Vt. Community Holds Summit to Strengthen Local Food System

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

SHELDON, Vt. — Mike McCarthy was impressed the next day.

"When that many people come out on a Monday night in December to talk about food and agriculture, I think it sends a powerful statement," he said early Tuesday, from a window-side table at his Cosmic Bakery & Café in St. Albans City, Vt.

The previous night, McCarthy and more than 75 other people traveled to nearby Sheldon for the much-anticipated Northwestern Vermont Food Summit at the rural farm town's elementary school.

The purpose of the two-hour session, held in the school gym, was to discuss access to local food, its production, the potential for improving it and feeding more of it to local consumers.

The summit had a more progressive flavor than other agricultural meetings typically held in Franklin County, Vt., which is still steeped in traditional dairy farming. (Or, as one observer put it, "There isn't a whole lot of flannel here tonight.")

Like other rural communities in the Northeast and greater U.S., Franklin County is embracing diversified agriculture as an economic driver. For the past two years, regional planners, industrial leaders, food producers and workforce investment officials — dubbing themselves "The Diversified Ag Group" — have met and educated themselves about the haves and needs in their area.

"From producers, we heard two needs," said Tim Smith, executive director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp. "Education for the consumer, and marketing for them."

To test the region, the Diversified Ag Group held a one-day farmers market last summer at St. Albans Bay, on Lake Champlain, which attracted 700 people, and a separate local food festival in Highgate, Vt., that brought in another 300 people. Smith et al. also compiled a report that featured 91 local diversified agriculture businesses and projects.

"That was a huge success for us," Smith said. "We're doing it again next year."

What else is already happening? Among other initiatives: three elementary schools recently received a grant that will give them more collective buying power with local farmers. A local high school might build diversified agriculture into its technical center's curriculum. And there are early talks of a state-of-the-art meat processing facility in Franklin County.

Also, the popular Northwest Vermont Farmers Market, held each Saturday in St. Albans's Taylor Park, grossed more than $100,000 last season, and a local online farmers market has budded and grown.

"I really had vision for that market, and I didn't want to travel to Burlington (about 30 miles south) to sell my produce," said Melissa Dion, Northwest Vermont Farmers Market president. "We have a long way to go, but we're really excited about food."

Franklin County's efforts will tie into "The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan," the state's 10-year map for creating food system jobs, boosting and diversifying food production and increasing access to healthy, fresh food for Vermont and regional consumers.

The Farm to Plate Plan quantifies the state's food system, outlines 25 goals for a statewide network and offers 60 strategies for reaching those goals. The study, found online at www.vsjf.org, also analyzes the economic impact of strong food systems.

For example, a 5 percent increase in local food production can generate 1,700 jobs, according to Erica Campbell, Farm to Plate program director for the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Campbell said food system planning broadens participation in the community — already under way in Franklin County — and creates a common vision. "The more you work together, the better off you'll be," she told summit attendees.

With its plan, the state created six working groups composed of about 200 organizations. Results have included the expansion of a 50,000-square-foot meat processing facility at Black River Produce, in Springfield, and Fresh By Nature, a food marketing campaign in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

Last June, the Northeast Kingdom's economic and planning officials finished a look at the local agricultural sector that started with community interviews, which Campbell conducted, and ended with 10 goals. Implementation is under way.

"You develop a plan and run with it," Campbell said. "And then we'll continue to work together."

Following a small-group brainstorming session in Sheldon, attendees ranked food distribution — with emphasis on a truck — a coordinated local brand and local markets for local milk as their highest priorities.

Summit attendees agreed that the region's strengths are its skilled farmers, healthy soil, strong dairy and maple production, and a multigenerational commitment to the land.

Participants are concerned about: no centralized access to locally grown food, producers' input costs versus pricing, and lack of storage and distribution space for milk and meat. The region also lacks data for consumer demand, and a marketing plan.

Kristen Hughes, an online farmers market organizer and member of The Diversified Ag Group, said Tuesday that The Diversified Ag Group would reconvene and develop goals for Franklin County.

"Then, we'll have a better idea who to tap into as we move forward, and how our local network should be structured," she said.

McCarthy will be involved in two ways: first, as a local business owner who uses Vermont foods at his café, and secondly as a newly elected Democratic lawmaker to the Vermont House of Representatives.

McCarthy said state lawmakers could lobby for federal waivers to federal restrictions — such as those that address handling and selling of raw milk — that might limit some of Franklin County's plans.

"Our delegation will look to take advantage of the resources that are available to help us sustain local agriculture," McCarthy said, before he rose from the window-side table to help his staff take breakfast orders. "It's important to use the local food system to keep our economy and bodies strong."

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