Our challenge is to find a path forward in Vermont agriculture that allows for food production while protecting water quality. Agriculture dominates Vermont’s working landscape in many parts of the state and is also important to the state’s economy, both directly and indirectly. Similarly, our natural resources, including clean water, are why many people live in Vermont or come to visit, fueling the tax base and the tourism economy. At the present moment, agriculture is experiencing an explosion of momentum around the concept of “soil health,” a steep escalation in concerns and investments in water quality, and an intensification of the confounding effects of climate change. We will need to use common sense, the power of community, respect, sound science, and creativity to successfully navigate the dynamic intersection of these tightly interwoven factors.
Vermont is facing a dramatic shift in the agricultural sector due to economic and demographic changes. The key to the maintenance and development of the farms that form the backbone of our rural communities is to support the next generation of farmers. These new and beginning farmers face a number of challenges including shifting markets and production models, increased risk due to climate change, and barriers to accessing land. The types of support that are critical to their success include assistance in identifying and accessing suitable land, development of strong management and production capacity, supportive policies around markets, and access to capital. The new generation of farmers needs this type of support to create viable farm businesses, to keep the Vermont landscape in active agricultural use, and to preserve the character of our rural communities.
At a time when Vermont farms are facing downturns in prices and markets — and most are challenged to be profitable — farms are also set to transfer to new ownership at an unprecedented rate. The majority of Vermont farmers do not have a succession plan in place, and many do not have an identified successor. Of Vermont farmers 65 and older, 92% have no one under 45 working under them, and relatively few incoming farmers are interested in or prepared to assume responsibility for large-scale operations. This may lead to a change in the agricultural landscape that has not been seen for many generations, including a significant decrease in the amount of land in active agricultural use, land lying fallow for years or developed for other uses, and a setback in the amount of food produced in the state.
Teaching Vermont students the value of Vermont food for both their own health and their community is an investment in future generations who will support agricultural policy, buy local, consider food system careers, and invest in resources for schools and other institutions. Schools purchase Vermont foods to build relationships in their community, and understand that the relationships have to be sustainable for both the school and the producer. However, pressures to prioritize cheap and/or prepared food are increasing due to decreased student enrollment, school consolidation, and administrative personnel changes. In addition, regulatory demands and food costs have increased at a greater rate than federal and state school meal reimbursement. School nutrition personnel, teachers, and administrators are focused on the basics of teaching required subjects and federal requirements for student meals rather than being able to creatively expand their Farm to School curriculum or spend time sourcing, purchasing, and serving local foods that students will enjoy. All this means that local purchasing is at risk of decreasing.
Significant challenges are on the horizon for more than 1,000 produce farms that add diversity and innovation to Vermont’s agricultural economy, which is otherwise largely dependent on the commodity dairy industry. Though small in proportion to dairy, produce farms (excluding apple farms) generate over $50 million in annual sales, employ thousands of (mostly seasonal) workers, and supply key components of a healthy diet.
The Vermont maple sector is experiencing rapid growth in production and product innovation while holding a leadership role in maple distribution, research, and manufacturing for the United States. The expanding national demand for natural sweeteners, paired with improved production practices, creates an opportunity for continued expansion that will bolster job opportunities at all levels of the maple industry. Research estimates that 12% of the current maple resources are being used for syrup production, leaving a large amount of untapped forest available for expansion.1 Maple leaders are optimistic about sustained growth but recognize the need to adapt to new policy, climate, land use, and market forces to maintain Vermont’s role as the premier maple state in the United States.
Farm to Plate 2.0 Strategic Plan Vermont Food System Plan Product Brief: Lightly Processed Vegetables
Vermont institutions, hunger relief organizations, restaurants, and food retailers are limited in the amount of fresh, whole Vermont produce they can purchase, due to increasing food service labor shortages and the difficulty and cost of working with seasonal, perishable, and irregularly shaped produce. To limit the loss of this market share to out-of-state producers, Vermont processing facilities have begun to sell cut and frozen locally grown vegetables, but issues of capital, infrastructure, logistics, and communication have limited their expansion potential. Collaboration between producers, processors, and buyers, substantial infrastructure investments, and policies to support producer and processor expansion are needed to encourage in-state minimal processing and continue the growing momentum of local purchasing.
Hemp is a versatile annual crop and, according to UVM research, is well adapted to Vermont’s climate. In 2018, federal laws established hemp as a regulated agricultural commodity. That year, United States hemp sales grew to $1.1 billion, dominated by cannabidiol (CBD), followed by personal care, food, and industrial products (e.g., building materials, textiles, bio-composites, etc.). From 2016-2018, the first Vermont farms and businesses that jumped in were rewarded with extraordinary prices for their high-CBD hemp. Market research shows the U.S. hemp industry will grow an estimated 19% from 2018-2022, however, as prices paid to producers continue to fluctuate, it is critical that Vermont’s hemp sector prepare for where prices are headed, look to the future, diversify, and innovate.
Retail food stores, from village markets to food cooperatives (co-ops) to national chain supermarkets, are the primary sales outlet for Vermont farm and food businesses of all sizes and scales. In 2017, Vermonters spent a total of $310 million on local food, purchasing 32% of those foods at Vermont co-ops and grocery stores.1 These stores have significant impact on Vermont’s food producers, rural communities, and economy. The current trend toward out-of-state ownership and consolidation of distributors and food stores is greatly impacting the ability of Vermont farms and food manufacturers to sell their products to stores of all sizes. The viability of independently owned businesses and regional supermarkets committed to increasing local sourcing is in turn critical to farm and food business viability. Vermont must support both growers’ and value-added producers’ ability to service grocery markets. Meeting growing consumer demand for fresh, local, high-quality products at grocery stores will advance Vermont’s rural economic development and our rural communities.
The market for beef labelled “grass-fed” has been growing quickly across the nation, from $17 million in 2012 sales to $272 million in 2016 sales.1 Adding value through a production system and/or marketing label can bring higher prices paid to the farmer, and potentially higher farm profitability overall. That said, with increased demand comes increased national and international competition as well as a heightened need to improve Vermont beef genetics and grazing management in order to create year-round quality and consistency for local and regional wholesale markets. Beef represents an exciting opportunity for young and aging farmers, whether animals are grass- or grain-finished in Vermont or sold live into larger regional outlets, but will require focused coordination in order to grow within regional markets and maximize profitability and the benefits to Vermont’s farm economy.