Future of Vermont Farming: a Plan to Reimagine Agriculture

As Vermont wends our way through the COVID-19 crisis, we have the opportunity to demonstrate to the nation how to emerge from this crisis stronger than when it began. To that end, we are calling for the following plan to reimagine Vermont agriculture. It is one part of the blueprint that is needed to respond to the current crisis and course correct towards a better future for all. 

What are you imagining? Click the button below to send an email to Grace Oedel, Executive Director, and Maddie Kempner, Policy Director. We'd love to hear from you! 

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Where are we now? 

Current situation

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime global emergency, and an equally rare pause on “business as usual”. This crisis presents massive threats to the people of Vermont, and crucial lessons about how we might thoughtfully plot a course for a better future.

Prior to COVID-19, Vermont’s economy already stood on precarious footing. Agriculture, the heart of Vermont’s identity and economic generator (through both products and tourism), is threatened by global market forces and was already in crisis. Climate change was already destabilizing our weather patterns. Agriculture's twin histories of stolen land and forced labor have continued to perpetuate social and racial inequities here in Vermont as across our nation. 

The current crisis affords us an opportunity to see the fault lines in our food system more clearly. Rather than “rebuilding” to the way things were, we should leverage this newfound clarity to transition our current system into one that affirms agriculture - economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just agriculture - as the heart of Vermont’s economy, and the best hope for our collective future. We have the opportunity to use this moment to shift our investments in a future-oriented manner. We must stand in solidarity, engage in reparations, and be fundamentally committed to healing land.

In order to successfully use this moment to transition our economy, we first must come together to mitigate the very real harm frontline workers and economically insecure communities are experiencing. Both within and beyond Vermont’s borders, this crisis exposes long standing faults, risks, and inequities in our food supply chain and our society. From farmers who have lost critical markets like schools and restaurants, to food service workers and school nutrition professionals who have lost jobs, to increasing numbers of unemployed and food insecure Vermonters, people who provide critical labor and skills in our food economy are hurting right now. We need to show up for them. 

As people in our region’s cities struggle with high transmission rates and strict lockdown rules, realtors and land transfer resources like Vermont Land Link report a significant increase in inquiries from out of state buyers seeking to move to Vermont. What will be the impacts of such an influx on our working landscape and on access to land for those wanting to make a living growing food for our communities? 

Nationally, we are witnessing just how brittle the food system we rely on truly is. Continued challenges with reopening meat processing plants in the midwest due to virus outbreaks jeopardizes worker health and threatens to cause food shortages nationwide. Immigrant farm workers providing critical labor for our state’s dairy industry, as well as large farms of many production types around the nation, are now recognized as essential but glaringly left out of federal and (thus far) state relief efforts. Farmers, perennially lacking access to affordable health care and child care, continue to put food on our tables while putting their own health at risk, and while caring for children out of school.

At the same time, in part by exposing these underlying issues, this crisis provides a new sense of urgency and a unique opportunity to demonstrate in real time what a resilient food system looks like. It is an inflection point for Vermont to articulate and move towards a clear vision of a more relational, localized, and diverse food and farming system that can sustain us in the long term. With the pandemic upon us, and the climate crisis looming, there has never been a better time to put forward this bold vision and build a deeply interwoven coalition to build the food system we all urgently need. Coordinating our efforts to stimulate small and mid sized farms, support families, invest in rural communities, build greater equity into our food system, and clean and steward our land and water will catalyze change for a positive future for Vermont. We have the opportunity in the weeks, months, and years ahead to illustrate what is possible to the nation. 

In bringing forward this vision and plan, we acknowledge, incorporate, and build upon the network, groundwork and coalition that has been nourished in Vermont for the past several decades. Here in Vermont, our relationships have deepened and collaborations strengthened through Farm to Plate as well as other coalition efforts such as the “Future of Agriculture” team uniting public and non-profit groups. Many of our suggestions below appear in some form in briefs recently put forward and/or in development in the Farm to Plate 2.0 Strategic Plan. Nationally, we act in the context of the Green New Deal and the People’s Bailout, both aimed at pivoting our economy towards a climate-resilient one that centers the health of people and land. During the current legislative session, VPRG, VNRC, and others brought forward a climate action plan for transportation and energy. Senator Anthony Pollina of Washington County developed a Vermont version of the Green New Deal. We see these efforts constellated towards a shared goal of a thriving economic model that centers land and people, giving us hope and concrete steps toward a positive shared future.

Where can we go?

Vision

Our vision centers on the idea that the disruptive change currently facing our state offers us a unique opportunity to position Vermont as the leader of the nation. We can serve as an exemplar of a successful transition from our current precarious agricultural system to a thriving agricultural renaissance. We envision a future where farms of all sizes are viable; farmers are understood and fairly compensated as ecosystem stewards; our working landscape and the surrounding ecosystems are healthy; the public values rural and agricultural culture; food chain workers live and work in just and dignified conditions, all people have access to nutritious food; and a successful agricultural renaissance has engendered a more diverse population to move to, and remain in, our state.

We know an economy founded on such a thriving, resilient agricultural system will have rippling effects. Our economy will become increasingly circular, with dollars earned in the state staying and circulating locally. Our relationships will be stronger, as we come to increasingly know the people who grow, transport and sell our food. Young people will stay in the state, knowing that fulfilling and economically viable futures exist for them here in Vermont. Our rivers and lakes will run clean, and our soil will be rich, living, and drawing down carbon to fight climate change. Our Vermont identity will remain strong, with tourists flocking to experience the Vermont way of living with land and community. We will be more prepared than ever for the next emergency, having developed relationships that can sustain us regardless of increasing global instability. 

    Action Steps: How do we get the there? 

    Short Term (this year)

    In direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, the following actions are needed immediately to support our most vulnerable, provide just and equitable relief to those who need it, and set the stage for a transition to a more resilient food system that ensures all may be fed on the other side of the pandemic. 

    • Create a Vermont Coronavirus Relief Fund to administer direct payments to all Vermonters who have been excluded from the federal stimulus and other benefits because of immigration status. Additional protections should include:
      • Expand the state quarantine housing for essential workers to include VT farmworkers
      • Expanding access to unemployment insurance to all workers
      • Ensure that all communities are able to access the free COVID-19 testing provided by the state, as well as treatments funding for the uninsured through local hospitals
    • Allocate $930,000 of Vermont’s CARES Act funding to support school meal programs and economic recovery for local producers and farms through local food purchasing.
       
    • Support Vermont farmers and access to nutritious food for all simultaneously by investing in the following programs:
    • Provide direct payments to Vermont farms of all types and scales suffering from lost markets, and resilience grants to allow them to expand and adapt, in the form of: 
    • Continue to invest in universal school meals — During the COVID-19 crisis, the Vermont Agency of Education and school nutrition professionals have swiftly and skillfully pivoted to providing universal meals to children 18 and under statewide. This support has been critical to families who, as a result of the pandemic, are facing increasing food insecurity. It has been particularly beneficial for migrant families living in isolation in rural parts of the state. The need for this support will persist beyond the end of the immediate health emergency. The state should invest in universal school meals statewide and set ambitious targets to purchase more food from local farmers, in addition to the immediate financial support for local purchasing suggested above. As soon as possible, we urge the legislature to refocus on the Universal Meals Bill S.223/H.812, along with the local purchasing incentive bill S.273. 

    Mid Term (the next 5 years)

