Agriculture: Critical to our communities

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Agriculture is critical to our communities, our economy, our landscape and our way of life here in Vermont. As Vermonters, we have grown accustomed to a vital and robust agricultural lifestyle. But when I leave our state in my travels as Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, I am always reminded that our local agriculture here in Vermont is special and serves as a model for others.

Take our Farm-to-School program, for example. Today, 83 percent of Vermont students are engaged in Farm-to-School curriculum in their classrooms, cafeterias and communities, compared to 42 percent nationally. We are creating opportunity for local farmers by serving healthy, local foods in our schools, while also providing kids access to nutritious meals and building their agricultural literacy. Our statewide Farm-to-School network just set the ambitious goal of providing nourishing universal meals to all Vermont students within the next 10 years, purchasing at least 50 percent of that food from a socially just and environmentally and financially sustainable regional food system. Not only are we leading, but we are constantly pushing ourselves to do more, and do better.

Dairy is the backbone of our agricultural economy. It constitutes 70 percent of our agricultural sales and 80 percent of total agricultural land. We are a small state, but we produce 63 percent of the total milk in New England. And yet the dairy industry is struggling because of persistent low prices, due to a complex and convoluted national pricing system, over which our hardworking dairy farmers have no control. Farmers must be paid a viable price for their milk.

Despite challenging economic times for the industry, dairy in Vermont continues to be an important part of the fabric of our state. With over 15 percent of the total acres in Vermont dedicated to dairy farming, it is critical to our landscape. Our farms are growing more efficient and more sustainable, with a focus on stewardship and conservation, and producing quality products. Our cheesemakers are a force to be reckoned with nationally – this year Vermont took home 15 blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society, as well as nine second place and 10 third place finishes. We have more methane digesters per capita than any state in the country. Our dairy farmers are actively engaged in protecting water quality, soil building, energy production, nutrient removal and marketing the Vermont brand.

We have much to be proud of, but there is still work to do. We must continue to address agriculture and food system illiteracy and expand access to healthy food. Today, too few people understand where our food comes from, how its produced, who produces it and what the choices and actions are required to produce food. We need to shift our priorities so that all of agriculture is understood and recognized for the critical role it plays in community health.

We must also build upon and continue to leverage our great Vermont brand. There are millions of customers to our south who know and want Vermont products. We need to increase our efforts to connect these consumers with our outstanding farmers and food producers.

To that end, we must also support the current generation and attract the next generation of farmers, food entrepreneurs and innovators who understand that farming and food careers are exciting, rewarding and meaningful to our collective future. We need people who can make important contributions to our future challenges, ranging from nutrition, food security to climate change.

I have no doubt the future of agriculture in Vermont will be very bright. Vermont is on the cutting edge of community-supported agriculture – we must maintain the momentum. Over the course of the past six years, I have been consistently impressed by the women and men engaged in Vermont’s food system. There is tremendous opportunity for growth in this sector, and I truly believe we are poised to seize it. For our communities, for our economy, for our landscape and for future generations, we must do all we can to support Vermont agriculture.

Chuck Ross has served as Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets since January 2011. He resides in Hinesburg.