Kate Bowen: A farmer's critique of the state ag plan

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It's no surprise to Vermonters that our agricultural economy has been in free-fall for more than thirty years. There've been some times during that fall that our rate of speed has been reduced due to assistance by the market or state and federal government. But there's no denying that the data collected and the barns we see in disrepair as we drive our muddy roads show us whatever government has been doing in ag ain't working.

At the end of the legislative session last year the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets was asked by our elected officials for a new Game Plan. Over the past few years the legislators have been made aware of water quality issues, commodity dairy pricing issues, and the hooplah of hemp. And, on the minds of the few legislators who have a connection to our working landscape, they've seen increased concern over farmer suicide rates, the fragmentation of prime ag land to development, and the growing divide between responsible agrarians and the Green Elite.

This Game Plan was a chance for many of the bureaucratic and industry stakeholders to come together to assess the state of the state. They brainstormed ideas to improve how policy is shaped under the Golden Dome and identify critical needs. Over the following year there will be more meetings and updates before it is submitted to the legislature.

While it won't help the farmers that I know who have had to liquidate their herds and file for bankruptcy, it's always a relief to see government officials doing some self-reflection and auditing regulatory failures. While it's likely not an aggressive enough prescription to direct us towards a resilient agricultural economy, the first step in recovery is always to admit there's a problem.

The report is well laid out and full of pride of our beloved Green Mountains in full display. Lush pastures, grazing heifers, and fairly thorough coverage of the many ways people farm. While our dairy industry is a multi-billion dollar business for the state, the report covered small diversified hill-farms like mine equitably. I was pleasantly impressed to see the often overlooked food-grade grains covered and firmly believe that with our exponentially growing craft-beer market that cereal grain production has hope.

Some of the biggest challenges facing our farmers are: balancing the ever-increasing cost of doing business in Vermont, increased regulatory burdens, and adapting to consumer-driven change. While any one of these factors could be easily overcome, when we are starting with an overtaxed, overworked, unhealthy system we've got problems.

There are some areas of the report that I hope can be enacted as soon as possible:

Frugal marketing. We must create a wholesome, nutrient-dense Vermont food branding program. Telling our "Vermont story" on milk jugs where there's a large amount of empty space is genius. Instead of giving away unaccountable grant money we need tax dollars going to programs that will start returning an investment within two years.

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Buy local. We're a small state and need to bring dollars in from urban markets, yet we also need our fellow citizens to embrace Vermont First food sourcing. Localvore Movements and #RootedinVermont aren't reaching blue-collar families and changing buying habits. Part of that problem is that my eggs cost $5 a dozen and Walmart's are $3, but it also has to do with the consumer not having a choice when they shop or dine.

Our food distribution systems weren't covered in detail in the Game Plan, which is highly problematic as there is a formable opponent well versed in Green-Washing and misleading the consumer. Having the State House, state institutions, and rest areas set a precedent with sourcing the cafeteria food from our farmer within our foodshed would be a great start. Sure, it costs more, but the tax base saves money when our population is healthier, there's less need for social services, and our environment is valued.

Diversification and innovation are necessary for farmers to adapt, but overregulation can create hurdles. Fighting with the fed to loosen up FSMA regulations so silvopasture systems could be implemented on a large scale could help those with less profitable orchards raise heirloom breed hogs on apple drops and grasses that generally get mowed and wasted. We could even mandate all solar arrays be grazer friendly!

The catch with any increased meat production as suggested in the Game Plan goes back to the massive issue of infrastructure challenges. We don't have enough slaughterhouses and that points us back into the "chicken or the egg" issue of: Give Vermonters more food freedoms and make slaughtering a pig on my property and selling to the Co-Op for retail sale an option, or make Vermont small-business owner friendly so that slaughterhouses could thrive.

I applaud the many people who put together the report and think it was a worthwhile investment for taxpayers. After the events of the past week my neighbors are starting to realize that we have all been part of creating an incredibly vulnerable food system. For my generation this is the first time we've seen empty shelves and sat in our pantries at home figuring out how many meals we could make before our kids would start feeling the pangs of hunger. We are far too reliant upon food trucked into our mega-grocery stores and fast food restaurants.

We live in one of the best states in the union with clean air, lots of water, mineral rich soil (and some big rocks too), a central location to large city markets, but we have an incredible opportunity to use COVID-19 and this Game Plan to not just hypothetically dream about changes, but to make change.

While we're all in the Hibernation Hell of isolation we have the time to research EU agricultural success and failures. We can call up our farm friends and ask for their common sense input. It's vital that even those who aren't in the role of sitting on boards or being agvocates have their solutions brought forth. Rescuing anything after years of neglect is going to be hard.

Kate Bowen and her husband, Mark, operate Meadowdale Farm in Putney.

The Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan can be read at https://agriculture.vermont.gov/sites/agriculture/files/doc_library/Vermont%20Agriculture%20and%20Food%20System%20Plan%202020.pdf


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