Bridging our (Agri)cultural Gaps

By Chuck Ross

We are in the midst of a pivotal period for American agriculture. Culturally, Americans are increasingly becoming more interested in food and fiber. And yet, less than 2 percent of the population makes a living farming or ranching.  This results in different experiences, perspectives, and understandings between and among the many stakeholders of our agricultural and food systems.

It’s become clear that a cultural and educational gap is emerging between many of the stakeholders, and the opportunity for misunderstanding is immense. Agricultural leaders across the country need to bridge this gap, set aside differences, and seek out common ground. We must work together to create a culture of what I call “Ag Literacy,” which is an appreciation and understanding of where food and fiber comes from, and how farming and ranching work.

As an eighth generation Vermonter, I’m proud that my home state is hosting the 2014 National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Annual Meeting Sept. 10-13 in Burlington. The event will include discussion on key national policy issues, networking with agricultural stakeholders, and exploration of Vermont’s diverse, community-based agriculture.

Vermont is a national leader in traditional and innovative farming, and I’m looking forward to sharing our success stories with other agricultural leaders from around the country.

Our accomplishments in Vermont are impressive. Vermont has fully embraced the localvore movement, ranking first in direct-to-consumer farm sales through farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSA’s. Vermont is also home to a robust dairy industry, and is the country’s top producer of maple syrup.

The Green Mountain State is also a leader in sustainable food system development.

Over the past five years, more than 2,000 Vermont food system jobs have been added to the local economy since the launch of the Vermont Farm to Plate initiative in 2009. We’re clearly seeing the growth and evolution of a community-based food system that is growing healthy food, new jobs, and sustainable communities.

Vermont is also investing in the further development of our food system, by supporting the Working Lands Enterprise Fund and Farm to Plate, because it represents a strong and growing sector of our economy.

Education is vital to Vermont’s success. The Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium was created to make agriculture, food systems and the working landscape key development priority areas at colleges and universities around the state. So far, six schools, including the University of Vermont, are participating in this initiative to help design new ways to collaborate, share students and resources, and expand opportunities for place-based food systems education. The goal of this effort is to make Vermont the epicenter of community-based food systems education in the country.

We are clearly on our way.

UVM, a sponsor of the NASDA meeting, has been an invaluable partner to Vermont’s sustainable food system and localvore success. UVM offers a wide range of educational programs in food systems, including Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture courses, a Master’s of Science degree in Food Systems; and a Farmer Training Program. The UVM Food Systems Initiative is a cross-campus, trans-disciplinary effort to promote research, teaching, and outreach on the most pressing agricultural and food issues of today.

Vermont has proven what is possible, and there is much we can accomplish as a nation. Working together, agricultural leaders have the power to lead the industry toward new and collaborative solutions. We also have the opportunity to help reconnect Americans to their agricultural roots.

This week, I look forward to highlighting some of our efforts to promote “Ag Literacy” here in Vermont. I am also proud to share Vermont’s community-based agriculture, from our cherished tradition of “milk and maple” to our innovative and progressive “farm to institution” initiatives. But most of all, I look forward to convening some of the brightest minds in the industry together for four days of discussion, exploration, and learning in Vermont.

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. 

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social.