Commentary: Vermont forest products an industry in transition

 

Posted Sunday, January 28, 2018 

By Christine McGowan

Vermont prides itself as the Green Mountain State, with nearly 80 percent of its land mass covered in forest. Healthy and productive forests are inherent to Vermont's culture and heritage. 

Yet, the industry responsible for bringing us countless valuable forest products: high-quality furniture, specialty wood crafts, lumber and firewood, as well as services such as clean water, fresh air and a home for wildlife — is in decline due to myriad challenges. 

Rapidly changing commodity markets, overseas competition and an aging workforce all are contributing to an industry in transition. 

And yet, both the environmental and economic viability of Vermont's forested landscape depends on a healthy forest products industry to responsibly manage, harvest, and use Vermont's forests.

Vermont's forest products industry generates an annual economic output of

$1.5 billion and supports 10,000 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating. In addition, Vermont's forest recreation economy generates another $1.9 billion in economic output, and supports 10,000 additional jobs. 

While Vermont's forests supply high quality saw logs used in construction or by specialty woodworkers, the majority of wood presently in our forests is considered "low grade," typically used for pulp to make paper or chipped for heat or electricity. 

And due to a sharp decline in the region's pulp industry, combined with the low price of oil and a move away from expanding electric-only biomass in the region, the market for low-grade wood has substantially dried up. 

So, while markets for high quality wood are healthy, they cannot singularly sustain Vermont's forest products industry. Without healthy markets for low-grade wood, Vermont is likely to see continued decline in the industry's in-state infrastructure, such as logging operations, sawmills and kilns, as well as the local jobs they sustained and the forest management service they provide.

Hope for the Future

Despite what sometimes sounds like a gloomy forecast for this industry in transition, I see hope for the future. Within the forest products industry are entrepreneurs developing new and innovative wood products and business models, logging and forestry professionals with impressive knowledge of and dedication to Vermont's forest health and productivity, and talented woodworkers whose craftsmanship bolsters Vermont's reputation for fostering creativity.

According to the 2016 Forest Sector Systems Analysis, commissioned by the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board, both protecting our forests and strengthening the entire industry are equally crucial for Vermont's economic and ecological future. 

Finding markets for low-grade wood, product innovation, workforce development, technical and business assistance, and financing were identified as major issues impacting the forest products sector. 

The analysis identified the need for network development and value chain facilitation to sustainably develop Vermont's forest economy. 

This led to the creation of the Vermont Forest Products Program, coordinated by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund in collaboration with the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and the Northern Forest Center.

Network development accelerates industry growth by bringing together diverse stakeholders to tackle systems level change no one business or organization can do alone. 

Modeled after the successful Farm to Plate Network, a new Forest Industry Network will create the space for industry professionals from across the entire supply chain and trade association partners throughout the state to build stronger relationships and collaboration throughout the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products, from high-quality furniture to construction material to thermal biomass products such as chips and pellets.

Creating and retaining quality jobs for Vermonters, opening additional markets for locally produced wood products, and improving economic development in the forest products industry, all while benefiting the environment, is achievable and the work has begun. Learn more or join the Vermont Forest Industry Network at vsjf.org.

Christine McGowan of Stowe is forest products program director for the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Farm to Plate: The True Cost of Local Food

Vermonters find purchasing seasonal products directly from farm stands is a good value.

Written by Rachel Carter, Director of Communications at VT Sustainable Jobs Fund

When choosing to purchase food, cost is often a deciding factor for consumers. Why buy a 12-ounce package of localbacon for $7.99 when you can get it for $4.98?

Purchasing local food means you know where your food comes from, you’re buying food that is generally healthier, and you’re helping drive the local economy to keep more jobsand dollars circulating in the state. Still, price can be a sticking point for many Vermonters. While it’s true that the cost of local food at the grocery store is often higher than mass-produced commodity food, the reasons why might surprise you.

