Agricultural literacy: How VT is leading the way in food system awareness

By Chuck Ross

Chuck Ross is Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. Chuck has a history of civic and agricultural leadership in the state, as a farmer, former state legislator, and former State Director for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. He will speak at the UVM Food Systems Summit on June 27.

Last fall the Farm Bill, a sweeping $955 billion omnibus bill supporting a vast expanse of agricultural programs, expired.  The Farm Bill touches everything from rural development, to conservation programs, to crop insurance, to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP). For better or worse, it is a huge driver of our national food system, a system that permeates our health, ecology, economy and the very communities we call home.

And yet, as the clock ticked down to the deadline, and the Farm Bill ultimately expired, few Americans noticed. Our Vermont Congressional delegates were tenacious in their efforts to advance the bill, to no avail.  Although the Senate and the House Ag Committee passed versions of the bill, the Speaker of the House refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. To those watching, the inaction was stupefying. But as it turns out, few Americans were watching.

Today, it appears the Farm Bill may be back on track. A new version recently passed out of the Senate, and as I write this, the bill seems well on its way to a vote in the House. [Update: As of 6/20, the Farm Bill failed in the House. The future of the Farm Bill remains unclear.]

But that doesn’t change the fact that agriculture, and the policies that shape our food system, seem to exist someplace outside the mainstream cultural consciousness. How can that be? We all depend upon food – everyone eats. In this way, we are all innately connected to and through our food system. And yet the fact remains: most of us don’t understand the intrinsic connection between the food on our tables, the economy, the ecology, and the farmers who produce it.

I call this phenomenon “agricultural literacy,” or more accurately, illiteracy. As a culture, we have become mostly detached from the source of our food and our understanding of the systems that produce it.  Given the population pressures emerging in the 21st century and the importance of our ability to feed ourselves within the ecological limits of the globe, our agriculture illiteracy is a true threat that must be addressed. Certainly, there is a growing movement, led by some very dynamic, progressive thinkers, working to correct this problem. They are a small, but determined minority. Their challenge is great.

As Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Vermont, I consider it my mission to increase agricultural literacy. I am proud to report we are making great strides. It is happening in our public schools, where more than half of our students experience Farm to School programming in their classrooms, cafeterias, and communities. (In fact, Vermont leads the nation in Farm to School initiatives.) It is happening at the point-of-purchase, where more consumers are buying direct from the farm (via CSA shares, farmers’ markets, and farm stands) per capita than any other state in the nation. And it is happening in our hospitals, workplaces, and government institutions, where focused match-making and technical assistance is enabling an increasing number of local producers to secure supplier contracts.

Quite simply, more Vermonters are connecting directly with farmers, which deepens their appreciation for and understanding of agriculture.

“Agricultural literacy” is the ability to think critically about our food system; understand the interconnectedness of food , farming, economy and ecology; appreciate the complex dynamics of agriculture; and recognize how making informed decisions about how and what we eat shapes our working landscapes, the communities in which we live, and the larger world of which we are a part.  We need to understand how our agricultural literacy will inform the decisions we will make about the policies and practices we adopt to guide our food system.  And it will be this food system upon which we will all depend to feed our growing population and do so within the ecological parameters of our world. Given the stakes involved I urge us all to improve our individual and collective agricultural literacy – our future depends upon it.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social.