When Vermont's Farm to Plate initiative was launched five years ago many had high expectations for what this effort could do for the state's farmers and its overall economic future.
Now that we're at the half-way point one thing is clear: Those initial rosey predictions actually proved rather conservative.
"We could not be more pleased with the 5,300 new jobs that have been created and the overall positive impact Farm to Plate is having on the state's economy, which has grown to over $10 billion in annual sales," said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham 3, adding, "this initiative has far exceeded our expectations."
At no other time in Vermont's history has food system activity been more coordinated and more of an economic driver in Vermont, according to the 2015 Farm to Plate Annual Report that was released last week. Farm to Plate has firmly established that food system development is fundamental to Vermont's economy. Since its launch, a Network of over 350 businesses, non-profit organizations, government agencies, capital providers, and educational institutions have been collaborating in support of the Plan's 25 goals to strengthen Vermont's food system.
The result, the report justifiably boasts, is the preeminent food system plan in the United States, with a comprehensive data collection, analysis, and visualization system for tracking progress.
Clearly Vermont is reaping the benefits of the localvore trend sweeping the nation. Consumer preferences have decisively moved away from artificial ingredients and highly processed food in favor of healthy, local food — and many Vermont businesses are taking advantage of this trend.
Vermont generates the highest sales from agricultural production ($776 million) in New England and Vermont maple syrup, cheese, ice cream, and beer are in high demand nationally. Vermont has witnessed sustained growth in food system sales, jobs, and businesses, and increases in value added food manufacturing, financing opportunities, and supply chain connections, according to the report.
Food system gross sales are up an amazing 32 percent from $7.6 billion (2007) to $10 billion (2012) [in 2014 dollars]. Even more impressive, net value added food manufacturing increased a whopping 58 percent ($359 million) from 2004 to 2013 and now totals nearly $1 billion (half of which are dairy related products). A total of 5,387 new food system jobs were added from 2009 to 2014, bringing the total to 63,398.
There's plenty of evidence of that growth right here in our area. At Harlow Farm in Westminster, for example, revenue went from about $1.1 million to $1.75 million and the farm has nearly doubled its seasonal staff in five years, the Associated Press reports. The organic vegetable farm also expanded its sales through wholesalers to southeastern states like Florida and Alabama.
That demand for local food, a shortage of meat processing plants in Vermont and a desire to get locally-raised meat into supermarkets and beyond prompted Black River Produce to convert a former Ben & Jerry's plant in North Springfield into a slaughterhouse and processing plant that opened in the summer of 2014. Business at the slaughterhouse called Vermont Packinghouse is growing quickly – in only a year and a half the plant has gone from 10 employees to 50, and is exceeding it's five-year projections, AP reports.
This welcome report proves that it is possible to have economic development while still preserving, even enhancing, the way of life Vermonters value so much.
The key now is to continue that simultaneous growth and preservation so that future generations may continue to reap the benefits sown by the Farm to Plate initiative.
As the report notes, food system activities going forward need to focus more closely on improving farm viability, expanding non-dairy food production, strengthening Vermont's remaining dairy economy, and increasing the balance and diversity of food system companies. And from an environmental perspective, protection and sustainability of natural systems will be key — especially around healthy soils and clean water — as we try to mitigate against and adapt to the challenges of climate change.