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Vermont Agriculture Viability Council (2002-2003)

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The Vermont Agricultural Viability Council (VAVC) was formed with the goal of developing a strategic plan that would both further the prosperity of Vermont’s dairy industry and foster the growth of Vermont’s diversified agricultural enterprises. VCRD was encouraged to build a policy dialogue in this area by Vermont legislators, congressional staff, and federal agency staff. Vermont’s Commissioner of Agriculture supported and participated in the process because it dovetailed with departmental needs and the desire to advance a working platform that could unite state, federal, non-profit, and farm association efforts.

The analysis of the challenges and opportunities before agriculture began with an inclusive evaluation of all existing agriculture-related studies produced since 1990. Five agricultural hearings were then conducted with farmers and interested parties throughout the state. VAVC received presentations by a variety of agricultural experts covering all the topics before it. The Council also contracted for a research analysis of existing conditions in Vermont, national and international impacting factors, and alternative models of agricultural development.

A foundational concern for the effort that was approached from a number of perspectives was that of competition in commodity markets and the determinative impact of commodity prices, set out of state, on the profitability of Vermont operations. This led to an articulation of the necessity to diversify Vermont’s agricultural markets, to promote unique qualities that would make Vermont’s market offerings stand out in a competitive environment, and the need to raise the image and increase support of the agricultural sector among both consumers and state government.

At the end of the process, the Chair of the VAVC was appointed by Governor Douglas to serve as the Secretary of the new Agency of Agriculture; the VAVC report, in his words, became something of a “workplan” for the agency.

A number of the VAVC recommendations have been implemented successfully and have contributed to the viability of Vermont’s agricultural sector. The recommendation to establish a Secretary of Agriculture was instituted and that position provides a clear point of leadership and advocacy for Vermont farmers. A commonly identified concern was to consciously market Vermont’s assets—building a “Vermont Brand”—celebrating the entrepreneurial characteristics of Vermont farmers. Another key recommendation proposed the development of what has become a successful “Buy Local” campaign in support of Vermont’s burgeoning and diversified, community agriculture market.

In an age of increasing energy insecurity, rising grocery prices, and incidents of unsafe food production in the global marketplace, Vermont is poised for an agricultural resurgence.

Reports and Inputs

Vermont Agriculture Viability Council Members

  • Leon Berthiaume, St. Albans Cooperative
  • Wayne Bissonette, Hinesburg Dairy Farmer
  • Mark Boyden, Cambridge Diversified Farmer
  • John Bramley, University of Vermont
  • Paul Costello, Vermont Council on Rural Development
  • Leon Graves, Vermont Department of Agriculture
  • Paul Harlow, Windham County Organic Farmer
  • Beth Kennett, Vermont Farms!
  • Steve Kerr, Vermont Farm Service Agency (Chair)
  • Senator Sara Kittell, Senate Agriculture Committee
  • Roberta MacDonald, Cabot Creamery
  • David Major, Westminster Sheep Farmer
  • Dean Moreau, Yankee Farm Credit
  • Representative Ruth Towne, House Agriculture Committee
  • Sandy Witherell, Addison County Apple Grower
  • Julie Wolcott, Franklin County Farmer
  • Alex Wylie, Vermont Land Trust
  • Associate Members:
  • Ron and Roger Allbee, Allbee & Associates
  • Cynthia Tokos, Project Coordinato

VCRD Findings

  • Maintaining critical mass is crucial to the success of agriculture in Vermont.
  • Farms are businesses. Vermonters and policy leaders can make the mistake of thinking of farms as somehow separate from the issues faced by other businesses in Vermont. In fact, they have similar needs for regulatory clarity and predictability, capital access, and technical assistance. Farms need to make profits.
  • The dairy economy and the growth of diverse agricultural and value-added enterprises are not at odds but complement each other and are key to the future success of Vermont’s agricultural sector. Diverse agricultural enterprises depend on the infrastructure of stores, suppliers, markets, etc. that is supported by a profitable dairy sector. The dairy sector leads in creating the open agricultural landscape that is a hallmark of Vermont’s image: both dairy and the dynamism of agricultural diversity (and all the creativity and innovation it represents) are key components of the Vermont brand and the story that can support the success of the industry as a whole.
  • Likewise, the export market for commodity products is not at odds with the ‘buy local’ or ‘localvore’ movement. Both represent opportunities for significant growth to family farm revenues in Vermont.
  • Vermont commodity production costs are higher than other places in the country; Vermont farms need to compete for quality, market preference, safety, and other brand attributes.
  • Vermonters value agriculture as a key attribute of Vermont life, landscape, heritage, health and wellness, but agricultural enterprise development has not been an investment priority.
  • Vermont has major growth opportunities in organics, specialty foods and value-added agricultural enterprises.