Largescale farms that manufacture crops like corn and soy receive government subsidies to mass produce animal feed which leads to overproduction of these crops. This creates a surplus of corn and soy, which industrial food manufacturers use to produce cheap ingredients—like high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil—for highly processed foods. Vermont farmers operate on a smaller scale with lower net incomes than large industrial sized farms, and most do not receive the same level of government assistance, yet are faced with the same or even higher breadth of costs to produce food. Purchasing equipment, packaging costs, tax payments, and wages all factor into the financial equation, with many local farmers and producers wanting to pay fair wages to their workers that are representative of the cost of living. Many Vermont farmers also go to great lengths to care for the environment without compensation, which is not a significant priority for many industrial-scale crop manufacturing farms (a contributing factor to climate change—look no further than dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico). When it comes time for a local farmer or food business to sell their food, many products are priced below the cost to actually produce it, leaving farmers and producers struggling to turn a profit. The closer local products are priced to cover production costs and for the farmer to make a profit, the more consumers balk at the cost—and who can blame us when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay?  

Even more challenging is that local farmers are trying to sell to consumers who are used to cheap food prices and are likely unaware they’re actually footing the bill at tax time for the government subsidies which industrial agriculture receives. Consumer tax dollars help keep corn and soy prices low which allows corporations to create highly processed foods on the cheap, leading to rising food-related public health crises, such as rising obesity rates. When environmental stewardship is not a priority in the corporate food system, hidden costs include pollution and climate change.

When you think about comparing prices between local food and mass-marketed, highly processed commodity food, consider the following:

  • Farm subsidies, authorized by the federal government’s Farm Bill, are costly to taxpayers. According to the Congressional Budget Office, total government aid to farmers is estimated to reach $23.9 billion in 2017. Additionally, from 1995-2014, the federal government spent $322.7 billion in farm subsidies, with $183.7 billion going to commodity programs that support corn and soy production.
  • Subsidized payments mainly go toward the largest farms producing staple commodities such as corn and soybeans in the Midwest. The top 20 percent of subsidy recipients received 91 percent of all subsidy payments from 1995-2014. Some larger Vermont farms receive federal subsidies, but not at the magnitude of farms in other parts of the country, ranking 40 out of 50 in subsidy payments received.

How Did We Get Here?

Farm subsidies began back in the 1930s as a short-term fix to the farm crisis during the Great Depression. Back then, 25 percent of the population was living on farms, agricultural production was becoming more efficient through industrialization and new technologies, and there was extended overproduction of staple crops like corn, wheat, and legumes (e.g. beans and peas) because of decreased demand caused by the Great Depression. The increased supply and lack of demand had depressed crop prices to the point where prices fell below the cost of production. Farm subsidies offered a solution to supply management by originally paying farmers to leave land idle when overproduction occurred to help increase prices the following year. The Federal Government would also purchase excess production in bumper crop years and release it in times of scarcity to further stabilize prices for both farmers and consumers.

However, rather than being a short-term fix, the subsidies became enshrined in agricultural policy. Over time, US Farm Bills—which previously had focused on supply side management—started to incentivize increased commodity production through artificial price supports (e.g., yearly direct payments to farms based on land use and payments to farms when prices went below the cost of production). Farm Bills also built up additional demand through new markets, including foreign export markets, biofuel development, and processed foods.

The Local Food Economy

Here in Vermont, local food is becoming a key driver to our local economy. Vermont generates the highest sales ($776 million) from agricultural production in New England, and Vermont maple syrup, cheese, ice cream, and beer are in high demand nationally.

Local food purchasing increased in Vermont from 2010-2014, with 6.9 percent of food purchases going to local products in 2014 ($189 million) compared to 5 percent in 2010. The Vermont Farm to Plate Network is working to increase local food purchases by another 3 percent over the next four years as a part of implementing Vermont’s statewide Farm to Plate food system plan (per legislation originally passed in 2009). Additionally, the New England states are looking at how the region could produce 50 percent of our own food over the next 50 years.

