Saturday, May 18, 2013

In Vermont Agriculture and Food Systems, Understanding the Past Reinforces the Future

It is being called the Renaissance of the Past, the renewed interest in agriculture and food systems within our state. It manifests itself in many forms to include growth in CSA’s, or community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, food hubs, and the further diversification of agriculture production with an array of products from the land and animals that are raised on the land. This re-birth or renaissance further reinforces Vermont’s past, its present, and its future.
Vermont’s agriculture, forests, and working landscape have always defined the state. The early settlers who came to Vermont from Southern New England after the French and Indian War were looking for productive soils. While they were subsistence farmers in the beginning, planting a few crops and keeping a few animals for their own use, increasingly many began raising items for sale or barter as towns and nearby cities grew in size. They found markets for grain, potatoes, and livestock in Montreal, Quebec, Troy, Albany, and Boston. In the early 1800s significant cash-crop exports included potash, pearl ash, whiskey, pork, beef, wheat, flour, grain, butter, cheese, lumber and horses. In the Champlain Valley, before 1820, growing grains was a very important agriculture enterprise and those grains were either distilled locally or hauled to markets in Albany or Troy.
Land and water transportation played integral parts in the development of industry and trade in agriculture and other products. Road building began in the late 1700’s with private turnpikes chartered by the state legislature. Canal and water transportation became as important as overland routes. In Bellows Falls, located on the Connecticut River, the construction of the first canal built in the U.S. began in 1792. This canal made it possible for our state’s producers to ship several tons of products to Hartford, CT on flat-bottomed boats in 3 days.
On the West side of the state, Burlington became a flourishing center of commerce after the completion of the 64-mile Champlain Canal in 1823. The access provided by these transportation networks to new markets grew increasingly important to the economic health of Vermont farms as the farm economy evolved from subsistence and a barter economy to cash basis. These new transportation networks also exposed products from the state to new competition. Railroads also proved to be a mixed blessing to Vermont farmers who witnessed dire economic realities as competition from western wool, beef, butter, and grain forced changes in the farm economy.
As agriculture continued to change in response to market conditions and competition, specialization grew and farmers focused on specialty crops, livestock, and livestock products. In the early 1800s when disease, pests and increased competition undermined grain production in the Champlain Valley, many farmers
adapted by raising Merino sheep. Grass was “king” in the hills and valleys of Vermont and this proved ideal for these sheep. Many towns had flocks of one thousand or more, and Vermont became known as the sheep capital of the world, home to over one and a half million. These sheep were envied for their fine wool and fleece and were in great demand worldwide. Nevertheless, Vermont and its Merino sheep fell captive to tariff regulations, international events, and competition from the western U.S. and abroad. While this specialization was taking place, other products continued to be produced. The 1850 agricultural statistics illustrate the following product diversification: butter, cheese, oats, beef, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, field beans, potatoes, hay, orchard products, flax, hops, hemp, silk, maple sugar, maple syrup, honey, and wool.
Vermont had already established itself as an important maple producing state, and the same was true for its apple production. Many farms produced maple syrup in the spring, providing important income diversity. Orchard farming began as early as the 1810’s on Isle La Motte. Beginning in the late 1800’s, large-scale orchards were established along Lake Champlain, and Vermont shipped its maple and fruit products throughout the U.S. and abroad, enhancing Vermont’s agricultural diversity.
Following the decline of the Merino sheep Industry, there was a slow migration to the specialization in butter and cheese production. These products had traditionally been made on the farm, with skills passed down from one generation to the next. As cities and towns grew in size, merchants reached out for these products and demand outstripped the capacity and the uneven quality of on-farm production, leading to the development of creameries and cheese factories. St. Albans had the world’s largest commercial creamery, and Vermont butter became known for its quality, and a product from the state won a gold medal for the best butter in the world. As demand for products grew, creameries sprang up in many towns and communities around the state. By 1900, 186 creameries and 66 cheese factories operated throughout Vermont. Whole industries sprang up to support this production to include cheese and butter box production, and specialty churns. This too changed as cities further south reached out for fluid milk and the first milk train left Bellows Falls, Vermont for Boston in 1890.
Commercialization of dairying and the interstate shipment of milk and milk products created renewed economic challenges and farmer cooperatives became important in bargaining for fair pricing for their members. Federal actions relative to dairy price supports and parity pricing could not forestall the pressure for change and the eventual beginning of the deregulation of the dairy industry in the early 1980’s. Many of the early farm leaders, who had witnessed these changes in Vermont agriculture over time (loss of Merino sheep, butter markets, grain production, beef trade), and had been part of it, recognized the competitive advantages of farming in Vermont. An important advantage was being near emerging markets in the Northeast and growing and producing products of the highest quality to meet changing consumer needs. Others saw the advantage in
growing grass and raising animals that could convert grass to energy. All agreed that Vermont farmers could never compete with the west on a commodity-pricing basis.
Through the years, farmers have had to adapt to changes. Today, there is a renewed interest by consumers in local and regional foods. Vermont farmers are taking the lead in many areas, to include, being known for organic and other locally produced food products. This renewed interest in local foods has resulted in the growth in farmers’ markets, food hubs, CSA’s or community supported agriculture, farmstead cheese production, farm raised beef, new maple products and production, new vineyards, pick your own fruit operations, and many other products from the farm. Maple, however, is still considered the soul, and dairy, the anchor of Vermont agriculture.
Vermont today is increasingly known for its food systems and connection to the land and the Vermont brand. This working landscape helps to support and define our state, its past, present, and future. It helps support a vibrant tourist industry, and connects people to places. National Geographic, just a few years ago, stated that Vermont was the number five place in the world to visit and the number one in the U.S. and that this was due to its working landscape and quaint villages. It is a true Renaissance, reinforced by the many products now being produced on or from the land.
By Roger Allbee, Townshend, Vermont
Former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets