Training. It takes work ethic, commitment, and the willingness to learn. It can play a key role in how we grow as a community, industry or society. In the ever-evolving agriculture sector, training new farmers is vital for a thriving agricultural economy.
This is one of the main focus points for the Vermont Produce Program. The Produce Team within the Agency of Agriculture works to support produce growers in the areas of market development, market access, and produce safety rule comprehension and compliance.
With compliance dates looming for produce growers covered by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, one of the program’s most important tasks involves training growers about produce safety rule expectations and best practices.
The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training, a two-day, hands-on event held in early November at the beautiful and historic Vermont Youth Conservation Corp (VYCC) West Monitor Barn in Richmond, allowed produce safety program staff from the Agency and UVM Extension to share their knowledge and expertise on key requirements of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule that will impact Vermont growers. The interactive approach allowed state regulators, farmers and support organizations to collectively share their production experiences and produce safety questions.
“I thought this regulation was going to be a lot harder to follow. But now that I’m here it’s a lot easier to understand,” said one Vermont produce farmer in attendance at the PSA Grower Training.
Roughly 45 growers and service providers left the training with not only a greater understanding of the Produce Safety Rule, but also with the certificate necessary to satisfy the rule’s requirement that at least one responsible party from each covered farm receive training under a FDA recognized curriculum.
In addition to observing produce safety practices on a working produce operation, the Agency’s Produce Team presented the many technical and financial resources available to growers. Produce farms were encouraged to enroll in the Vermont Produce Portal, a resource to help farmers understand requirements and receive updates from the Agency.
Portal access will also allow produce farms to apply for Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grants to help pay for on-farm improvements. Approximately $74,000 in funding will be available to assist Vermont produce growers as they install necessary infrastructure or make other on-farm improvements that help prevent or reduce known produce safety risks on their farms.
“Vermont is one of the only states I know of that is providing this kind of [grant] support for growers,” said Gretchen Wall, Produce Safety Alliance coordinator and Lead Trainer.
These grant funds will offer a level of support not only to help farmers financially meet standards, but to help them fundamentally understand ways to make our food safer and give farmers the training they need to help grow the Vermont produce industry.
Through the narrow valley of Brookfield along Route 14, there are small fields that wrap along the river’s edge, separated by houses, hills, and barns. Sprague Ranch, a 600-cow dairy run by Keith and Chelsea Sprague, is situated in the valley between Bear Mountain and the Brookfield Town Forest. “We milk 600 cows in a place where people should milk 50,” said Keith. It’s a narrow and rocky valley, so his fields are small and spread far apart.
Keith told a story about one night in 2007—he was anxious because he was still getting his corn in, and should have been on to his first cut of hay. An old friend called him to come listen to some folks from Michigan talk about no-till. Somewhat reluctantly he went, but couldn’t grasp how this guy was going on and on for hours about worms, when all he could think about was how much he had to get done back on the farm. “My head wasn’t there yet,” said Keith.
Something resonated with Keith that winter, because the following spring he decided to plant about 50 acres in no-till corn. He had to make some modifications to his old corn planter; luckily with a degree in mechanical engineering, the change wasn’t a huge barrier. Keith explained, “I was always looking for the answer on how to do it.” A well-known no-till farmer, Richard Hall, told him to just get started. “That first year, I kept getting off the tractor to make sure the seed was planted. Then, half of the seed was killed because it wasn’t round-up ready,” explained Keith. The first year trying no-till was just about as unsuccessful as the first time doing anything can be. Nobody could believe they were planting a field that hadn’t been plowed under, especially Keith’s father. The next year, 100 acres were planted to no-till corn, and the following year, 200 acres. Each year with less mistakes and improved yields; Keith’s herbicide application decreased, and the worms just kept coming.
“Nobody plants or manages 600 acres on their own,” Keith explains, “but anything is possible if people get on board.” While some of the younger generation workers were easier to convince, the older guys needed to see it work for it to make sense to them. “There is a learning curve,” said Chelsea. For so many generations, plowing the field has been a basic and fundamental part of farming, moving away from that isn’t just about management, it’s about culture.
Keith explains, “There is a feeling of walking away from a field that is all tilled up and ready to be planted. Well that same feeling, I have it when I see all the worms in my fields.” The same guy who couldn’t comprehend how people were talking about worms for hours that one night back in 2007, there he was going on and on about worms. Keith will attest to an increase in production yields since transitioning to no-till, an ease of rotating crops, labor savings, improved feed quality, fuel savings, decreased herbicide use, and healthier soil. Keith also mentioned that he doesn’t mind not having to pick rocks out of his fields anymore either. Even his dad has come around and will attest to the benefits of no-till.
