Editor’s Note: The first of two articles focusing on food and agriculture in Vermont.

BENNINGTON — A recent panel discussion ranged from emergency food provision to statewide agricultural policy. Vermont-scale approaches to ongoing issues came from all directions.

The Bennington Local Food Summit was a day-long conference held over Zoom on May 15. The afternoon panel discussion for the event was titled “A Conversation Between Food Security and Local Food Advocates.”

As a flyer for the summit asked: “How do we bring these two efforts together to make sure that everyone in Vermont can partake in food grown on our small sustainable farms? How do we support farmer livelihood while also making sure that local food is not only accessible to the most-wealthy people in our community?”

Participants in the hour-long discussion during the summit, held as part of Bennington College’s three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to address food insecurity in Bennington County, ranged from across southern Vermont.

Jesse Pyles, of Smokey House Center, a conservation, agricultural and educational organization, in Danby, moderated the discussion.

“Each of these folks has a unique perspective on the topic at hand,” he said. “Taken together, they represent not just interests in food security and farm viability broadly, but lived experience with these issues in this region in southern Vermont, specifically.”

Pyles added, “Our Think Tank conversation likewise presumes that that fresh local food is good, and should be accessible to anyone who wants it. And two, that a diverse collection of small farm producers is good, and should be supported in order to remain viable.”

Care of the land

Local school children help grow food at Smokey House Center then share that food with their families, he said.

“It all starts for us with the land with good care for this land. And we believe that good stewardship of our 5,000 protected acres, here in the northern Taconic mountains, can be edifying to individuals, and can be enriching to the community,” Pyles said. “And so, I feel really lucky to live in work that is kind of at the intersection of good farming and good food access.”

“We have a community farm program that emphasizes people working together to grow food to provide it to the community,” he added.

Scott Winslow, former executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc., who is helping with the transition to a new director, said GBICS started its Kitchen Cupboard food pantry when it became apparent that many of the patients at its Free Clinic suffered from food insecurity. Over time it has averaged about 100 guests every week representing about 250 household members.

The Kitchen Cupboard is just one of several programs providing food to those in need in Bennington. “We like to say that there’s food available, in some form, in Bennington every day of the week,” Winslow said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of those seeking food at the Kitchen Cupboard immediately increased. Yet, “because of the extra food distributions, because of the expanded eligibility and benefits under Vermont’s Three Squares Vermont SNAP program, we actually saw our volume at the Kitchen Cupboard start to decline. We had a lower than usual volume of customers during the pandemic,” Winslow said.

This spring the number is starting to get back to normal, “but we’re running a slightly lower volume that our historical averages. And I think that’s a good thing I think that’s a sign that people are getting their food needs met, because there’s been more food available in the community,” he said.

Grants to buy local

Genna Williams, project manager with the Vermont Food Bank, said that worried about a “benefits cliff” with the last month of the federal USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program in May, the state is launching another program to take its place through the end of September. This is called Full Plates VT.

“But at that point food boxes are going to go away, so all of these people, especially those that are new to the charitable food system, how do we reconnect them with those sort of pre-existing, pre-COVID resources so that they’re not just left without food access when these programs end?” Williams asked.

The Food Bank’s Vermonters Feeding Vermonters program purchases local food directly from Vermont farmers and producers to share with people in the state facing hunger.

“We’re running up against sort of a capacity issue where we wanted to be able to source that food from smaller, more localized farms, but working with small farms is really challenging on a large scale, it requires a lot more infrastructure, a lot more communication,” Williams said. “And so we realized that like for us to increase the number of farms that we’re working with, we need to just give network partners money so that they can work directly with those farms and set up those agreements.

“We still do a lot of bulk purchasing from some of the larger farms in the state but we’ve also transitioned to granting money to network partners so that they can buy that food directly from farms in their community,” she said. “So I think in Bennington in the last year we’ve done about $13,000 of local purchases through local organizations like the Kitchen Cupboard.”

CSAs bulking up

McKenna Hayes is co-director of Food Connects, a non-profit food hub in Brattleboro. During the pandemic, producers connected to the hub enhanced their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations or started farm stands or small farm stores.

