In A Food Shortage, Could Vermont Farms Feed The Whole State?
Jamie McKenzie of Waterbury originally asked this question in the context of climate change. But the food supply issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have given it new urgency.
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Two scenes from a pandemic
Scene one: A windy day late April. Taylor Firestein moves bags of food from the back of a delivery truck to the front seat. These are for home drop-off, for members of the Intervale Food Hub in Burlington.
“This is one of our vegetable packs,” she explains. “So it’s mostly root vegetables, and usually one type of green.”
This order is going to a co-housing unit just off of East Ave, where Taylor has just parked and popped out, bag in gloved hand. She’s been making the rounds all day.
“This would be 220 of today,” she says with a weary laugh. “Eleven more!”
It’s a sweet deal: Local food, brought right to your door. So sweet, that in a single week in mid-April, the Food Hub saw their demand quadruple.
“We went from 84 home deliveries to 375,” says Reid Parsons, the Food Hub’s sales and marketing manager. When her team saw this spike, they made a tough decision: to stop accepting new members until the summer.
“We talked this over a lot,” Parsons says. “And ultimately, I mean, we had to make this decision, in order to keep our staff safe.”
Scene two: Also late April, also windy.
The Vermont National Guard is set up at the Franklin County Airport, in Swanton. They’re here to hand out MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat — military-style food rations.
This is the first of seven “points of distribution” coordinated by the National Guard and the Vermont Foodbank to provide food to Vermonters in need during the state’s coronavirus shutdown.
The guardsmen have begun the day in Swanton with 31 pallets of MREs, or roughly 24,000 meals, to distribute. By 11:30 a.m., there are none left.
“Everyone’s super appreciative,” Sgt. Nicole Hill says of the morning’s MRE recipients. “They’re really happy and thankful that we’re doing this for them. A lot of people are also picking up for their neighbors or elderly people in their neighborhood that they know can’t travel or shouldn’t be traveling.”
So what do these two scenes have in common? It is weird and/or hard to get food in Vermont these days, no matter your circumstance. And it’s got a lot of us re-thinking how we feed ourselves — including our winning question-asker, Jamie McKenzie.
“My husband’s a builder, so he is building a chicken coop,” she says. “And [we’re] adding a few more garden beds, and thinking about vegetables that can last a while.”
At first, COVID-19 caused a bunch of panic-buying. And now it’s starting to mess with our food supply chain. Jamie says her family is lucky not to be facing food insecurity, but she’s still anxious.
“It’s hard to be going through this experience and not having more anxiety and more worry about that," she says, "especially as you’re seeing images floating around social media of empty shelves in the grocery stores."
So in this pseudo-hypothetical, could we do it? Could we, as a state, feed ourselves?
Where we're at
To find out how much local food we normally consume, I called up Ellen Kahler. She’s the executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which administers the Vermont Farm To Plate program.
Kahler says that of all the money Vermonters spend on food and drink, about 14% is on local products.
“Just 14%. That means that an awful lot of the rest of what we eat comes from — it could be coming from New England, it could be coming from the United States, or Mexico or China,” Kahler says.
(We’ve more than doubled our local consumption in less than 10 years, Kahler notes, “but that is a long way from 100.”)
And of course the bulk of what we do produce here — well, it’s produced by cows:
“The vast majority of what we produce in the state, from just straight-up agricultural products, is dairy. And most of that gets exported out of the state.”
Then there’s our maple syrup, fruits, veggies and livestock, “but none of that is at the level of consumption to feed our entire population,” Kahler says.
Though in this particular moment, demand for local produce, meat and dairy is spiking across the state.
“It’s the busiest that we have ever been,” says Ashlyn Bristle of Rebop Farm, a diversified operation in Brattleboro that specializes in meat and raw milk, in one of a series of remote interviews with farmers that I arranged in late April. “Our business tripled in the last six weeks.”
At Golden Russet Farm & Greenhouses in Shoreham, co-owner Will Stevens reported that sales of seeds, seed potatoes and asparagus crowns were up, and calls from customers interested in curbside pickup had kick-started their spring season. The farm now also offers signups for hour-long “appointments” to shop the greenhouses.
“The demand, especially since March, has really soared,” Stevens says.
Pete Johnson, of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, one of the largest producer growers in the state, says that retail sales had more than made up for the restaurant accounts lost during the shutdown.
“We had to hustle to keep up with it, and now we’re kind of getting short on stored crops that we had from last fall,” Johnson says.
Meanwhile, in Rutland, Abbey Thomas, the fifth-generation family owner of Thomas Dairy, notes that her business had been adapting to meet changing demands, and had recently tapped into a whole new local market: schools that are sending lunches home to students.
“We have a lot of new business, actually, just different kinds,” Thomas says. “We’re able to provide [schools] with a bulk delivery of quarts, half gallons and gallons for their lunch program.”
What these operations have in common is that they’re direct-to-consumer, or close to consumer. A lot of farms that rely on restaurants or more complicated distribution, or sell into commodity markets, are having a tougher time right now. So, maybe they have the food, but no way to get it to their customers.
