Posted April 12, 2007: With 6,700 farms in
Vermont, agriculture is a cornerstone of the state’s economy.
Yet the $556 million industry is not without its share of challenges.
Under consideration in the upcoming months is a new federal
Farm Bill that will have a direct impact on Vermont’s
farming community. Though the funding mechanism of the Farm
Bill tends to favor the interests of large-scale commodity farmers,
community forums across Vermont have been effective in building
both the legislative and grassroots support needed to maintain
small-scale agriculture in the state. These forums have also
created the opportunity for open conversations between farmers
and legislators, assuring that the voice of the small farmer
is heard with regard to the upcoming bill.
and the Farm Bill
Vermont’s most significant agricultural challenge
is its dairy industry. Unfavorable weather shifts, high energy
costs and an insufficient federal milk blend price are contributing
to the more than 10-percent annual reduction in dairy farms
across the state. There were 11,500 dairy farms in the early
1960s; now there are less than 1,415. The greatest problem
facing the dairy industry is the lack of a long-term solution.
Farmers and legislaters alike recognize that subsidies are
only a temporary Band-Aid. The state’s MILC (Milk Income
Loss Contract) program has provided more than $60 million
dollars in assistance to Vermont farmers over the past decade.
Without sustained federal funding from the Farm Bill to support
the MILC program, the current dairy situation will become
even more dire. Current USDA spending set by the 2002 Farm
Bill assists Vermonters in other ways, including subsidizes
much of a farmer’s organic certification costs. It also
provides financial assistance to senior citizens and low-income
families for access to healthy local food and is responsible
for the legislation guiding the National Farm to School Program,
another important instrument for building local food economies.
Town meeting and participatory government
Held each year on the second Tuesday of March, the Town
Meeting exemplifies Vermont’s tradition of participatory
government. Community members assemble in their respective
assembly halls to debate and vote on a variety of local issues,
to choose leaders and to reaffirm community goals. It is the
Vermont way. This format has been adapted by many of the state’s
agricultural organizations to provide public forums that address
the needs of the farming community to state policy makers.
These events also provide opportunities for farmers to be
informed of current legislative discussions and to learn the
mechanisms necessary to have their voices effectively heard.
Vermont is at an interesting moment in its agricultural history.
The decisions made over the next decade will have a significant
impact on the direction of the state’s economic growth.
While a recent influx of diverse, small-scale agriculture
has actually increased the number of Vermont farms, a state
once known for its dairy pastures and Holsteins has been losing
these farmers at an alarming rate.
Fortunately, the state has key leadership in Washington.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders are, respectively,
the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the first
socialist ever to be elected to the Senate floor. Both have
been formidable advocates for family farmers and rural communities.
Both senators recently returned to Vermont to receive testimony
from both the governor and prominent members of the state’s
agriculture community in order to learn more about the needs
of their state’s farmers.
Sen. Sanders went one step further, attending the Northeast
Organic Farming Association’s (NOFA’s) winter
conference in Randolph, Vermont, to demonstrate his support
for the state’s sustainable agricultural community.
Similarly, members of the House Agriculture Committee, chaired
by state Rep. David Zuckerman, have attended many local forums
and farmers’ markets to learn how they can better speak
for their constituents. (Read more about Zuckerman's own small
farm in Farmer
Smith goes to Burlington.)
“We are not dealing with a commodity market in Vermont,”
says Zuckerman. “So the Farm Bill isn’t going
to fix our problems; we need to find other ways to sustain
our agricultural economy.”
Sketching the image of a box on the back of his notebook,
Zuckerman presented his drawing to the state’s cooperative
representatives during a testimony to the agriculture committee.
“My mom used to tell me to think outside of the box,”
he said, proceeding to draw the word “idea” outside
of the box. “We need to find new solutions to old problems.”
Town meetings and local conferences create the backdrop for
important conversations between farmers and legislators. It
is during these meetings that legislative advocacy for Vermont
farmers is developed at both the state and federal level.
Sen. Leahy and Sen. Sanders return to Washington to better
influence federal decisions on what farmer Andrew Meyer of
Hardwick describes as “the role government should play
in monitoring agricultural markets” and the implications
of this role in the future of Vermont agriculture. Meanwhile,
Zuckerman and his committee members return to the state house
with a better idea of the upcoming committee legislation supported
by their own state communities.