While the local food economy is growing, the barriers of access and price experienced by consumers in the marketplace are very real. When small farmers and food producers set a price for food, they must analyze the cost of production and find a price in order to be profitable and competitive. Here are some of the many costs they need to take into account when determining market price, all without significant federal subsidies:

  • Labor: livable wages, payroll taxes, housing needs
  • Equipment: machinery, tractors, tools
  • Inputs: seeds, compost, packaging, fertilizers
  • Capital expenses: farmland, infrastructure, property taxes
  • Overhead: maintaining buildings, professional services, administrative duties, advertising, marketing, wholesale costs
  • Hidden costs: managing labor, accounting, working overtime/not getting paid
  • Water quality issues: planting riparian buffers to help control non-point pollution and improve water quality
  • Food safety upgrades
  • Certifications

Demanding the end to subsidies isn’t necessarily the answer here, but making a commitment to buy local food (anything produced or processed in Vermont plus 30 miles from the border including milk and dairy products, meat, vegetables, fruit, maple syrup, honey, coffee, beer, baked goods, etc.) will certainly go a long way in making a difference. Even if it’s just a few dollars more a week, the numbers add up and could bring about change. Purchasing local food can ultimately increase demand, which will help adjust the price of local food at the supermarket.

The next time you go food shopping, remember that purchasing cheaper, mass-produced commodity food comes at a cost—to your wallet, the local economy, and our planet. If we increase demand of local food, supply will rise, prices will come down, our economy will thrive, and all Vermonters can enjoy what they deserve—access to affordable, healthy, local food.

Learn more about ways to celebrate everyone’s unique entry points to local food by connecting with Rooted in Vermont on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. #RootedinVermont. 

 

Rutland Herald: Consider Bardwell Farm wins Prestigious Cheese Award

West Pawlet cheese turns some heads 

Katelyn Barcellos  | January 25, 2018 

WEST PAWLET — A small creamery in West Pawlet is turning heads and igniting taste buds with award-winning cheeses made on their Civil War-era farm. 

On Jan. 19, Consider Bardwell Farm, an animal welfare certified raw-milk creamery, received word that its 12-month-old Rupert — a type of alpine swiss cheese — had won the Northeast Region Cheese Award from the Good Food Awards. The national nonprofit Good Food Awards consider the quality and taste of the product as well as the sustainability of the producer before recognizing the best foods and beverages in the country by region.

“This is one of the best awards we’ve ever won,” said creamery manager and resident cheese queen Leslie Goff. “All this hard work that we’re doing, the farmers, the creamery, this makes it worth it. All those long, hard days actually pay off.”

The selected cheese had to be one of the best in America, co-owner Angela Miller said.

“This is better than any gold medal,” Miller said. “It’s a combination of excellent food and excellent environment. It’s making a perfect cheese.”

Goff said Rupert is a cheese well deserving of stardom. 

“Rupert is a super unique cheese,” Goff said. “The longer it ages, the more butterscotch, savory, umami notes you get out of that cheese. It’s really appealing because of how sweet it is and the texture of it.”

“It’s almost like a candy when you eat it,” Miller said. “It’s perfect melted, with mac and cheese or with apple pie.”

The award came as a surprise and a thrill for the raw-milk creamery, one of more than 50 creameries in the Green Mountain State alone. 

“The competition is super stiff in Vermont,” Goff said. 

The farm won its first awards in 2007 from the American Cheese Society — a silver medal for its Manchester cheese — and bronze medal for its Dorset. This year alone, Consider Bardwell won 10 awards for its cheeses from the Big E, Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, The Good Food Awards, and the U.S. Cheese Championships (bronze for its blue cheese).

Consider Bardwell is pushing out more cheese every year, producing 115,000 pounds in 2017.

Miller and her husband Rust Glover started setting up the creamery in 2003 and were licensed in 2004. While in the process of purchasing the West Pawlet farm in 2000, the owners discovered its notable history.

“I found out that this is the first cheese-making cooperative in Vermont during the Civil War in 1863,” Miller said. 

The farm started off with just six Swiss Alpine goats, and quickly began to expand.

“We made about $9,000 in the first year,” Angela said. “At that time, we were milking 25 goats. To say we didn’t know what we were doing is an understatement.”

Consider Bardwell got started by selling their cheese at farmers markets and to restaurants in New York City. Today, the creamery houses and milks 150 Swiss Alpine, French Alpine, and Nubian goats to make their raw milk cheeses. The creamery employs 15 people, 11 of them women.

The creamery’s cheese can be found in 18 of the 66 farmers markets in New York City and in more than 1,000 stores across the country including Wegmans, and Whole Foods.

