We recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Farm to Plate Enterprise Initiative (F2P), which brought back memories and gave us many reasons to be optimistic about the future. When we passed F2P in 2009, three primary outcomes were spelled out in the legislation: To increase economic development in Vermont's food and farm sector, create jobs in the food and farm economy, and improve access to healthy local foods. It was estimated that if we could double the consumption of Vermont-produced food (going from 5 percent to 10 percent) over the course of 10 years, we could create 1,500-1,700 jobs in that time period.
In 2011, the Shumlin Administration saw the great value of F2P and included $500,000 in the Jobs Bill for initial implementation. What ensued was a systematic process carried out by the VT Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), headed by Executive Director Ellen Kahler and her very capable crew, to map and inventory the food system in Vermont. Dozens of meetings were held around the state attended by hundreds of people all giving their time, enthusiasm, knowledge, and energy to the creation of the F2P Strategic Plan that lays out 25 goals to be reached by 2020. For information about F2P, go to www.vtfarmtoplate.com/about-farm-to-plate.
In honor of the fifth anniversary, we had an update on the progress made toward reaching the 25 goals. One of the great strengths of VSJF is the vast amount of data that is gathered to substantiate the value of F2P and the progress made. In this era of Results-Based Accountability (RBA), these data are very helpful in evaluating whether to continue to support the F2P program, as well as other supporting programs such as the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.
There is some very good news to report! There has been a 32 percent increase in food system gross sales and an 11.6 percent increase in food system employment. Value-added food manufacturing has increased by 58 percent. Other interesting details include the fact that Vermont leads New England in agricultural sales. We are number one in maple syrup sales in the entire country, and 7.8 percent of all farms in Vermont are organic, which also makes us number one in the country. We have strong direct sales from farms to consumers and 39 percent of all Vermont farmers are women. Perhaps, the most impressive news is the creation of 5,300 jobs during the last five years. Keeping in mind that the original estimate was to create 1,500-1,700 jobs in 10 years, it is heartening to know that the actual results far-outpaced expectations.
The Working Landing Enterprise Initiative that we passed in 2012 enabled us to make additional investments in our food, farm, and forest systems. For those of us who have worked so hard to find funding for the program, it is gratifying to know the impact these investments have had on the economy. We understand that there is money in the governor's budget for FY2017 in order to carry on this very successful program.
The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee made its traditional, annual field trip to the Vermont Farm Show. We attended a dairy update that, unfortunately, has negative projections for the price of milk in 2016. While diversified agriculture has been getting a lot of attention in recent years, the dairy industry is our work horse and anchor in the agricultural sector. Three million dollars comes into Vermont every day as a result of the work of our dairy farmers so when the price of milk drops, it has an effect on the economy of the entire state.
It was good to hear that more dairies are doing on-farm processing and value-added products. This gives farmers a better price for what they produce. Also, there are a growing number of organic dairy farms and farms transitioning to organic production. Organic milk garners a much better price, in part because there is a supply management system involved that carefully limits the amounts that can be produced. As a result, organic milk producers are less subject to fluctuating milk prices.
On another subject, we worked at length on an amendment to Act 46, which is the Education Bill from last year. There was great concern because of the per-pupil spending threshold penalties that were included in what was primarily a governance consolidation bill. With health care costs going up 7.9 percent, many schools would be over the allowed limits just as a result of that. In response, the Education Committee met before the 2016 Session began and made a proposal to increase the thresholds by .9 percent. It was then determined that the Agency of Education (AOE) had given out incorrect figures for what schools could spend so an adjustment was suggested that would ameliorate that problem. Over in the Senate, they voted to repeal the spending threshold penalties altogether, but it was unclear what affect that would have had on school districts going back to the old penalties.
At the end of the week, we worked hard to come up with a compromise that pleased both the House and the Senate. We felt that it was important to get this done so school boards would know and be able to post their warnings by Sunday, which was the deadline. The agreement still allows for a .9 percent increase in the per pupil spending penalty thresholds and holds harmless districts that spend less than the state average of $14,095 per pupil. Districts that were affected by the misinformation released by the AOE can choose the scenario that works best for them. Penalties would be raised from 25 percent to 40 percent but this is still lower than the original 100 percent in Act 46. It also repeals the spending threshold penalties for FY2018.
Unfortunately, the Republican caucus refused to suspend the rules on Friday to take the amendment up off the notice calendar, so we had to wait until midnight (Saturday morning) to allow the calendar to advance in order to vote on it. It was a late night but we got it done and Governor Shumlin made it known that he would sign the legislation when it reached his desk early this week.