Vermont Agriculture & Food System Plan 2021-2030 Vermont Food System Plan Issue Brief: Alternative Land Ownership and Access Models
Vermont will have a substantial transfer of agricultural land over the next decade. Prioritizing creative approaches to farmland ownership and access will create farming opportunities for more people, including historically marginalized communities within and outside Vermont, who are disproportionately underrepresented in farmland ownership. The model of fee simple farmland ownership by a single family is not possible for many farmers, and not desirable for some others. It is unlikely to sufficiently address the shift underway in farmland ownership, as the price of land continues to rise and the costs of production and land are well above the return obtained from many farm businesses. If we do not explore and implement a range of approaches that provide alternative methods of land ownership and access, we risk losing farming opportunities for new entrepreneurs and existing farmers, agricultural land, and the opportunity to redress historical racial injustices related to land.
Vermont Agriculture & Food System Plan 2021-2030 Vermont Food System Plan Issue Brief: Agricultural Literacy, K-12
Almost everything we eat, wear, or use comes from a plant or animal on a farm, but we are losing the knowledge of how to grow food, work on farms, and cook with whole ingredients. Americans’ physical separation from farms, declining direct involvement in farming, and dependence on consolidated national and global food supply chains sets up the next generation of Vermonters to lack knowledge and experience for self-reliance in this changing world, especially given climate change and global health pandemics. For Vermonters to be knowledgeable local food consumers and agricultural advocates, they need food and farm experiences throughout their lives. Starting with the earliest learners, the populace needs to be connected to the land and Vermont farmers, taught basic knowledge and skills in food and farming, shown the connection to other issues including climate and water, and develop work ethics and transferable skills.
Vermont Agriculture & Food System Plan 2021-2030 Vermont Food System Plan Issue Brief: Agricultural and Food Literacy
Agricultural literacy and food literacy are important because increased knowledge of agriculture and food can help Vermonters make informed choices, as both consumers and civic actors, that support their health, their communities, and the environment. A variety of barriers currently prevent us from achieving an economically robust food system that provides dignified compensation for its producers and workers, protects the environment, and produces healthy products for consumers. One barrier is a culture of cheap food that prioritizes low prices at the expense of social and environmental values. Culture is a complex and dynamic system, subject to change as new information, new values, and new frameworks emerge and gain popularity. While knowledge alone will not result in immediate changes to our food system, it is a key ingredient: knowledge contributes to attitudes, social norms, purchasing habits, and, eventually, policy. The ongoing disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic shine a spotlight on national food supply chains, and more consumers are understanding the vulnerabilities of the existing food system.
From mom-and-pop diners to high-end establishments, restaurants play a key role in shaping the way consumers eat and think about food. They also play a role in the success of Vermont farms by featuring, and increasing the amount of, locally grown food that they purchase. Enhancing restaurant and farm partnerships is a win-win for the health of Vermont’s rural economy and the overall financial sustainability of rural communities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants accounted for 3% of all local food purchases in Vermont, with at least $9.7 million flowing back to local food producers. As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic economic shutdown has hit restaurants hard: 30% of restaurants will not reopen according to current estimates. It will take time to rebuild lost restaurant livelihoods, jobs, farmer and chef relationships, and community gathering spaces, and without a dedicated and coordinated response, they may never return to pre-COVID levels.
Vermont Agriculture & Food System Plan 2021-2030 Vermont Food System Plan Market Brief: Distribution
Distribution encompasses how Vermont farms and food manufacturers get products to consumers in the state and region. Without a robust and efficient distribution system that provides cost-effective options to get their products to market, Vermont farmers and food businesses will struggle to compete and capitalize on consumer demand for Vermont food. Consolidation in the distribution industry and resulting price pressures has created unfavorable financial terms for smaller producers and restricted their access to wholesale markets. This is happening as consumers are increasingly seeking source-identified products that are perceived to provide transparency, food safety, and positive community impact. More direct investment is needed for distribution infrastructure, technology, and technical assistance to introduce system efficiencies and make wholesale and regional markets accessible and viable for Vermont farmers and food producers.
The Vermont distilled spirits industry is little more than 20 years old and has an outsized impact on Vermont’s identity as a destination for farm-to-table dining and craft beverages. Distilled spirits present an opportunity for Vermont farmers and food businesses to have their products showcased as part of a premium drink’s narrative, for Vermont’s agricultural sector to access new buyers via shipment of spirits to export markets, and to build craft-spirits tourism on the shoulders of established beer tourism. While growth opportunities exist for distilling, and the industry can be an asset for developing Vermont’s economy, brand value, and working landscape, supporting and expanding the industry further will require regulatory reform, capital and marketing investment, and supply chain coordination between Vermont farmers, food businesses, and distillers.
The United States poultry meat industry is one of the most concentrated in the food system, with four poultry companies controlling 60% of the market. Vermont’s poultry meat producers compete against industrial poultry prices, and consumer price tolerance is a limit for growth in this field, especially for organic poultry (given high organic feed costs). Added production costs, spatial limitations, and slaughtering considerations present a challenge for Vermont poultry farms who wish to scale up production to meet customer demand beyond their limited direct markets. However, poultry is an enterprise that could pivot with relative ease and help fill gaps in national supply chains as food system vulnerabilities become apparent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaboration between producers, processors, lawmakers, and policymakers is needed to take advantage of these gaps, close grey areas in packaging claims, and get Vermont’s small-scale poultry producers into regional and metropolitan markets.
There is an opportunity to diversify local agriculture given the large number of Vermont entrepreneurs producing, and consumers purchasing, agricultural products from Vermont. The number of breweries in Vermont has steadily increased to 68 and Vermont ranks first in the United States for breweries per capita (see Beer brief). Vermont breweries utilize more than 300,000 pounds of hops per year, yet Vermont growers produced less than 20,000 pounds of hops in 2019. This could represent a significant opportunity for Vermont hop growers. Hops production in Vermont represents a virtually untapped market to diversify Vermont farms.
Grapes and wine are a fledgling industry in Vermont with great economic potential and a growing reputation for quality. Grape varieties that tolerate Vermont’s cold winters and produce high-quality wines have only been available since the late 1990s, and in 2016, the value of cold-climate grapes and wines in the United States was estimated at $400 million. To support and sustain Vermont’s share of this growth, the industry must define and maintain standards of quality and regional identity of the diverse wines made in the state. Producers also require organizational and technical support in grape cultivation, business development, and winemaking practices in order to maintain competitiveness.
Critical goals are achieved when food scraps, manure, and other organic materials are removed from the waste stream and transformed into compost. Composting operations benefit the environment, create jobs, produce important agricultural inputs, and provide community services. When organic materials are diverted from landfills, where they would emit potent greenhouse gases, carbon emissions are avoided. In addition, converting this “waste product” into high-quality compost for use on Vermont land provides farmers with a valuable material that builds soil health and improves water quality (see Water Quality brief). Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (URL) provides a framework for pursuing organics resource management goals, but more work remains to build an ecologically efficient and economically sustainable model for localized, decentralized composting.