Consider Bardwell also partners with Larson Farm in Wells, Browe Farm in West Pawlet, and Brooks Farm in West Pawlet for their raw cow milk supply. The farm is committed to ethical animal husbandry and promoting local raw-milk dairy. 

“You get more natural flavors from raw-milk cheese,” Leslie said. “We’re not having to add stuff to the vats to add flavor.” 

Goff said the cheeses are aged in five caves on the farm for anywhere between 60 days and 14 months. 

“Dorset is smaller, aged for two months,” Miller said. “Rupert is bigger, so it’s aged longer.”

Making high-quality cheese is no simple task, but the crew at Consider Bardwell are passionate about their animals and proud of their product. 

“It is not an easy job,” Goff said. “It’s super stressful at times in the year. The recognition makes it all worthwhile.”

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that while some parts of the creamery operation are certified organic, the creamery as a whole is not. 

 

 

 

Windham Foundation: 2017 Annual Report: Featured Grants

Strengthening Farm-to-School Food Programs

 

The Windham Foundation recently awarded Food Connects and Northshire Grows a $5,000 grant to strengthen Farm-to-School programs and activities across Southern Vermont.

Based on Food Connect’s model, the funds allowed Northshire Grows to be trained in Farm-to-School competencies and for a coordinator there to receive further training.  Together, the organizations cultivated interest in a Vermont FEED professional development course, which 20 members of the Bennington School District took this fall.

The groups also worked to generate interest in purchasing local produce for cafeterias, Vermont Harvest of the Month and special classroom programs. They also promoted school and community gardening as a learning tool.

As a result of this capacity-building grant, Bennington County is seeing its Farm-to-School efforts grow, its teachers taking on more project-based learning initiatives and its students becoming more engaged in agriculture and place-based learning.

VT Secretary of Agriculture visits Northshire

By Cherise Madigan, Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER — Northshire Grows has planted the seeds for a fruitful 2018, and on Dec. 11 the organization had the opportunity to highlight Bennington County's agricultural landscape during a visit from Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Secretary Anson Tebbetts.

The visit is one of many recently coordinated by Northshire Grows, which has worked to make connections with different facets of the philanthropic and political realms.

On Dec. 11, Secretary Tebbetts was joined by Northshire Grows Director Liz Ruffa and her Board of Directors, including: Donald Campbell of the Vermont Land Trust, VT State Senator Brian Campion, Jesse Pyles of Danby's Smokey House Center, and Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan.

"These visits help people to understand the variety of things that we're doing, and the energy that's down here," Ruffa said. "I'm always looking for opportunities to tell the stories of Bennington County, and also find opportunities for this food system in other parts of the state."

The visit began at the Village School of North Bennington, which soon segwayed into an exploration of the Highland Hall Community Gardens. That space, utilized by organizations like the Vermont School for Girls, the Vermont Arts Exchange, and the Youth Agricultural Program, provided an example of the growing role of community agriculture in the Shires according to Ruffa.

From there the group embarked to local cheesemaker Maplebrook Farm, which recently re-located to a new facility in North Bennington. The operation continues to grow, says Ruffa, and the farm's apprenticeship program could serve as a model for increased trade-education in the region.

"We had a very interesting conversation about workforce needs, because they've had this apprenticeship program going over the years where kids who are looking for work are trained there," Ruffa said, noting that many of these apprentices come from Mount Anthony Union High School. "Some of them stay and some of them move on, but that's something that addresses a need that the Governor has brought to everyone's attention; the fact that technical and vocational education and training is really important."

Meandering up to Shaftsbury, the Northshire Grows team then introduced Secretary Tebbetts to Studio Hill Farm, which has placed a sharp focus on regenerative soil management. In doing so, the farm has increased the fertility and productivity of their land in "really meaningful ways" according to Ruffa.

"This type of farming has very interesting applications for water quality issues," Ruffa said. "The more you build up your soil, the less run-off you're going to have into your waterways."

Departing the Northshire, the next stop for the agricultural delegation was Manchester's Burr and Burton Academy, which has worked to provide local, healthy, and appetizing food for their students in recent years. Much of that food is sourced from the nearby Dene Farm at Hildene, where Tebbetts ended his Bennington county expedition.

