Media reports about farming often remind me of a quote from Mark
Twain. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
In Vermont, agriculture isn’t dying, and it isn’t going away. But it is changing. Yes, one can find hardship, but there’s also plenty of innovation and success. In short, there’s a lot of good news about farming.
For one thing, we’re not losing farms. According to the Census of Agriculture, in 1974 there were just under six thousand farms in Vermont. By 2002 that number had increased by ten percent! But in the seventies, three-quarters of our farms were dairies. Now, three-quarters of our farms produce something else.
As Vermont’s dairy farms have become more productive, and more consolidated, they’ve also become fewer in number. Meanwhile, other kinds of farms have increased. Farming in Vermont is becoming more diversified. Dairying still dominates the farm economy and the agricultural landscape, but thousands of farm families are engaged in ‘alternative’ agriculture–finding their niche in the marketplace with agri-tourism, farmstead cheese, flowers, grass-fed beef, fruit, sheep, vegetables, and much more.
And not all dairy farms have gotten bigger. Some that have stayed relatively small remain economically viable through diversification. These dairies may also grow Christmas trees or pumpkins, produce maple syrup, make compost or saw lumber. Other dairies are adding value to their milk through cheese making, or organic production.
Across the state, one of the most serious challenges to sustaining agriculture is the loss of farmland. We’ve gone from 1.7 million acres in 1974 to 1.2 million acres today. Once it’s developed, fertile soil cannot be replaced. That’s why farmland conservation programs, like those of the Vermont Land Trust, are so important.
Supporting and protecting agriculture in Vermont makes sense because farming is an economic engine in our state. Census figures don’t fully reflect that, since they only measure ‘farm gate’ sales of agricultural products, worth about 500 million dollars annually. According to this year’s report from the Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council, titled Wealth from the Land, the value of farming to our state is actually about 2.6 billion dollars a year. That value includes wages paid, feed, fuel, and equipment purchased, and support for Vermont’s farm-related food industries. Think ice cream, cheese, yoghurt, salsa, and maple products.
But the value of our farms runs deeper than the food system. It can be found in Vermont’s remarkable working landscape, and all that it provides. Open spaces for recreation and wildlife habitat; scenic views that refresh the soul; and a meaningful connection to the land that provides hope in a world distracted by consumerism. Farms also defend us from sprawl, helping to maintain small towns and village settlement patterns, an essential factor in participatory local democracy.
All this brings in billions of dollars, both in tourism and in economic development, as entrepreneurs and employers seek out Vermont for its quality of life.