The Vermont Senate and House Agriculture Committees recently held a legislative hearing on the future of agriculture. Michele Allison, a St. Johnsbury resident, testified and wrote this first-hand account:
Susannah Morelock and I attended the public hearing to the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture on “The Future of Food and Farming in Vermont” on Tuesday, February 17, 2009.
Susannah has a small diversified farm in Danville, raising chickens, goats, oxen and pigs for meat, eggs, milk and dairy products, as well as a vegetable garden that feed her and her partner, Sally, much of the year.
I am a backyard gardener in St. Johnsbury, concerned with the security and sustainability of our food supply – as well as great eating!
The hearing was scheduled from 7-9 pm. Proceedings were already underway when we arrived, and the chamber was packed with over 300 farmers of all ages (including children and babies), with all kinds of small, independent farms.
More than 100 people testified. Each was given 2 minutes to speak, and asked to direct their comments to the challenges and opportunities they see for VT farming, what the legislature can do to help, and their vision of the future for farming.
Many spoke directly, others read prepared statements, but all spoke movingly and eloquently about the importance of small farms, and fresh, local foods for the people of VT. Many sell their products at local farmers markets, farmstands, and through CSA farms, and all report the enthusiasm and demand for high quality fresh food from their customers.
An overriding theme was opposition to existing legislation that inhibits their ability to do what they do best – produce fresh food for their communities. Laws regulating sales of raw milk and farm-raised meat, in particular, were designed for large agricultural businesses, not small, independent farms. Applying those laws to small farmers requires them, in effect, to sell “under the radar.”
Successful sustainable farming is virtually impossible, financially, under these laws, which limit the amount of product that can be sold. Most farmers, are, in fact, breaking the law by selling their products as they do. Small farms need to be inspected for health and safety issues, but on a scale appropriate to their size. The financial health of small farms would be strong if farmers could sell their products to the public who wants them.
Also mentioned was the importance of small farms feeding the state’s school, hospitals and other public services. Why don’t all school children in Vermont drink milk from Vermont farmers? Also, preserving the existing farmland, and making it accessible financially to young people wanting to start careers as farmers.
Testimony continued for 3 ½ hours, despite the 2-hour time allotted for the hearing. Legislators stayed until almost 10:30 pm, so that everyone who wanted to speak could be heard. They listened attentively, and could not have missed the intensity, passion, energy and commitment of the farmers who came out on a cold night, many coming in mucky boots straight from farm chores, and stayed till the end in order to speak to their representatives. If this hearing is any indication, the future of farming in VT is overwhelmingly healthy and vibrant.
The follow-up report from Rural Vermont is that the legislature was “abuzz all week” with stories from the hearing and amazement at how many people are thinking about food and farming. “The future is ours!”
Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak here tonight.
I believe the biggest challenge we face is the end of cheap, abundant oil, and the effect it will have on our food supply. I believe that making our food supply as secure and sustainable as possible must be a top priority for our state and local governments. Peak Oil, political instability, and natural disasters leave us at the mercy of an unreliable food supply. The farther from home our food is grown, the hungrier we will be.
Fortunately, the opportunities to meet this challenge in VT are plentiful. We have a long history of small, sustainable farming communities, we have fertile land, we have citizens who are increasingly concerned about the quality and safety of their food, and we have young people who are eager to make a life in sustainable farming.
Particularly in this time of financial crisis, farming offers dignified employment, doing vital work. And all this helps keep money in VT.
The legislature can help by keeping farmland in production, and making it affordable to people who want to farm.
You can help by insuring that farmers receive a price for their products that is higher than the cost of producing them. You can support experiments with growing food products, like rice, wheat, and a variety of other grains, fruits and nuts. Many of these were grown in VT in the past, and they can be again. So much of what we eat comes from elsewhere, but if we wish to eat, we will need to grow it here again.
Most important, the legislature needs to recognize that strong, sustainable local agriculture is the ultimate Homeland Security. “Eat Local” is not just a trendy buzzword – if we can’t eat local, none of us may eat at all.