"It was a really fun time," Ruffa said. "One of his closing comments was that he's looking forward to coming back soon, maybe in the spring."

The visit served as a sort of culmination for the organization's 2017, and Ruffa hopes that Northshire Grows can continue to expand in the coming year. Two of their big goals: expanding farm-to-school programs in the region, and constructing a food processing facility along the Route 7 corridor.

"I'm a firm believer that agricultural heritage is a part of our past, but also part of our future," Ruffa said, noting that agriculture and manufacturing have historic roots in the Shires. "I think that food production and food manufacturing is a great opportunity for Bennington county. We have a lot of empty manufacturing space, and we have a lot of industrious growers."

While the amount of food grown in Vermont has continued to expand, says Ruffa, the consumption rate has not kept pace with that volume. Increasing food manufacturing opportunities in the region could help to change that, she says.

"It's all in the research, development, and feasibility phase," Ruffa said, noting that the organization does have some private funding committed and applications submitted for state and federal programs. "Bennington county has a $100 million food economy, of which the local purchasing is a scant part of. We do a good job of growing food, but we're not selling as much of it as we should be to people that live here."

According to Ruffa, the potential facility could also enhance the organization's educational goals.

"I'd really like it to be built with education at its core," Ruffa said. "It could be as much a workforce development and job training facility as anything else."

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.

Veterans and hunger: Finding solutions, growing partnerships

Posted Wednesday, December 13, 2017 8:06 am

By Mark Rondeau, Bennington Banner

ARLINGTON — Local and state professionals passionate for veterans' well-being and local advocates for food security met last week, discussing how food programs are already helping veterans in need and their families, and exploring opportunities for future collaboration.

The Hunger Council of Bennington County, a local program under the auspices of Hunger Free Vermont, hosted the two-hour meeting at Dunlap Hall, the former Methodist Church building. Representatives from veterans' organizations gave an overview of the services available to veterans in the state and in Bennington County and added their insights about the state of food security and the social safety net. Local members of the council, along with Hunger Free Vermont state staff, spoke of available services and helped come up with possibilities for future collaboration.

Richard Gallo, of the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program, said there are more than 46,600 veterans in Vermont; 3,432 of these are in Bennington County. Statewide, just 29,341 of eligible veterans are enrolled with the Veterans Administration; in Bennington County, 45 percent of its 3,432 eligible veterans are enrolled with the VA.

The average veteran in Vermont is male, 65 to 84 years old, and served in the Vietnam War, Gallo said.

The Outreach Program was created about 10 years ago through funds secured by Vermont's congressional delegation. This enabled development of a program to conduct ongoing outreach primarily to combat veterans and their families. Trained program specialists check in with veterans to identify any potential needs, including issues reintegrating into the community, and help the veterans get the services that will help them. 

The program had an outreach specialist in Bennington, but he held one of three positions cut in September due to budget considerations, said Andre Wing, also of the Outreach Program. The person based in Rutland now covers from the Middlebury area south down to Pownal, Gallo said. 

Gallo said that among the program partners of the Outreach Program are non-profit organizations such as open-door missions, community cupboards and other food programs. He is very familiar with programs in Rutland but asked about such services in Bennington. In response, others present told him of the interfaith Kitchen Cupboard Food Pantry, the Harvest House Soup Kitchen, and HIS Pantry at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church, all in Bennington. They also mentioned that BROC Community Action has a satellite office in Bennington.

"The one thing for Bennington that you should be aware of is that a lot of us in the service industry really depend on the interfaith community network, too," said Leigh Smith, healthcare for homeless veterans coordinator for Bennington County. "They do a lot of wonderful jobs coordinating meals that a lot of folks utilize."

Family Assistance Centers

The Family Assistance Centers (FAC) program is meant "to provide resource referral and support assistance to service members and their families, of all military branches." 

"When we talk about the 'six essential services,' and community resources and community outreach as one of our essential services, that is a very broad, all-encompassing term," including state and local services available to the community at large, said Glory O'Neil, of the FAC program. "It's exactly that: nutrition, food shelves, shelters, crisis (support) — whatever the case may be."

