Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative seeks to get local products into mainstream food markets. That will require new infrastructure and approaches.
Even in locally conscious Vermont, only an estimated 5% of the food consumed by Vermonters is actually produced in state.
Reliance on food grown outside the region, and decisions made outside of local control, make for an unbalanced food system, even in a state that is a leader in the local food movement.
Food insecurity in Vermont is also on the rise, with nearly 13% of households being food insecure (compared to 9.1% in 2000). Even with increased food access programs, not everyone can shop at a farmers market. Convenience and cost keep most Vermonters shopping at conventional grocery stores where, at the height of the local food harvest, shelves are stocked with tomatoes from Mexico, greens from Argentina, and (with the exception of Vermont’s Cabot Cheese) cheeses from national or international corporations.
The answer for improving markets for Vermont farmers and better serving consumers is the development of a regional food system. Such a system would provide producers with access to the regional market of New England and New York, which includes 33 million potential customers.
Vermont’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan seeks to expand farmers’ access to institutional markets like groceries, restaurants and institutions like schools. But serving regional markets instead of just local ones requires some changes in infrastructure and services.
“We need to increase produce pack/storage and distribution opportunities into the larger population hubs,” said Christa Alexander, farmer/owner of Jericho Settlers Farm, located just east of Burlington. The diversified, year-round farm sells most of its products through shares in community supported agriculture (CSA). It also sells wholesale to restaurants, stores and, to a lesser extent, institutions like schools and hospital.
Creating shared processing hubs could also help farmers get their products ready for a larger consumer market, Alexander said.
Amy Skelton of Pete’s Greens, in Craftsbury, said the ability to package foods for specific markets would help sales.
“More and more consumers want to do less food prep and they want convenient sized packages,” she said. “It’s the value-added products and cleaned-up/prepped food that is going to sell.”
Skelton, who is Pete’s Greens CSA manager and jack of all trades, said more technical assistance for small-scale producers could help them expand, hire business specialists and pay good wages.
The director of Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative, Erica Campbell, said Vermont’s food-system plan is building a network of grocers, distributors, producers and regulators. “This is a necessary step before local producers can move to a regional scale,” she said.
“Grocery store owners and buyers procure food through large distributors, so local farmers do not often have relationships with retailers as they did many years ago,” Campbell said. “There are multiple issues that need to be addressed to move more local food into grocery stores at a reasonable price.”
Direct sales through CSAs, farm stands and farmers markets account for only 3.5% of total agricultural sales in Vermont, according the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture. But that’s still enough to make Vermont sixth in the nation in direct sales.
As the local and regional food movement continues to grow, some farmers and food entrepreneurs are seeking additional markets. To scale up, they are finding they need customers beyond their state’s borders. Farm to institution expansion, developing more robust wholesale markets and opportunities, and getting more local food into mainstream retail and grocery stores are on the horizon and will become a part of what indicates local food sales in the near future, Campbell said. “By getting more local food into more retail and institutional outlets, more people will have access to the good quality food being grown in our state and region,” she said.
Vermont isn’t alone in its efforts to think regionally. Each New England state is participating in the “New England Food Vision.” The initiative seeks to produce at least 50 percent of the fresh, fair, and accessible food consumed by New Englanders by 2060.
Rachel Carter is the communications director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a non-profit organization created by the State of Vermont to help develop Vermont’s sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and forest product businesses. A homesteader, she resides in Plainfield, Vermont.