By Reg Godin, VAAFM
After over a year of research and development, the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (AAFM) and Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) are pleased to announce the creation of a Vermont retail stand within the Boston Public Market, opening next month. Harlow Farm of Westminster, VT will operate the stand, demonstrating an innovative public-private partnership that will open a new market channel for dozens of Vermont companies in the Boston metro region.
“Harlow’s Vermont Farmstand” at the Boston Public Market will be an important component of the state’s recently created Domestic Export program, designed to connect Vermont producers with buyers outside the state. Positioned in the heart of downtown Boston, the retail space will provide the state with a premier location from which to promote Vermont products to out-of-state consumers.
“This retail stand advances the work prioritized by the Legislature in 2014. The Domestic Export program is an important resource for helping businesses grow their sales outside the state” said Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. “Through this public-private partnership we are providing Vermont businesses access to a strong consumer market that will help drive demand for Vermont products.”
Harlow Farm will take on the day-to-day operations and management of the retail space, with AAFM and ACCD providing marketing support and a $25,000 grant for start-up costs. Harlow Farm will supply the stand with organic produce from their farm as well as from over 35 other Vermont farms and food producers. A comprehensive list of products will be included in the grand opening announcement later this summer.
“Harlow Farm is eager to offer its produce to Boston consumers through a direct retail model,” said Paul Harlow. “This opportunity will allow us to expand our growing infrastructure and give other Vermont producers an additional market for expanding their sales outside of the state.”
Harlow Farm joins a roster of 35 permanent vendors, including acclaimed Vermont cheesemakers Jasper Hill Farm of Greensboro Bend. Opening this July, the 28,000-square-foot Boston Public Market will offer locally produced items such as farm fresh produce; meat and poultry; milk and cheese; fish and shellfish; bread and baked goods; flowers; and an assortment of specialty and prepared foods.
The Domestic Export Program is administered by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. For more information about The Domestic Export Program, contact Reg Godin at Reg.Godin@state.vt.us or (802) 522-3648. For more information about Boston Public Market, please visit www.bostonpublicmarket.org
By Abbey Willard, Local Foods Administrator, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets
On April 23 & 24, I, along with Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, was able to join in a public meeting held by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Food Safety Modernization Act: Focus on Implementation Strategy for Prevention–Oriented Food Safety Standards, in Washington, D.C.
This meeting was billed as a chance to receive information about FDA’s operational strategy for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) implementation and offered participants the opportunity to advise FDA on their strategy. FSMA will set new food safety standards that will affect farmers, processors, distributors, and importers across the global food system.
Attendees anxious to learn more about FDA’s plans, however, were somewhat disappointed. Instead of providing detailed information about the future of FSMA implementation, FDA opened much of the meeting up to feedback from stakeholders, including representatives from industry, nonprofits, academia, and government. While many stakeholders were not fully prepared to offer feedback, we also appreciated the opportunity to shape FDA’s current thinking about FSMA implementation. One recurring theme that emerged during the discussion was the importance of conducting voluntary on-farm assessments prior to expected compliance. These on-farm assessments are designed to promote compliance with FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule while also creating opportunities for FDA and state regulators to learn common operating practices from the industry. FDA representatives seemed encouraged by the strong support for these educational assessments voiced during the meeting.
One important announcement FDA did make during this meeting, however, was final rule compliance dates. These dates are outlined at Food Safety News [http://bit.ly/1Let6SF]. The earliest compliance dates for those subject to the full requirements of the Produce Safety Rule will be in October 2017.
To learn more about whether your farm or food operation is subject to the Produce Safety Rule, take the Agency of Agriculture’s Vermont Produce Safety Survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/vtproduce.
In his remarks during the public meeting, Secretary Ross emphasized that we still don’t know enough about the relationship, roles and responsibilities between states and FDA when it comes to implementing FSMA. In addition, our somewhat “myopic” focus on the produce rule, while important for the majority of states that have not previously regulated produce, means that we have not paid enough attention to the remaining 6 FSMA rules, all of which will be finalized within the next year.
The full meeting agenda, presentations, and video are available at http://1.usa.gov/1OhTnVf. Questions and comments about FSMA implementation strategies may be submitted to FDA through May 26, 2015 at http://1.usa.gov/1HxP6rD.
