Our Food System Is Broken, But We Can Fix It!

Guest blog post from A. John Bramley, interim president at the University of Vermont.  Bramley, a longstanding member of the UVM faculty, has served as department chair of Animal Sciences, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and provost and senior vice president of the university. From 2007 to 2011, he was president and CEO of the Windham Foundation, the largest private foundation registered in Vermont.

Twenty two years ago, I came to Vermont as a faculty member working in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Over that time, the Vermont dairy industry has undergone much trauma and change.  Many dairy farms disappeared, or became part of larger operations. There are now less than 1,000 operating Vermont dairy farms. The overarching reason has been an archaic pricing structure that gave farmers little control and paid them less than their cost of producing milk much of the time. Young people watched their parents and families struggle, and decided it was not for them. The average age of dairy farmers increased.  Numerous, praiseworthy attempts were made to address the pricing structure by regional compacts or federal intervention and they provided some important temporary fixes. However, a long term solution has not been forthcoming.

What is encouraging to me is that the failure of the system has stimulated the development of many local or personal solutions.

These include organic milk production responding to growing market demand, adding value to milk by converting it into products such as cheese or yogurt, diversification of revenue sources and entrepreneurial approaches, such as direct marketing and tourism.  There has been a substantial increase in other types of farming operations, usually diverse, and often by individuals from non-agricultural backgrounds. Individuals are usually not motivated by seeking personal riches, but rather by seeking a new way to make their lives personally rewarding and meaningful.

This is not the first time this has happened.  For example, it occurred in the 1930s during the Great Depression, fuelled certainly by economic necessity, but also by dissatisfaction with a failing economic model and idealism for greater control over individual destiny. That is laudable, but challenging and it becomes important for those of us engaged in agricultural to do our best to help support each other’s success.

I am truly excited by the trends and the food revolution that is occurring in Vermont. It has led significantly to the University’s emphasis on food systems teaching, research and outreach and to my commitment of presidential funds to support the upcoming UVM food summit. The tremendous interest we have seen in the public conference and in the Breakthrough Leaders Program reflects these trends but also something more: increasingly people are aware that our food system is unsustainable economically, ecologically and energetically.  I see the summit at UVM as a jumping off point to building models and educational programs for sustainable regional food systems that can feed the billions on the planet in ways that protect the environment and create rural renewal.

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