Vt. Ag Secretary Helps to Steer National Ag Policy

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

ST. ALBANS CITY, Vt. — Chuck Ross confessed he was tired, and he seemed glad it was Friday on a recent January trip to St. Albans.

Between bites of tasty chili soup at Cosmic Bakery & Café, Ross, Vermont’s agriculture secretary, explained that while he was on the road all day — adding to the 48,000 miles he had already logged on the Volkswagen he bought new in 2012 — he kept stopping to write remarks for his mother’s funeral service, which was held the next day.

“I’ve probably lived too busy a life,” Ross said at one point during lunch.

Charlie Ross Jr., better known as “Chuck,” was in St. Albans Jan. 10 as part of his statewide listening tour as head of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. The tour began in spring 2013 and covered eight regions of the state, including St. Albans, where about 25 people gathered to interact with Ross at the city library.

Topics discussed during his two-hour stop at the St. Albans library ranged from genetically modified foods — he backs labeling — and the effects of immigration reform on farm labor nationwide.

Before the session started, though, Ross gently warned his audience that he would only be able to stay and chat for about 10 minutes afterward. He had family in town, he said, presumably for his mother’s funeral. Charlotte Ross died at the age of 88 on Dec. 13.

“So after I’m done, here,” he said, “we’re all going to skate on the family pond.”

The listening tour, however, is not all that has kept Ross busy in the past year. The former farmer, Vermont legislator and state director for U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., has assumed a new role as president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, or NASDA.

About 45 states were represented when NASDA members elected Ross to his one-year term during the group’s annual meeting in North Carolina this past September. He succeeds Steve Troxler, commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

In his acceptance speech, Ross highlighted his top priorities for the coming year; the Food Safety Modernization Act and the Farm Bill topped his list. He also emphasized the importance of bridging the gap between stakeholders within the agriculture community.

“We need to end the Food Fight’ — the infighting that takes place between organic versus non-organic, big versus small, and any other number of divisions,” Ross told NASDA. “Less than 2 percent of the American population is involved in growing the food and fiber the rest of us depend upon. It makes no sense for that 2 percent to waste time cutting each other down.”

Ross also stressed the importance of increasing “ag literacy,” which he defines as consumers’ basic understanding of how food is produced, where it comes from and why that matters.

“The average American does not know a farmer, does not understand agriculture and frankly, may not even care,” Ross said in North Carolina. “We need to change that.”

At Cosmic Bakery & Cafe, Ross said he could apply what’s working in Vermont to help him achieve his goals as NASDA president. For example, Vermont is a national leader in the farm-to-plate and farm-to-school movements, which are vital to ag literacy, he said.

“People come to Vermont to see how we do it,” Ross said.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Ross as ag secretary in January 2011. During his six years in the state legislature, Ross, a Democrat, was chair of the Vermont House Natural Resources Energy Committee.

Ross, 57, was born in Burlington, Vt., but has lived in Hinesburg, about 15 miles away from Burlington, since he was 9, when his father, Charles Ross Sr., bought a defunct dairy farm. His mother, Charlotte Ross, came from a farm family.

Chuck Ross’ paternal grandfather was a doctor.

Charlie Ross Sr., who died in 2003 at the age of 83, had an eclectic, interesting career. He helped his brothers run a construction company in Louisville, Ky., and moved to Burlington in the 1950s to open a law firm with Tony Pomerleau, a well-known developer and philanthropist in Vermont, now in his mid-90s. One of their first interns was a bright, young, Irish attorney named Pat Leahy.

Charlie Ross Sr. was also a public service commissioner for Vermont, and President John F. Kennedy selected him for the Federal Energy Regulation Commission. Charlie Ross Sr. was also appointed to the International Joint Commission for 19 years, the longest-serving member in the organization’s history.

In the 1970s, while Chuck Ross was earning his bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Vermont — where he would later be an assistant coach for the men’s hockey team — Charlie Ross Sr. ran for the U.S. Senate in Vermont. He lost in the Republican primary, however, because he was the first in his party to publicly criticize President Richard Nixon.

The Rosses maintained a connection to Washington, D.C., though, when Leahy named Chuck Ross his state director for Vermont. Ross would not reveal how many times he might have disagreed with Vermont’s powerful, Democratic senator.

“Those are confidences that you keep,” he said, but he didn’t hesitate when asked about Leahy’s most important lesson for him.

“Say thank you,’” Ross said. “Pat Leahy thanked his staff all the time and he thanked the people that supported him, all the time.”

Many people have asked Ross about his own political future. Leahy will probably run one more time and other Vermont politicians are pining for his seat, but Ross isn’t among them — today.

“I don’t make my agricultural decisions based on political liability,” he said, just before walking from Cosmic to the St. Albans library. “I try not to do the job that I’m in with an aim on some political appointment or opportunity. If fate has it that I’m in the right place at the right time, so be it. But I can’t worry about that.”

Photos by Leon Thompson

1.

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross is the new president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

2.

Chuck Ross, far left (end of table), takes a question at his St. Albans, Vt., stop on his eight-stop, statewide listening tour, which began last spring.


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11/24/2014 | Last Updated: 11:15 PM