Vt. food systems succeed in local, regional, national marketplace

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When you ask people their definition of the Vermont food economy, they’ll often talk about farms, farmers’ markets or CSAs. What’s often missing from the conversation are the supply chain of local businesses such as distributors, food processors and manufacturers and seed, feed and equipment dealers.

Vermont’s local food economy not only extends well beyond the farm, it’s also an important part of our state’s economic engine. Sales from food and beverage manufacturing and wholesale distribution in 2012 totaled $9.1 billion. In terms of employment across the food system—spanning farm inputs (seed, feed, fertilizer), production, processing, distribution and retail—64,000 Vermonters are employed in the food economy.

In Vermont, local food is considered to be anything produced or processed in Vermont plus 30 miles.

Essential to Vermont’s food economy, food manufacturing and processing involve a series of mechanical (chopping, mincing, mixing ingredients) or chemical (fermentation, pickling, curing) operations to preserve or change raw food into other forms, such as cheese, beer, maple syrup, meats and sauces.

Food and beverage manufacturing has boomed since 2010 as one of the few growing manufacturing sectors in Vermont. Employment increased 47 percent from 2009 to 2015, up from 4,628 jobs to 6,810. Processing and food manufacturing facilities in Vermont represent a diversity of products and scales, from large commercial facilities like Cabot Creamery Cooperative and King Arthur Flour to smaller operations like Green Pasture Meats, Baird Farm Maple Syrup, 14th Star Brewing and Mad River Food Hub.

The growth in food manufacturing is even more impressive when you contrast growth in food manufacturing with non-food manufacturing in Vermont. From 2004 to 2013, total value-added, non-food manufacturing in Vermont decreased 37 percent (-$2.3 billion). But in the food economy, it’s an entirely different story. Net value-added food manufacturing (when raw products are processed into something else, like beer, salsa or ice cream) increased 58 percent ($359 million).

Traditional supply chain businesses view relationships as transactional, competitive, and benefits are unevenly distributed. The average U.S. farmer, for example, only receives approximately 17 cents of each dollar spent on food, while the remainder goes to food service, processing and retail.

Vermont’s food economy emphasizes the relationships between supply chain businesses and their shared commitments to be financially profitable, as well as provides positive benefits to the community and environment.

In Vermont’s values-based supply chain, businesses work together to boost the entire local economy and contribute to our self-sufficiency as a state.

For example:

Pumpkin Village Foods distributes products both from self-owned Green Wind Farm in Enosburg Falls (mostly maple), and other small producers concentrated within 55 miles of Burlington—including honey, cider, cranberries and flour—to independent grocery stores in New York City.

The Intervale Food Hub in Burlington aggregates multiple farm products, provides an online purchasing platform for buyers and then delivers to Vermont institutions, local businesses and organizations, as well as homes.

A longstanding supply chain partnership between St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Vermont Creamery resulted in the production of “St. Albans”—a 100 percent cows’ milk aged cheese, verified by the Non-GMO Project. St. Albans Coop member, Paul-Lin Dairy in Bakersfield, produced the milk using non-GMO feed. The St. Albans cheese marks the first non-GMO verification for Vermont Creamery.

These are just a few examples of Vermont food system businesses that are going beyond the traditional supply chain model to succeed in the local, regional, and national marketplace.

Local food is truly a bright spot in Vermont’s local economy. Increasing consumer purchases of local food keeps more money here in Vermont—and in turn creates jobs, supports businesses committed to their communities, protects family farms and helps more local food be accessible for more Vermonters.

Learn more about implementing Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan at www.vtfarmtoplate.com.

Jake Claro is the Farm to Plate director for the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.