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards said in an e-mail that he attended several planning meetings and workshops because he was “passionate” about local foods.

Jon Cohen, president of the Vermont Farmer’s Market Association, said he did not follow the initiative “terribly closely.” “It hasn’t really trickled down to something that is making a difference in my world economically,” he said.

Susan Beal, organizer of the Bennington county Farm to Plate council, said the initiative was “a little bit of a hard sell.” Farmers are “busy farming” and might not see how the plan can impact their businesses, she explained.

Beal also owns Shadow Brook Farm. She organized a regional summit because Bennington has food security issues, a topic Farm to Plate addresses. Out of the plan’s 33 goals, her county will “stick to a few that make sense for this county,” which means focusing on “closing the gap between farm viability and food accessibility.”

VSJF and the many stakeholders involved in F2P ultimately hope to achieve the plans 33 goals and execute its 60 high priority strategies by 2020.


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