“We really played that role of shuffling the food in between all the different farm stands,” she said. “They were bulking up their CSAs through items from other farms or just increasing the direct point of sale from having this awesome farm stand that also had value-added products from…other smaller producers in the state, and that that trend has not changed.”

Things missing in food hub infrastructure are related not only to food distribution but also food processing, such as slaughterhouses, she said.

“We’ve had so many requests for folks needing more cold storage or frozen storage, and just the equipment needed to move food in and out of trucks by the palettes and stuff like that,” she said.

Mid-scale ag

Erin Ackerman-Leist, of the Regenerative Food Network/Bennington Food Hub, spoke on the need for support of mid-scale agriculture.

“Vermont has figured out how to succeed at small-scale farming and CSA and food box distribution, but we really need to figure out what kind of hurdles exist for mid-scale. And if we can figure that out we may open up even more markets,” she said.

There are issues with processing, storage, slaughterhouses. Growing, processing and storing grains is another issue. “Can we can we grow grains, can we process grains, can we store grains…that’s one of the new projects we’re working on,” Ackerman-Leist said.

The state needs more smaller slaughter houses and meat cutting facilities. Currently her farm has to truck cows two hours to Benson to be slaughtered, which is too far. Communities used to have a lot of mid-scale facilities that are now gone.

“Even in Pawlet, we used to have a food locker. People would rent a space in this food locker, and it was just a big freezer space,” she said. “You could store your entire family’s food, and it’s just an empty building now.”

Karen Trubitt, owner of True Love Farm in Shaftsbury, said the farm only cultivates three or four acres.

“So that means we are not reaching a huge number of customers, but I think it’s appropriately scaled for Vermont. It’s the number of customers we can serve while really building and growing healthier soils, that is hugely rewarding.”

She said a lot of information is exchanged at farmers markets such as the one in Bennington, including recipe sharing. “My goal for our little Bennington farmers market is for it to be a beacon of wellness,” she said.

One customer once brought some seeds for Kousa summer squash, a Lebanese variety and asked her to grow it. “So, we started growing Kousa and we learned a lot about the Lebanese community in Bennington.”

Finding niches

Roger Albee, a former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, grew up on a dairy farm in the southeastern part of the state. Since then, the food industry has become “what you could almost call an oligopoly” in the United States.

For instance, five retail food companies control over 50 percent of the food distribution in the country. Walmart is one of the biggest. “What’s happening in dairy relates very closely to what to the pork and chicken industries that exist today with the concentration taking place. Over 50 percent of the dairies in the country have 1,000 or more, you go to the Midwest they have 20,000 cows. Vermont or New York or New England cannot compete on that scale. They never could, never should.”

When he visits his daughter who lives in Wisconsin, Albee visits farms there. He spoke recently with Mark Stephenson, who is an expert on dairy markets and policy at the University of Wisconsin. Stephenson did some work in Vermont when Albee was secretary of agriculture. Albee asked him what it would take for Vermont agriculture to thrive in an adverse economic climate.

“Your future is niche, doing those specialty products, figuring out what those consumers in the Northeast would want for niche products. That takes a lot of research, takes a lot of capital, takes a lot of marketing savvy,” Stephenson said. “But your future is never being in the market with the Midwest or the West.”

Vermont farmers back in the 19th century knew this very well. “We lost the grain market, we lost the butter market, we lost the merino sheep market,” Albee said. “And yet it’s always been about doing niche, doing what some of the people on the panel are trying to do today. More slaughterhouses, more process group facilities.”

Albee recalled what the late Jack Lazor, a pioneer of organic agriculture and cofounder of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, once said to him: “Vermont should just declare itself a sustainable state, not use pesticides and commercial fertilizers, (use) kind and regenerative agriculture (for) the environment, get into those markets with those specialty products and declare ourselves unique.”

“It takes a lot of change to do that,” Albee said, “but Vermont has always been able to somehow (piece) together ways to develop that uniqueness in the market that others want.”

Mark Rondeau is the Banner’s Night Editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com

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