Consider iconic images of Vermont—rolling farmland, cows grazing, picturesque barns. So much of the state’s identity and industry depends on agriculture. When confronted by a range of pressures from a time of pandemic, inflation, and devastating floods, then, Governor Phil Scott convened the Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture. The Commission has aimed to ensure that the state’s agricultural businesses continue to thrive and provide nutritious food to customers in the state and beyond. One difficulty here: the world of agriculture and food includes all kinds of stakeholders, across the state. Agriculture alone covers a range of sub-sectors, including dairy, organic produce, agritourism, and more. Establishing what’s needed for so many different interests requires a carefully concerted effort.
CBI has facilitated the work of the Commission, bringing together industry stakeholders including dairy and organic produce farmers; restaurant owners; and leaders from the world of agricultural marketing, conservation, and education. CBI initially focused on ideas from a pre-existing statewide strategic planning process—the Vermont Agriculture & Food System Strategic Plan 2021-2030—that the Commission thought were most essential. We also helped the group to articulate a simple and compelling vision for the future of agriculture, what the sector will look like, and how the state can most effectively support that vision. Since then, CBI has continued to support the Commission in improving and vetting its recommendations through presentations and small group conversations.
These conversations were not without tensions. Vermont’s dairy sector has been shrinking and consolidating in recent years, due to low commodity prices and the state’s challenges competing on cost. At the same time, small- and mid-sized farms in other, diverse sectors (from artisanal cheeses to cut flowers to hops/microbrewing) have embraced innovative business models, expanding their share of the sector overall. These changes take place against an overall backdrop of agricultural land being steadily lost across the state, as it gets converted in response to development pressures. Prioritizing among these competing challenges requires a delicate balancing act, and it means allowing the wide range of stakeholders to be heard.
CBI therefore used small work groups with members representing diverse subsectors and empowered them to develop proposed recommendations for the full group. We also made sure that our final vision, package of recommendations, and priorities addressed the most important needs at stake. As the Commission completes its third year, Commissioners are acting less and less like representatives of their subsector and more like advocates who see and pursue their broader shared needs and goals.
The process led to an Action Plan, initially released in 2021, followed by Supplemental Reports in 2022 and 2023. The Action Plan included support for climate-smart farming practices, dairy modernization, an expansion of food distribution possibilities, and an increase in access to healthy food. Recommended funding priorities have been established to encourage the next generation of farmers, support the dairy industry, enable agriculture entrepreneurship, and expand agricultural infrastructure. These have contributed to a variety of legislative and other initiatives that, overall, have directed tens of millions of additional dollars into the sector. The Commission estimated that there were over $70 million of potential funding outlays related to its recommendations in 2022, and over $20 million in 2023. Now, after the pandemic’s years of disruption to food supply chains and tourism—and after the effects of recent flooding—Vermont looks forward to maintaining the farming essential for both health and economic stability.