Vermont rallies for 2007 Farm Bill input
Sets grassroots-up example for other states.

By Jarett Emert

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.

Vermont 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.

NOFA

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 agricultural issues.

“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

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.