A decade ago, Vermont lawmakers found themselves scrambling to respond to dropping milk prices. They wanted a more proactive way to strengthen Vermont's food and farm economy, and settled on a law they called the Farm-to-Plate Investment Program. The initial goal was to double the percentage of dollars spent on local food. Now 10 years later, we ask: did it work?
VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.
In 2009, lawmakers gave the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund $100,000 to create a 10-year strategic plan for agricultural economic development.
Called the Farm-to-Plate Investment Program, it was supposed to accomplish the following three goals:
- Increase economic development in Vermont's food and farm sector
- Create jobs in the food and farm economy
- Improve access to healthy local foods
The law didn't guarantee funding. It did stipulate that if Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund received at least $100,000 a year, that organization would continue to steer the project.
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund spent more than a year creating the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, which outlined 25 goals. They ranged from increasing food processing infrastructure to reducing food system reliance on fossil fuel.
The first and most notable goal was to increase the percent of dollars spent on local food, from 5% of all food spending to 10% of all food spending in Vermont by 2020. The plan was publicly announced in January 2011.
To meet these goals, VSJF created a constellation of intersecting groups of stakeholders known as the "Farm to Plate Network."
Sean Buchanan, then a business manager at the food distribution company Black River Produce, was a member of both the production and processing working group and the meat processing task force. He remembers the meetings and phone calls with nostalgia.
"It was like being, like, at college," Buchanan recalled, "where you're just sitting around and you're like, 'you know what makes a great jazz album? This makes a great jazz album.'"
Only they weren't talking about jazz — they were figuring out how to achieve economies of scale while slaughtering and processing livestock.
The Farm to Plate Network consisted of five working groups, each with 35 to 55 members. Attached to these were smaller, more focused task forces. Once a year, all of the teams in the network gather to share information.
The same year the strategic plan came out, the Vermont Legislature created and seeded a fund which would offer substantial matching grants to a host of farm and forest businesses and nonprofits. To receive the funds, applicants had to state how their project aligned with the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.
Between 2011 and 2019, lawmakers appropriated nearly $9 million for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which also received a smattering of private donations. To date, the fund's board has issued roughly $6 million in matching grants to entities from berry farms and cheesemakers to UVM Extension and Gagnon Lumber.
Largely, yes — it worked. The plan set out to double the percent of dollars spent on local food from 5% of all food spending to 10% of all food spending in Vermont by 2020. Today, the percent of food spending has nearly tripled.
Additionally, the number of food and beverage manufacturing businesses increased 72% between 2009 and 2017, despite the fact the manufacturing industry overall has contracted somewhat in that time.
And food-related jobs, which includes everything from food service to farm work to truck driving, increased in Vermont by 12% in that time period.
More from VPR's Did It Work? — Promoting Vermont Food Products In Japan
At the same time, Farm to Plate Director Jake Claro said making headway on the project's goal of making Vermont dairy farms both viable and diversified has been tough; increasing distribution channels has been slow, and improving low-income Vermonters' access to local healthy foods has also been a struggle.
"I mean there's so many people doing amazing work on food access," Claro said, but added that "there’s structural economic issues" that pose challenges.
On the ground, network members and grant recipients said the Farm to Table project had a positive impact.
Case Study 1: Vermont Packinghouse
Sean Buchanan, formerly of Black River Produce, said the meat processing task force he was on helped him and colleagues at Black River identify a slaughtering model and scale that would be able to meet the needs of both Vermont farmers and the larger, regional buyers.
Ultimately, Black River built what is now Vermont Packinghouse: a slaughterhouse and processing facility with ownership distinct from Black River.
According to Buchanan, recruiting local capital and investing was scary. Black River was going to "take a lot of people's hard-earned lifelong money," he said, but having buy-in from the farmers, regulators and lenders on the task force and working groups soothed some of that anxiety.
"You knew if you are in a bind you could pick up the phone and somebody would help you," Buchanan said.
While many are proud of the operation, it's worth noting Vermont Packinghouse has had a handful of run-ins with federal regulators.
Case Study 2: Joe's Kitchen
Over the last 10 years, Joe Buley has gone from farming and selling CSA shares, with a few part-time employees, to owning a packaged soup business, which he said will soon employ six people full time. The soups, he said, are made from ingredients he grows on his farm or sources locally.
Buley said growing his business would have been much slower without two matching grants from the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. He first received $15,000 for a labelling machine and potato peeler, which helped him begin processing food for his CSA.
Next, Buley started his soup business at the Mad River Food Hub, a shared food processing plant made possible thanks to a $50,000 grant from the same legislative fund. Eventually, the Working Lands board provided Buley with a separate $50,000 to start his own soup-making facility in Montpelier.
"The return on that investment is easily tenfold," he said. "My taxes, fees and licenses for this business amount to $6,000 to $10,000 a year that the state collects for me." Plus, Buley said, there's the indirect stimulus created by his rent payments and employees' salaries.
And Buley believes the Farm To Plate network of working groups and such had another way of influencing local grocers and their customers:
"It's just raised the awareness," he said, about the value of locally sourced food and the reason it often costs more. "They get it," he said, "they understand."
The original plan expires in 2020. In May, lawmakers renewed the legislation, establishing a new strategic plan for the coming decade.
Farm To Plate Program's Goal To Increase Local Food Consumption ... [drumroll / mobile users flip your phone] ...
While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of public money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.