Many of those the FACs work with, especially current service members, do not have veteran status and drill just one weekend a month with the National Guard. Wing estimated that there are about 3,000 active Army National Guard members and about 1,000 active Air National Guard members in Vermont.

"A lot of those soldiers have families and also work very low-paying jobs and have a hard time making ends meet living in a state like Vermont," O'Neil said. "And so those are the people that we see coming to us who are running out of money quick and need those food shelves and need those community resources. So that's why we're here trying to figure out exactly in our areas, in the areas that we're new to, what's available for those soldiers that don't have access to, and their families that don't have access, to the VA benefits and a lot those other benefits that are available to some of our other service members."

Kate Hendrickson, also of the Family Assistance Centers program, said it seems like there's a very young population of service members and their families in the southern part of Vermont. 

"For instance, this last drill weekend, out of that drill weekend, I was referred a soldier who needs tires for his vehicle, around here there's no public transportation for a lot of these people, so if he can't get tires on his vehicle to get to work, then he loses his job and then it just spirals from there," she said. "And another soldier was faced with a situation where he's living with a family member, they are going to be displaced, so he was actually going to be residing in his car if he doesn't get a place to live. 

"These are oftentimes young people who join the military to really get their life in order because they maybe didn't have a lot of support. And then they come out of their training, they're not eligible for really any VA benefits or anything," Hendrickson said. "But they don't have a job and they don't have good place to live and they are not making ends meet well."

Three veterans services personnel from the Bennington Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) attended the meeting. In addition to Leigh Smith, they included Joe Bisson, RN case manager for the Bennington, Rutland and Brattleboro CBOCs and Pam Trites, staff nurse at the Bennington CBOC.

The Bennington VA clinic is small, providing about 1,800 total patients primary care and mental health care. There is a big push on tele-health care, similar to video communication by Skype, because of transportation issues, Trites said.

Smith deals with the mental health and homelessness side of the Bennington CBOC, which has three therapists available to see patients. She frequently gets referrals from homeless shelters. She sees lack of employment opportunities and limited transportation as barriers to veterans' well-being, though veterans come to the CBOC not only from Vermont but from New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.

"We also are looking at food insecurity. We ask the questions, 'have you ever been worried about food in the last three months?' 'Gone without eating?' as well as the homeless piece," she said. "I can say for the folks that I tend to work with: they depend a lot on the food shelves in Bennington County."

There's also a beneficial social aspect with the Meals on Wheels program or with the meals served at the Bennington Senior Center, "which we really encourage, especially for our older folk," she said.

Smith said there is a small percentage of veterans who refuse to go to food shelves out of pride. "And as far as I can glean, and it's going to be a very blanket statement, but there's the feeling that, 'there are others that could use this service more than me. And I'll be just fine,' " she said. Other veterans might have issues with a very crowded food pantry waiting room.

Walmart and Price Chopper gift cards are helpful for the homeless team to give out. Smith also takes people to the grocery store. Indeed, she took a person grocery shopping the morning of the meeting "because there is no transportation in Arlington to get to a good grocery store. I would describe this as a food desert." 

Coming from the Detroit area, Smith said, "I know what food deserts look like and there are certain aspects of our county that are very difficult to access quality food."

Vermont Veterans' Home

Col. Al Faxon, chief operating officer, and Gary Yelle, admissions coordinator and marketing director, said the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington had started a small community garden on its 82 acres of land a couple of years ago. It consists of about 12 to 16 plots that are 18 by 20 feet and the home tills it for the growing season, as well as tools and water. Last year, only three plots were utilized.

"It's supposed to be veteran-related, veteran-spouse, but we really don't care," Faxon said."If they're in the veteran family circle somewhere, they can come and have their own garden. It's been slow building."

Liz Ruffa, project director of Northshire Grows and a board member of the Vermont Food Bank, recently met with staff at the Veterans' Home and discussed providing the facility with crops grown by local veteran farmers.

"When you go to the campus and you see how much land you have and what specific growing opportunities there are, I think that there are just lots of interesting opportunities for partnerships," she said, "or to work with veterans especially that are growing food to get this food to the people who need it the most."