By Chuck Ross, Secretary
Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets
With the recent series of meetings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) there has been much discussion about the agricultural water quality efforts on-going in the State. As the Secretary of Agriculture, I am responsible for ensuring that agricultural non-point source rules are enforced. I know that the success of our farms depends on a commitment to environmental stewardship and I want to take a moment to explain our regulatory and enforcement programs and to outline our current strategy to focus on the Northern Lake Champlain watersheds (Lake Carmi, Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay).
First, it is important to note that since 1995 all farms in Vermont have been required to operate in compliance the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs). The AAPs are state-wide regulations designed to conserve and protect natural resources by reducing non-point source pollution through the implementation of improved farming techniques. When farms violate the AAPs, they are subject to regulatory actions that may include penalties. In conjunction with the new TMDL, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM) is proposing revisions to the AAPs that will require a higher level of performance.
Since 1999, Large Farm Operations (700+ mature dairy cows) have been held to even higher standards and inspected annually to ensure compliance. In 2006, Medium Farm Operations (200-699 mature dairy cows) came under similarly stringent rules. These rules govern the way farms manage manure, waste water and field operations, as well as requiring nutrient management planning and the installation of structures to prevent pollution.
When farmers fail to comply with the regulations, we are required by state statute to give them notice through a formal enforcement action that a violation exists. The farms are informed about technical assistance options to assure compliance. If they fail to correct the violation in a timely manner, further enforcement actions will be taken. While farming is a critical component of Vermont’s landscape and economy, so is clean water: therefore our Agency has the responsibility to ensure the waters of Vermont are protected from agricultural impacts. In the past two years, AAFM partnered with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and the Attorney General’s Office to ratchet up our water quality protection efforts, which has led to increased penalties. Current examples include fines of $33,000 and $40,000 on two separate farms.
We recently launched a small farm inspection program in an effort to move away from complaint-based investigations. For the first time we can conduct more routine inspections of small farms to ensure they are aware of the AAPs and to provide them notice of where they may need to install Best Management Practices (BMPs) in order to comply with these rules. It is important to note that most of Vermont’s dairies are small farms (fewer than 200 mature cows), and there are many other small livestock operations in the state (eg. horses, beef), so it is critical we have the capacity to bring these farmers more tightly into our regulatory framework.
In addition, this summer AAFM and ANR have jointly focused our resources on Northern Lake Champlain watersheds, resulting in more inspections, education, technical assistance and enforcement in the Franklin County area where we face some of our most serious water quality issues. Our new Small Farm Program inspector has visited more than 175 of the small farms (dairy, beef, equine, etc.) so far this year. These efforts have increased our farm visits in Franklin County by more than 30 percent, and have resulted in 40 percent more enforcement actions. In an effort to inspect as many farms as possible in the near term, we are deploying all the resources we have available in this area for a number of months to ensure farms are complying with the law. We want to make sure all farms in the Northern Lake watersheds understand the rules and comply with them.
On the whole, Vermont farmers are outstanding stewards of our environment who recognize their success relies on the health of our natural resources. However, many smaller farmers, especially non-dairy farmers, are not aware that state and federal regulations apply to all farms, and we are working to provide the education needed to help all Vermont farmers understand the regulatory requirements in effect. Moreover, for those farmers working hard to comply with those regulations, we are helping them identify problems, prioritize projects, and access the technical, engineering and financial resources available from state and federal sources to protect water quality. Nonetheless, as in any industry, a few bad apples can tarnish the reputation of all. Let it be known, these “bad apples” are the minority, and we are ratcheting up our enforcement efforts to bring them into compliance.
Agriculture is critical to the economic viability of Vermont, and the dairy industry is the bedrock of Vermont agriculture. Lake Champlain is one of Vermont’s most precious resources, and the future of the lake will depend on farmers, businesses, communities, individuals and policy-makers working together to build a culture of lake stewardship and accountability. It will require cooperation, innovation, and a long term determined effort to protect the Lake for future generations. I believe we can have both- a clean, healthy lake and a viable, sustainable agriculture and dairy economy.
After a long and difficult deliberation, the Senate has passed a Farm Bill, which will arrive on the President’s desk, for his signature, at the end of the week. Although some compromises were made, overall, this is a win for agriculture both in Vermont, and on a national level.
