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Food systems proposal crucial

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2013-11-08

Editorial by Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger: http://www.samessenger.com/

Vermont is not flush with products or services that lend themselves to national brands of any significant scale. We have neither the population nor the central location to make such endeavors the stuff that attracts large number of jobs, or manufacturing campuses that extend to the horizon. What we do have is intellectual capital, a state brand that connotes a quality of product, and a history and culture of environmental stewardship. 

On Thursday, Vermont took the first step toward capitalizing on what we do have, which could transform the way we look at food, farming and healthy lifestyles. It could also be the catalyst for significant capital investment.

The announcement was the formation of a six-school collaboration which will organize under the “Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium.” The schools are the University of Vermont, Vermont Law School, the Vermont State Colleges, Green Mountain College, and Sterling College.

The objective is to create a food systems “campus” that will offer food systems degrees at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels. It’s a first of a kind initiative. No such collaborative exists anywhere else in the country.

It makes tremendous sense on a variety of levels.

First, it represents the sort of educational efficiency that we should expect from our higher ed community. This was one of the key requests made by the governor’s commission established in 2012 to examine ways UVM could better integrate itself with the Vermont community and other schools. 

Second, a robust, quality-oriented, sustainable food system is the slow boil issue of our time. Its relevance to the globe’s health – at all levels – will continue to escalate. To this cause, Vermont can truly make a profound difference.

Third, the initiative, if properly marketed, could attract the sort of intellectual talent that would, in turn, attract research and development dollars from beyond our borders. Considering the fact that food touches about 30 cents out of every dollar, that’s an opportunity that should be pursued ardently.

Fourth, on a local level it has the potential to change the way we look at farming, what we produce, and how we produce it. It could offer exciting career opportunities. As we have argued for years, the image of agriculture as a career has to be one that includes lab coats, not just rubber boots.

The food systems initiative could be a key part of the agricultural renaissance that could recast the state’s image, and its marketability.

Could be.

For its vast promise to be realized, several things need to happen. First, there needs to be a commitment from each of the participating schools to seek the best talent available. It doesn’t work to hobble together a program and then staff it with mid-level talent. Aim for the top. Nothing less. 

When the talent is assembled, it will be equally important to package the program and to market it beyond our borders. This is not a project that can be, or should be assembled entirely within Vermont’s borders. The idea here is to build upon what we have and to attract others to our cause.

If the University of Vermont can spend money to attract students from other countries, then it can also spend money spread the word of the food systems initiative far and wide. 

Typically, we fail miserably on the branding end of things. We create and then leave it to others to somehow discover us. 

Doesn’t work.

Ever.

It also needs a champion, someone who can work with each of the institutions, someone who can motivate each to operate beyond their own orbits, and someone who can use the bully pulpit to attract others to the cause. It will not work, or work far less effectively if the program’s success is left to those already neck deep in their own school’s needs and priorities.

That champion, in part, has to be the governor. Each of the participating schools needs to know that the governor has its back, and that he has an appointed counsel whose job it is to keep the project on task. 

The food systems degree programs should also entice support from the state’s businesses and industries that would profit from such a collaborative. They could organize around the need to establish scholarships and/or fellowships that could prompt students to enroll in the programs. They could be the ones who promise graduates the jobs upon the completion of the degree. They could be the ones who gin up the excitement at the student level.

None of this is easy work. And despite its 360-degree appeal, success on the scale imagined will prove elusive unless the same 360-degree cooperation is guaranteed.

But it’s too great an opportunity to squander, and Vermonters owe a note of thanks to Paul Costello of the Vermont Council on Rural Development for organizing the effort thus far.