Potential safety net cuts

Erica Campbell, a member of Vt. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' staff focusing on agriculture, food, rural development and transportation, said she would report back to the senator what happened at the meeting. "Right now, we're really still focused on taxes, the tax bill," she said, noting that she didn't need to tell those attending the details of the controversial bill. "We're just facing some massive cuts to a lot of social safety net programs, potentially. If it does go through, they will be looking for $1.5 trillion to cut."

The next Bennington Hunger Council meeting will be held on Wednesday, March 28, with the Center for Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) in Bennington.

Reach Mark Rondeau at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com or by phone at 802-447-7567, ext. 138.
 

 

 

 

 

Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day) course in Bennington is a great success!

Cultivating Farm to School course held at Mount Anthony                   Union Middle School October 4 - November 21, 2017

This fall, 18 educators and food service directors from schools across the Pre K - 12 spectrum and throughout the Southshire attended a six part professional development course at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. Schools represented were: Bennington Elementary, Early Education Program - Division Street, Molly Stark Elementary, Mount Anthony Middle and High School, On Point Elementary and Middle Schools, Pownal Elementary, Sunderland Elementary, and Village School North Bennington. Together, they learned about the many ways that schools can embrace the three C's of Farm to School - classrooms, cafeterias and communities, to impact student learning, health and engagement in their "place".  You can read more about the course here.

We had a stellar group of guest educators and sector leaders join us, including: 

Derek Andersen, Burr and Burton Academy, Dene Farm Campus; Chris Callahan, UVM Extension;   Alisa del Tufo, Threshold Collaborative; Kimberly Griffin, UVM Extension and 4H;  Rebecca Mitchell, Hunger Free Vermont; Abbie Nelson, NOFA- Vermont;  Beth Roy, Vital Communities;  Rob Terry, Merck Forest and Farmland Center; Kestrel Plump, Shelburne Farms;  Joe Bossen, Vermont Bean Craters and All Souls Tortilleria;  Kathleen O'Reilly, Vermont Department of Heath;  and Maureen O'Neil, The Abbey Group and Food Director for the Southwestern Vermont Supervisory Union (SVSU).

Each school "team" now has an actionable project or idea to bring into their school community in 2018. We plan to offer a "Farm to School - Classroom, Cafeteria and Community Connections"  course this Spring, 2018 which will strengthen the baseline and engage more schools in this engaging and fun work. 

Special thanks to Ryan Morra at Shelburne Farms and Vermont-FEED (Food Education Every Day) for making this course so successful in our region and to Laura Boudreau, Director of Curriculum at SVSU, for her encouragement and support.

 

Commentary: Vermont’s workforce dilemma

Labor force does not match employer needs; a deeper look into growing the food system workforce by Ellen Kahler, Executive Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund 

Vermont’s struggle to grow its workforce weakens our economy, inhibits the ability for Vermont businesses to expand their operations, and threatens the ability for Vermonters and future generations to grow and thrive here in the Green Mountains. An aging workforce, stagnant wages in jobs without career ladders, the cost of housing and childcare, the opioid epidemic, and a need for more young adults entering the workforce are all contributors to our workforce dilemma.

According to a 2013 Vermont Food System Workforce Needs Assessment report, 40 percent of large employers and 50 percent of small employers surveyed said that hiring challenges are holding their businesses back—meaning they are faced with reduced revenue, less efficient production, and delayed expansion plans into new markets or larger production spaces. Four years later, the challenges have only increased.

The simple demographic fact is that more people are retiring and fewer people are entering the workforce each year. According to a report from the Vermont Futures Project released in January 2017, 11,375 Vermonters retire every year, and only 8,000 young people are entering Vermont’s workforce from either high school or college.  Frankly, we need more people in Vermont or these negative trends will continue and we will not be able to afford to sustain the traditions that make Vermont such a special place to live.

There is also a widely-held perception that Vermont lacks sufficient opportunities for job seekers in general, and thus many young people leave the state for more or better opportunities elsewhere.