Explore more of VPR’s food & ag coverage:
- Farming's COVID Crisis: Specialty Cheese Sales, Milk Prices Plummet
- As COVID-19 Closes Major Processors, Vermont Slaughterhouses Carve Up Local Meat
- 'My Family Needs These Meals': How One Northeast Kingdom Family Is Making It Through
- Dumped Milk, Falling Prices, Shrinking Demand: Vermont Dairy And The Coronavirus
And everyone is trying to stay healthy — which isn’t easy if you’re, say, a migrant farmworker living in shared housing.
“Our agriculture was in a bit of trouble before this pandemic, and this has not helped them at all,” said Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference on April 29. “I’m very concerned about the farmers themselves. I’m concerned about our food supply.”
We’ve prepared for some kinds of emergencies, says Ellen Kahler of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. But not this kind.
“Our state’s done an amazing job since Tropical Storm Irene in preparing for things like flooding,” Kahler says. “Unfortunately, we haven’t really thought about, what would it look like if we actually prepared for food security? If we were going to not be able to bring any food into the state for several months, for instance?”
Let's get real about coffee and chocolate
This brings us back to Jamie’s question. Could Vermont farms feed our whole population? As with so many questions, it depends whom you ask.
“Well it’s a great question, and it’s super interesting,” says Pete Johnson, of Pete’s Greens. “I was doing some figuring this morning, and the short answer is yes.”
(Pete’s Green’s website, incidentally, features the declaration, “Vermont can feed itself!”)
Johnson says that if we’re just talking straight calories to survive, say, 3,000 per person per day, “it would only take 50,000 acres of potatoes to provide all the calories for the whole state of Vermont for the whole year, and that’s about a tenth of our total agricultural land.”
Or, if you don’t like potatoes: “Corn is almost as good. Wheat is harder, wheat you need almost four times the acreage … I did kale just for the heck of it, [and] it performs pretty well: 120,000 acres, which is a little over a quarter of Vermont’s ag land, in kale, provides all the calories for everybody!”
Pete Johnson knows these are extreme hypotheticals. But he’s not exactly joking.
“What you could do is, take a diversified diet and just plug in certain amounts of all these things,” he says. “And from this rough math I’m doing, I think you could definitely do it, and have not a spartan diet, but a good diet.”
So that’s one answer. Here’s another.
That’s the word from Ellen Kahler, of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
“A lot of the food that we eat in Vermont can’t be produced year-round at the quantities that we need to be able to consume to feed the population,” she says, “and I think a lot of us wouldn’t be happy with not being able to eat bananas and chocolate and drink coffee and have oranges all year round.”
For Kahler, it’s not a matter of what we could eat, it’s a matter of what we want to eat. We’re used to certain luxuries, and also staples like pasta and rice.
“Of the things that we could produce year-round, it’s primarily things like greens,” Kahler says. “And so, do we want to ... basically live on lettuce all year? I don’t think that’s actually nutritionally possible.”
Between these two unequivocal answers, I heard a lot of qualified yesses in my reporting. Yes, we could feed ourselves more than just potatoes and kale, but we’d need to value our ag land differently. Value our farmers more. Yes, but we’d need to change the way we eat. Be willing to pay for the true cost of food. And that brings us to the giant caveat of food accessibility.
Local food for all?
“That is the big question. How do we broaden access to local food to everybody?” says John Sayles, the CEO of the Vermont Foodbank. “It’s really hard, because the farmers who are growing fruits and vegetables in Vermont can struggle to make ends meet themselves.”
Remember that the Foodbank helped set up that MRE giveaway with the Vermont National Guard. John Sayles is aware that that kind of food assistance is the opposite of eating local.
“Yeah, you know, originally, where does that food come from? I’m not sure anyone could tell you,” he says.
The Vermont Foodbank serves one in four Vermonters. We can’t answer Jamie’s question about feeding our population if we only focus on grocery stores and farmers markets.
So what percentage of the food distributed in the Foodbank’s network typically comes from Vermont producers?
“As far as fresh food goes, about 3.5 to 4%,” Sayles says.
It’s a small number, but it’s slowly growing, thanks to the Foodbank’s Vermonters Feeding Vermonters program, which sources from local producers. And John Sayles says they’re on track to more than double their spending on that program this year, given Vermonters’ increased need in the pandemic.
“Thankfully, we already have relationships,” Sayles says, “and we are leaning on our Vermont growers.”
Sayles says equal access to local food is not an afterthought in our state. Farmers markets take 3SquaresVT benefits; school lunches incorporate local food; gleaning programs help distribute food that farmers can’t sell; NOFA-Vermont subsidizes CSA shares.
And, more recently, new initiatives have sprung up to redeploy surplus food, such as an effort by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to supply the Vermont Foodbank with dairy products processed from local raw milk that would otherwise go to waste. All of this supports our farmers.