Originally founded in Putney, Vermont, in 1971, the Northeast
Organic Farming Association (NOFA), with seven state chapters,
is one of the oldest sustainable agriculture support groups
in the US. NOFA Vermont has grown from a small group of individuals
to more than 1,000 members, using community forums as a means
of building a grassroots voice. The organization is a strong
example of how small community forums are effective at both
building advocacy groups and increasing awareness for key
“Many farmers feel that they do not have much of a
voice when it comes to the Farm Bill,” explains Enid
Wonnacott, executive director of NOFA VT. “Sen. Sanders
taking the time to attend our winter conference—[and]
whose attendance generated 950 members and non-members alike—was
a really good eye-opener for the community.”
Though NOFA members value small group forums for their ability
to create a collective voice, group leaders also acknowledge
that the attendance of prominent individuals in a position
to have a direct impact on the Farm Bill is an effective mechanism
for demonstrating the need for participatory democracy.
Beyond the winter conference, NOFA offers summer workshops,
such as pasture discussions, where farmers rotate from farm
to farm for peer-learning models of professional development.
The group also owns a mobile pizza oven that offers a fun
and unique perk to focus meetings where local people share
conversations and ideas.
Small groups of farmers, large winter conferences and the
involvement of state and federal legislators all hold promise
for direct impact to Farm Bill legislation. The key in all
of it is the same: accessible public forums where everyone’s
input and perspective is valued, and where elected representatives
can listen, learn and act.
Rural Vermont is a statewide grassroots organization dedicated
to sustainable local agriculture. According to Amy Shollenberger,
the organization’s director, Rural Vermont attempts
to find independent solutions to agricultural challenges by
“building local food systems rather than relying on
a Farm Bill too focused on a commodity market.”
This past winter, Rural Vermont held a string of “Hot
Chocolate Socials” across the state as a way to bring
the farming community together. The group hoped to both educate
and inform the community on local agricultural issues as well
as on ways members might work together to create stronger
local networks to support one another. The event has the mission
of introducing people to pertinent organizations and issues,
connecting people to local farmers and building strength in
key legislation districts. As Shollenberger explains, the
hope is to facilitate people to be part of the process, to
create spaces where they can speak for themselves easily and
freely, and to provide a place where citizens can interact
with legislatures and local farmers.
A typical social includes several farmers, diverse community
members, local legislators and presenters, all providing both
a celebratory and educational gathering that results in stronger
networks and community awareness. Legislators are offered
a chance to learn about the pressing concerns of the agriculture
community, while grassroots organizers such as Shollenberger
learn how they can be better advocates for local farmers.
Shollenberger explains that these events help community members
understand “specifically what their representative is
charged with, how the committee structure works, and whether
their rep is working on an important agriculture issue that
they did not realize.”
The Hot Chocolate Social held in Burlington allowed Zuckerman
the opportunity to present a summary of his committee’s
work to farmers and other community members in attendance.
Many of the concerned, younger voices at the social were being
introduced to many issues for the first time. For instance,
they learned about the current challenges of the state’s
dairy industry and of the ag committee’s conversations
in regard to changing the state’s poultry laws to expand
market opportunities between farmers and restaurants.
The Next Generation
In Vermont, community forums have provided the next generation
of policymakers with the opportunity to provide their own
voices in a comfortable forum. Students at Mt. Abraham High
School in Bristol, Vermont, recently met with the House and
Senate Agriculture Committee to convey the same message the
students have been spreading throughout numerous small-scale
community forums across the state. The students provided the
committees with both sound research and models for developing
a biofuel economy for the state and transforming to a “Carbon
Negative Vermont.” They propose doing so through the
creation of a state-chartered farm-fuel/carbon cooperative,
a state-chartered pilot fuel-pellet plant and a state-chartered
bio-fuels-and-futures market to contract and purchase power
from farms generating electricity through the use of methane
digesters and other alternative means.
Members of both committees were so impressed with the ingenuity
and organization of the plan that students have been invited
back to answer follow-up questions and continue the discussion.
The confidence displayed by these next-generation advocates
in regard to affecting state agriculture policy was developed
and strengthened through attendance and participation at a
wide range of community forums. These forums foster the Vermont
ethic that all voices of the community deserve to be heard
by both community members and legislators alike. In the long-term,
these presentations create state-wide change that brings innovative
solutions to attention at the federal level, such as advocating
for sound energy policy in next-generation farm bills.
Developing Similar Models
Vermont’s community forums provide individual farmers
the opportunity to have their voices heard in a way that can
greatly influence both state and federal farm policy. These
forums are a New England tradition, and they are not difficult
to orchestrate. All it takes is a little bit of notice, some
conversations with nonprofit advocates and local legislators
and some simple snacks or beverages to provide a comfortable
setting. These events can be held at library conference rooms,
places of worship and schools. Local community organizations
are often more than happy to facilitate spirited dialogue
among residents, knowing that these interactions are the effective
building blocks for positive change.