Locally, our dairy farmers will benefit the new dairy margin protection program, which will provide a necessary safety net for the bed rock industry of Vermont agriculture.
This federally subsidized margin protection program will help dairy farmers to offset low margins caused either by low milk prices or high input costs, and prevent an erosion of equity. Our farmers will be able to insure their margins at significantly lower rates than the mega-farms in other parts of the country.
I am also pleased to see the creation of a new dairy donation program, which will redirect dairy products to food banks, when a glut of dairy hits the market. This is smart policy, and a win-win solution for all involved.
The new Farm Bill also renews the REAP Zone program, which has done much to stimulate Vermont’s economy, especially in the Northeast Kingdom.
Other key Farm Bill highlights which will benefit Vermont include:
- New cost share programs for farmers seeking organic certification
- A 50% increase to Specialty Crop Block grant funding
- Reauthorization of the Food Export Program, which helps Vermont companies expand to foreign markets
Vermonters will also benefit from Farm Bill funding directed towards healthy food initiatives for schools, marketing specialty crops, and forest programs.
I would like to thank Senator Leahy and Representative Welch who, with the strong support of Senator Sanders, worked hard to move a new Farm Bill forward.
Recently, Fletcher Allen won Healthcare Without Harm’s “Sustainable Food Procurement Award” for the work they do to source local, sustainably produced ingredients for the more than 2 million meals the institution serves each year. The hospital spends more than 37% of its food budget with Vermont producers annually – an impressive $1.5 million is spent on food grown or raised right here in our state.
This success story is a shining example of the potential created by connecting producers with local institutions. In Vermont today, farmers are increasingly working directly with hospitals, schools, workplaces, and higher-education to supply healthy, local foods. The economic impact to farmers can be sizable, and the benefits to the overall health of the community are significant.
Local institutions have tremendous power, and in my opinion, a responsibility, to create economic opportunity by buying from local farmers. Consumers are increasingly interested in the origins of their food, and by offering local options, institutions have an opportunity to enhance their reputation for social responsibility among the customers, employees, and students they serve.
Over the past two years, the Agency of Agriculture has played a leadership role in a state-wide Farm-to-Institution initiative. We’ve created a CSA program for state employees, enabling them to sign up directly with farmers who will drop off their weekly delivery at state office buildings. We’ve held workshops for farmers interested in learning how to scale-up to institutional sales. And we’ve created opportunities for farmers to connect directly with institutional buyers, including Sodexo, a commercial food service provider serving 34,000 meals daily in Vermont. These priorities align well with the Farm to Plate 10-Year Strategic Plan for Vermont’s Food System which identifies health care supported agriculture goals of: increased local food sourcing by institutions, developing strategic partnerships to allow food producers access to larger scale markets, and measuring local food consumption data for use in tracking Vermont’s food system progress.
A success story like Fletcher Allen’s does not happen overnight. Fletcher Allen’s transformation began slowly, but deliberately. Under the direction of Nutrition Services Director Diane Imrie, the hospital took the first step in 2006. At that time, Fletcher Allen became one of a handful of health care organizations across the nation to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, with the national organization Health Care Without Harm, to improve the health of patients, the community, and the environment.
There was a learning curve, from figuring out the finances, to changing food preparation practices, to garnering buy-in from boards and staff. It took more time to source foods and develop relationships with farmers and producers than it did to buy everything from one industrial vendor.
All that effort has paid off: sales across Fletcher Allen’s cafes and cafeterias have been up every year since 2006. Their commitment to sourcing local, fresh food and superior culinary expression has gained Fletcher Allen a reputation of being one of Burlington’s most desirable eating destinations.
And Fletcher Allen isn’t alone. Across the state, schools are serving local foods in their cafeterias, as part of Farm to School programming. Our colleges and universities and many local employers are taking strides to incorporate more local foods in their cafeterias. Ten of Vermont’s hospitals, as well as Wake Robin Senior Living Community in Shelburne, have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge validating their commitment to increasing local and sustainable food purchases.
I commend Fletcher Allen, and all the local institutions making similar strides, on their efforts. Farm-to-Institution partnerships are a win for all the stakeholders. As we look towards the future, I envision a Vermont food system in which producers and institutions work together seamlessly to fill the nutrition needs of a community, to the benefit of all involved.