“To the great credit of the local food movement in Vermont, that has been part of the conversation from the beginning,” says Sayles. “So, I see it as both improving the health and well-being of people in Vermont who can’t afford, necessarily, to shop at farmers markets, but also creating customers for those farmers markets in the longer run.”
We haven’t exactly gotten a clear answer to Jamie’s question yet. But many of the people I spoke with for this story challenged the premise that Vermont should even be trying to feed only itself.
The regional foodshed
“We are in relationship with other places, and I don’t know if it makes sense to say that entirely food independence is the important goal,” says Grace Oedel, the executive director of NOFA-Vermont. “Is it appropriate to think, ‘What we’re really trying to do is feed Vermont,’ and draw those borders around Vermont? Or are we talking about the region of New England?”
“There’s no way that the state can produce 100% of what Vermonters want,” adds Will Stevens, of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. “But I think that if we start thinking about a more regional supply, like New England and New York, perhaps, we could do a whole lot more here than is being done now.”
It’s worth mentioning that Stevens is a former state rep. He helped create the Farm to Plate program. Ellen Kahler, who helps administer that program, agrees: We’ve got to think regionally.
“Could we start to think about what it would take to grow, raise, catch, manufacture more of the food that we want and need from within New England to feed New Englanders?” Kahler suggests.
Spoiler alert: Kahler thinks we could. But even then, we couldn’t produce everything.
“It would actually be impossible to do, even from New England. But we could get to 50% regional production for regional consumption. There’s been some modeling done that suggests that that’s possible,” she says. “It would take a lot. We’d actually need to increase the number of acres under production by 2 million acres across New England. But it’s theoretically possible.”
For context, we have about 4 million acres in production in the region now. And Ellen Kahler says we have to protect that land:
“If we lose prime farmland to development, then we’re going to have less land to grow on. And once that land is taken out of farming production, it’s pretty much lost forever. So it’s really imperative over these next 10 years that in essence we secure the land base — throughout New England, but definitely in Vermont.”
'Is it more than a fad?'
But it’s not just about growing food. It’s also about storing it, processing it and distributing it. And to that, Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens says: bring it on.
“I think that there’s tremendous pent up interest in agricultural ventures in this state. And I think there’s a lot of people that have it in their background, grew up on dairy farms or [had] some other connection to farming at some point in time,” Johnson says. “And I really think that there’s potential for a lot more people to jump in.”
Farmers are “mercenary opportunists,” quips Will Stevens. “If you give us a market, we will try our best to meet it."
But, he adds, "on the other hand, in our personal experience, we want to know that the market’s going to be worth the investment.”
In other words, will you, the customer, still be interested? Especially in a post-COVID world?
“What makes me a little nervous is, is this new sense of demand and intense interest in local food, is it more than a fad?" Stevens asks. "You know, is it going to last for more than a year or two, until the economy comes right again, and folks are going to [go] back to the supermarkets?”
Rebop Farm in Brattleboro is asking itself the same question.
“Other than the food that’s going to go out into the CSA that we have allocated, we have very little inventory left, and we have this huge demand, and a lot of uncertainty,” says Ashlyn Bristle. “We aren’t sure if that demand will keep pace, or if people are going to drop off when it starts feeling safer to be out in public, in grocery stores — or, if we hit a recession, what that’s going to do to our business.”
Vermont farmers have an answer to our question. Yes, they could produce more. The question they have for us is: Will we always want this much more? And will we always be willing to pay for it?
“You know, what do we spend, 10% of our income on food?” says Pete Johnson. “If we ever spend more like — even just 15% is just a radical transformation of the whole economic structure of food.”
Radical transformation is exactly what Ellen Kahler says we need. And she says this is a perfect moment for it:
“Do we really want to go back to the way it was? Or do we want to take this opportunity to think about something different, and envision a new path forward that is much more about regional production for regional consumption?”
And the way Grace Oedel of NOFA-VT sees it, we might not have a choice.
“My estimation is that we’re going to need to be more resilient, not less, in the future. Climate change, along with pandemics, along with the potential of global trade routes being very affected ... This gives us a taste of what’s likely to continue in our lifetime, and we need to get practiced at adapting and being resilient," she says.
Oedel adds: “One of the things that I feel extremely heartened by is seeing how quickly people are adapting and how quickly farmers are figuring out how to pivot and deliver food differently, and we’re coming together as a community in many ways. That feels very exciting.”
Clarification 5/12/20 9:37 a.m. This post has been updated to better explain the effort by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to supply the Vermont Foodbank with local dairy products.
Disclosure: The Vermont Foodbank and Rebop Farm are VPR underwriters.
The audio version of this story incorrectly says that Taylor Firestein of the Intervale Food Hub was dropping food off at a Pine Street housing complex, when she was in fact dropping it off along East Ave. We regret the error!
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR’s sustaining members. If you like our show, consider becoming one. We’re also on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt, and you can sign up for our occasional newsletter here.
This episode was edited by Lynne McCrea, with field production help from Abagael Giles and our digital producer Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Liam Elder-Connors, Abbie Corse and Pauline Stevens.