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VT farm future

02/12/07 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven says that when we talk about the future of farming in Vermont, there's a great deal more involved than just the price of milk.

(CRAVEN) Recent news reports say Vermont dairy farmers may face an especially brutal round of bankruptcies this spring. Unfortunately, this continues a trend as farms collapse under the weight of out-of state competition, high costs, heavy borrowing, climate change, and a marketing system that leaves them vulnerable to middle men, corporate consolidation, and price fluctuations.

Vermont farming has always been more than simply a business. Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry argues that (quote)"good farming is a cultural development and a spiritual discipline."(end quote) Vermont agriculture shapes our landscape and it informs our values, sense of community, and collective identity. Indeed, Berry argues that how we treat our land says a lot about who we are.

Despite the bad news, recent developments suggest hope for the future. Specialized agriculture is expanding and farmers' markets and food coops are moving toward the mainstream. The small town of Hardwick now hosts The Vermont Milk Company, a farmer-owned processing plant that pays farmers twenty percent higher prices for milk. Also in Hardwick, Andrew Meyer, a young entrepreneur who grew up on a nearby dairy farm, has launched Vermont Soy as a means to help farmers diversify.

In a recent article, New York Times food writer Michael Pollan argued for a return to (quote)"plain old fashioned food", noting how thirty years of agricultural engineering and processing had made us (quote) "sicker, fatter, and less well-nourished." Around Vermont, farm activists are working to increase the amount of local food we consume, as an alternative to produce that's trucked or flown thousands of miles to reach our tables. Even the city of Burlington boasts a thriving food coop, agricultural research at UVM, and the Intervale, a vital non-profit that maintains 354 acres of land devoted to farming, composting, nurseries, wildlife protection, and hiking trails.

Vermont leads the nation, with the highest percentage of land in organic production. The Montpelier-based educational group, Food Works, helps schools start community gardens and it has partnered with state legislators to increase the amount of Vermont-produced food that's consumed in our schools.

People working to address climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels are likewise turning to plant-based ethanol for some part of the solution.

These developments show how food is more than a commodity. With proper planning, capitalization, market access, and a mobilized citizenry, Vermont's organic and conventional agriculture industries can help foster new prosperity, sustainable communities, and a renewed regional culture.

I worked on a farm as a kid. It was all hard work but I'm glad to have done it. There is a vital role to be played by young people in all of this ~ to re-invigorate our economy and help forge the environmental and cultural legacies we leave to future generations. What's at stake is nothing less than Vermont's sense of itself for the 21st century.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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