WHERE ARE WE NOW?
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 (both through products and tourism), has been threatened by global market forces and was already in crisis. Climate change loomed. Rural community life declined. Social inequities propagated by agriculture's twin histories of stolen land and forced labor remained persistent in our contemporary food system.
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, and Vermont’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds, 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.
VISION - WHERE CAN WE GO?
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 in the state. Our relationships will be stronger, as we all know the people who grow, transport and sell our food. Our 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. We affirm the People’s Bailout movement language that now is the time to “make a down payment on a regenerative economy, while preventing future crisis.”