    • Support transition to organic practices by:
      • Investing in a holistic payment for ecosystems services program that compensates farmers for a range of environmental outcomes including increased soil organic matter, carbon sequestration, pollinator and other wildlife habitat, and water holding capacity
      • Including stipulations that organic practices be used on land with state-funded conservation easements
      • Mandating the use of organic methods to maintain state owned lands
    • Set short and long-term targets for local, organic food purchasing through schools and other state funded institutions
      • S. 273 would mandate that at least 20% of all school food purchases by 2022 come from local/Vermont sources, and that 20% of food purchases for corrections facilities would come from local/Vermont sources by 2023
      • The Vermont Farm to School Network’s goal is 50% from local, state, and regional (northeast) sources by 2025
    • Enact policies to support food sovereignty at all levels and allow farms of all sizes to thrive by:
    • Invest in and enact policies that support land access and farm viability for the next generation of farmers and farmers of color, including:
      • Relieving the student debt burden
      • Expanding access to low cost/no cost capital
      • Tax credits/incentives for landowners who sell or lease land to beginning farmers/farmers of color 
      • Tax credits/incentives for alternative business models, including cooperative ownership
      • No interest sales of transitioning farms to farmers of color and beginning farmers 
      • Continue and expand funding for technical assistance/service providers
    • Expand Health Care Share program to all hospitals and health centers in Vermon
      • Phase out the use of chemicals toxic to pollinator, aquatic, wildlife, and human health by:
        • Setting specific target dates for phase-out of neonicotinoids, atrazine, glyphosate along with significant support for transition to IPM and organic practices
        • Establishing fees on pesticides, imported nutrients in feed, and synthetic fertilizers contributing to declining biodiversity, water quality problems, and climate crisis
      • Increase incentives for the production and use of clean renewable energy on farms
        • Ensure that siting of solar and other renewable energy happens in conjunction with, rather than displacing, farming activities like rotational grazing and pollinator habitat.
      • Legislate a minimum of 15 paid sick days per year, additional paid sick days in public health emergencies, and paid family leave, regardless of size of workplace

      Long Term (6+ years)

      • Transition from an export-based agricultural economy to one that prioritizes feeding all Vermonters first with the products grown and produced here. Elements of such a transition include: 
        • Investment in and coordination of regional “food hubs” to support the aggregation, storage, and distribution of food within communities around the state
        • Increased capacity for long term statewide food system planning and supply chain management
        • Long term investment in training and hiring a substantial number of qualified farm business advisors and technical service providers to support farm business planning, succession, transition, specialization and diversification
      • Support the development of community funds for farms, through which community members contribute to local farms as compensation for the provision of ecosystem services
         
      • Create a study to calculate the size of the organic market in Vermont and the percentage of organic imports from other states and abroad, and then develop a program to enable Vermont organic farmers to replace imports and satisfy Vermont market demand
         
      • Build out capacity to meet the Food Solutions New England goal of producing 50% of food for the region, within the region by 2060
         
      • Expand the social safety net for all through the provision of: 
        • Universal health care
        • Access to high quality, affordable child care
        • Universal basic income/$15 minimum wage
        • Paid sick leave and family leave for ALL 
      • Federally, create a path to citizenship for immigrant farm workers
         
      • Improve agricultural literacy, by including curriculum about growing food, gardening, cooking, food and nutrition at all public schools and colleges, including medical schools 

        What does it look like?

        Key Indicators of Success

        • Vermont demonstrates how to emerge from this crisis with a clear vision, a plan, and the foundation set for a more resilient, diverse, circular economy. 
        • Farmers employ practices that clean water, reverse climate change, and support biodiversity.
        • Policies incentivize and support these practices, contributing to economic farm viability. (Policies like universal healthcare and childcare support farm viability along with the rest of the population.)
        • Farms are viable at every size.
        • Farms are thriving in every town.
        • Farmers are widely respected as environmental stewards and food providers.
        • There is an increasingly diversified set of crops and value added products grown and provided in the state. We see an increase in climate-adaptable crops and farms. Diversity provides the unifying thread.
        • Small towns and communities are thriving. Cultural life in rural towns booms. 
        • The public values farming as crucial to our state’s identity and environment.
        • New people move into the state.
        • Young people choose to remain in the state and have clear paths to an economically viable future in agriculture.
        • Young people have opportunities for meaningful agricultural education throughout their school years.
        • All Vermonters have access to - and can afford - nutritious, locally produced food.
        • Our agricultural community is diverse racially, culturally, and economically. 
        • Businesses flourish under models that are supportive for workers at every level and enhance the communities they exist within.
        • The generation of retiring farmers has transferred farms and businesses to the next generation successfully, supported by farm service providers focused on equity, inclusion, ecology and future visioning.
        • Local food is served in institutions where people learn, work, and live.

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