Yet, in the Vermont Farm to Plate Network’s efforts to strengthen economic development in the food system,  we often hear from local food producers and businesses that the biggest challenge to growing their business is finding labor. Farmers, producers, and distributors cannot find the local people they need to drive trucks, harvest vegetables, process meat, milk cows, or manage poultry and livestock. These jobs are available, but Vermonters often do not apply because they are under the impression that these are low-wage jobs with no opportunity for career advancement. The honest truth is that not as many Vermonters want to do hard physical labor anymore, which begs the question—who will do this needed work?

Some who do apply, do not get hired or are not able to keep the job because they lack the necessary skills or struggle with drug and alcohol dependence. We’ve also heard that farmers and food producers cannot find enough workers with basic skills such as timeliness, accountability, and a work ethic.

Jobs that are typically hard to fill in the local food economy include truck drivers, product operations managers, shipping and receiving, and general labor like hand-weeding and working the packing line—especially during the harvest season. There is also a need for skilled meat cutters, cheese makers, HVAC installers, food safety inspectors, and experienced managers.

In addition, too few businesses in Vermont, employ human resources professionals to work with owners to develop a compensation philosophy and workforce development and training processes. Often employees need additional on-the-job training before they can be fully productive, which can be challenging for employers to provide.

In some cases these jobs cannot be filled because of low wages, but not always. Wages in the local food economy are competitive and often above the state’s $10 minimum wage. Farmers and producers often pay anywhere from $12.38 to $17 per hour, with annual salaries of $50,000+ for professional employees in higher level positions. The range of jobs in our food system varies widely. There are jobs in quality assurance, marketing and brand development, accounting, information technology, shipping and receiving in a farm or food business setting, and other professional positions just as there would be in other industries. 

So, when we talk about Vermont’s workforce, it’s important to remember that this is a complex issue. It’s not a simple argument about having enough jobs, paying good wages, or Vermont’s aging population. The Vermont food economy has plenty of jobs available. These jobs—much to people’s surprise—offer decent wages, quality of life, and an opportunity to be part of a growing sector of Vermont’s economy. The jobs are there, and the local economy needs hardworking, skilled people to fill them.

Learn more about the work taking place to implement Vermont’s Farm to Plate food                   system plan at www.vtfarmtoplate.com.

Vermont Foodbank Welcomes New Board Member Elizabeth Ruffa

For Immediate Release September 26th, 2017

Contact: Nicole Whalen, Vermont Foodbank 802-505-0123


Barre, VT – Sept. 26, 2017 – Yesterday the Vermont Foodbank’s Board of Directors unanimously voted in Liz Ruffa as a new member, to serve a three year term.

A resident of East Dorset, Vermont, Liz Ruffa has dedicated her career to building networks that support community and economic development. She is the Executive Director of Northshire Grows Inc., a food systems network that connects Bennington County farms and food businesses with their communities. Northshire Grows focuses on farm viability issues, market channel development, and Farm to School programming. Northshire Grows aims to improve access to and build community around local food and to build up the region’s food economy.

Liz also partners with Common Good Vermont on special projects for the mission-driven, non-profit sector, that have included regional capacity building, impact investing research, and advocacy initiatives. She serves on the Town of Dorset’s Select Board, the VT Farm to Plate Network’s Steering Committee, and is the Commissioner of Local Food and Agriculture at the Bennington County Regional Commission.

“The Vermont Foodbank is fortunate indeed to welcome Liz to our Board of Directors,” says Vermont Foodbank CEO, John Sayles. “With her focus on food systems and work improving access to local foods in southwestern Vermont, she will bring a valuable perspective to our team. Liz’s vibrant voice and strategic thinking will help us to better achieve our mission that no one in Vermont will go hungry. We are thrilled to welcome her to the Vermont Foodbank’s board!”

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About the Vermont Foodbank

Vermont Foodbank is the state’s largest hunger-relief organization, serving Vermont through a network of food shelves, meal sites, schools, hospitals, and housing sites. In FY2016, the Vermont Foodbank distributed more than 12 million pounds of food to 153,100 Vermonters. The Vermont Foodbank, a member of Feeding America, is nationally recognized as one of the most effective and efficient nonprofits and food banks in the nation. Learn more at www.vtfoodbank.org.