November 20, 2017

Guest Column: Local food economy extends beyond the farm

By Jake Claro

When you ask people their definition of the Vermont food economy, they’ll often talk about farms, farmers’ markets or CSAs. What’s often missing from the conversation is the supply chain of local businesses like distributors, food processors and manufacturers as well as seed, feed and equipment dealers.

Vermont’s local food economy extends well beyond the farm and is an important part of our state’s economic engine. About 64,000 Vermonters are employed across the local food system — spanning farm inputs (seed, feed, fertilizer), production, processing, distribution and retail.

Food manufacturing and processing involve a series of mechanical (chopping, mincing, mixing ingredients) or chemical (fermentation, pickling, curing) operations. This preserves or changes raw food into things like cheese, beer, maple syrup, meats and sauces.

Food and beverage manufacturing has boomed since 2010 as one of the few growing manufacturing sectors in Vermont. Employment increased 47 percent from 2009 to 2015, up from 4,628 jobs to 6,810. Processing and food manufacturing facilities in Vermont represent a diversity of products and scales, from large commercial facilities like Cabot Creamery Cooperative and King Arthur Flour to smaller operations like Green Pasture Meats, Baird Farm Maple Syrup, 14th Star Brewing and Mad River Food Hub.

The growth in food manufacturing is even more impressive when you contrast it with non-food manufacturing in Vermont. From 2004 to 2013, total value-added, non-food manufacturing in Vermont decreased 37 percent while value-added food manufacturing increased 58 percent.

Traditional supply chain businesses view relationships as transactional and competitive with unevenly distributed benefits. The average U.S. farmer, for example, receives approximately 17 cents of each dollar spent on food, while the remainder goes to food service, processing and retail.

In Vermont’s values-based supply chain, businesses work together to boost the entire local economy and contribute to our self-sufficiency as a state.

Examples include:

Pumpkin Village Foods distributes products both from self-owned Green Wind Farm in Enosburg Falls (mostly maple) and other small producers concentrated within 55 miles of Burlington (including honey, cider, cranberries and flour) to independent grocery stores in New York City.

The Intervale Food Hub in Burlington aggregates multiple farm products, provides an online purchasing platform and delivers to Vermont institutions, businesses, organizations and homes.

A longstanding supply chain partnership between St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Vermont Creamery resulted in the production of “St. Albans” — a 100 percent cows’ milk aged cheese, verified by the Non-GMO Project. St. Albans Coop member Paul-Lin Dairy in Bakersfield produced the milk using non-GMO feed. St. Albans cheese marks the first non-GMO verification for Vermont Creamery.

These are just a few examples of Vermont food system businesses that are going beyond the traditional supply chain model to succeed in the local, regional and national marketplace.

Local food is truly a bright spot in Vermont’s economy. Increasing consumer purchases of local food keeps more money here in Vermont and, in turn, creates jobs, supports businesses committed to their communities, protects family farms, and helps more local food become accessible for more Vermonters.

Learn more about the work taking place to implement a farm-to-plate food system in Vermont at  vtfarmtoplate.com.

Jake Claro is the farm-to-plate director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

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