It was 2000 when Keith took over the 100-cow dairy farm from his father. There are many farms where the older generation is still in charge of farm operations, but not Sprague Ranch. “One day, he stepped away and let me figure it out,” Keith said, “He still comes down to the farm every day, asks me every day what I want him to do, then he goes and does whatever he wants.”
Now, Keith sits on the advisory board at Vermont Technical College, the Promotion Board for Booth Brothers, and the New England Dairy Commission, all while running the farm alongside Chelsea and raising their two daughters. “Our focus is to do really well with what we have,” said Keith.
Numerous state authorities, organizations and agencies took part in a special operation Thursday afternoon. The objective; make it a very merry Christmas at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.
The Vermont State Police in conjunction with the Burlington Fire Department and numerous other organizations teamed up to gather new toys and donations from the public for the 7th annual Christmas toy drive, Operation Fire Cuffs.
After collecting more toys than ever before, it appeared Santa’s sleigh wasn’t big enough to get the job done this year. Crews worked to fill the Vermont State Police Mobile Command Center truck, multiple fire engines and police cruisers with the holiday goods.
With the extra heavy load, Santa called on some special friends to help. Champ, from the Vermont Lake Monsters, Rally Cat from UVM, and Clover from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture were invited to accompany Santa on the trip.
From UVM Rescue headquarters, the team was on their way with visions of making it a Christmas the boys and girls at the hospital would never forget.
Thanks to the helping hands, hooves and paws, and a much-needed police escort, Santa had finally arrived. After the big haul, the team was rewarded with ice cream from the UVM Dairy Bar. Much to the amusement of his new friends, Santa sat down to read a Christmas story. And most importantly, all of the toys were delivered.
The Vermont State Police, City of Burlington Fire Department, City of Burlington Police Department, South Burlington Fire Department, Essex Fire Department, Morristown Police Department, Colchester Police Department, University of Vermont Police Department, U.S. Marshals, Burlington Electric Department, Winooski Police Department, Essex Junction Fire Department, American Red Cross, Milton Police & Fire Department, Fairfax Rescue, Franklin County Sheriffs Office, Cambridge Rescue Squad, Saint Michael’s College Public Safety, Saint Michaels College Fire and Rescue, Grand Isle Fire Department, Swanton Police Department, Department of Corrections Chittenden County the Highgate Library and Community Center and Northwestern Counseling and Support Services and many more.
Agriculture is alive and well in Bennington County. A recent tour organized by Northshire Grows highlighted what’s happening on the ground in Bennington County. Learning and listening to community members from every corner of the state is important to growing Vermont’s agricultural economy.
The day started with a student led tour at the Village School of North Bennington. The independent school is comprised of pre-K through sixth grade students. The Hiland Gardens Program allows students to plant a community garden in the spring and harvest it in the fall. Students get outside the classroom and into the greenhouse, or “Glassroom” to learn and engage with the community. Students were proud to show off their hard work to Secretary Tebbetts. They shared written journals documenting the planting process and how the food was sold at market.
Just down the road from the school, a thriving local cheese company is bringing a taste of Vermont to new markets. Maplebrook Farm produces award winning artisanal cheeses made from high quality Vermont milk.
The cheese company is in the midst of transitioning into a larger facility. Already employing over 60 local workers, Maplebrook Farm is looking for more ways to expand. The 40,000 pounds of handmade cheese produced weekly provides skilled jobs for the local workforce.
After touring the new production, warehouse and distribution facilities, the Secretary sampled everything from smoked mozzarella to cheddar bites. Owners Johann Englert and Mike Scheps discussed the new possibilities that could come with the new facility. The Secretary spoke about the Agency’s Trade Show Assistance grant opportunities which can help Vermont businesses market their products at out-of-state trade shows.
Another agriculture business successfully selling high quality Vermont products out of state is Studio Hill Farm. The Shaftsbury farm has turned to regenerative agronomic practices to enhance the soil on their land. Co-owner Jesse McDougal explained how rotating livestock has brought their farm fields back to life. While discussing how practices like this can help improve water quality, Secretary Tebbetts suggested joining the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program which honors farmers who have embraced a high level of land stewardship. The program is working on providing more incentive for farmers who have developed plans for water quality improvements.
What’s for lunch? it was off to Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester to check out the school’s new local food cafeteria program. School officials explained with new programs like classes at the Dene Farm at Hildene, students are becoming more interested about where their food comes from. Culinary courses and flexible feeding schedules have also helped enhance the school’s food program. The school is now serving on average about 100 more meals a day.
A big part of the BBA Educational Program are the hands-on classes at Hildene. At the Dene Farm, students helped Secretary Tebbetts freshen up on his plant science skills.
A literal connection between the greenhouse and classroom is helping students learn about Vermont agriculture year-round
Thanks to Liz Ruffa and Northshire Grows Inc. for putting together a tour of some of the food producers, businesses and community members connected to Southwestern Vermont’s local food economy.