HOW MANY CROPS EQUALS A LIVING?
Researcher Asks Whether Diversified Farming is Key to Success
- By Cheryl Dorschner
Apples, vegetables, perennial and annual garden plants, cider, cut flowers, baked goods, eggs and specialty products – Adams Apple Orchard started in 1972 as an IBM retirement project for John Adams of Williston. But over the past 25 years it grew into a diverse farm market for John his wife Peggy, their son Scott and daughter Kim Adams Antonioli, offering vegetables, perennial and annual flowers, cider, cut flowers, baked goods, eggs and specialty products.
“Diversifying is what makes us survive, be open from May 1 through Christmas and allows us to support three families,” says Antonioli, one Saturday morning as she helps 4-H club kids set up a bake sale in her shop. Fundraisers like this not only draw customers, but reflect this entrepreneurial family’s central role in the community.
Chyi-Lyi (Kathleen) Liang visits perhaps 5-10 Vermont farms such as this one every week as part of her varied research projects that include marketing strategies for apple producers, winemakers, on-farm tourism and organic and diversified farms – all share what the University of Vermont identifies as an important focus: food systems research.
Since she arrived at UVM in 1998, Liang has juggled 25 research projects in addition to teaching. They range from the nitty gritty measure of phosphorus and E. coli from silage run-off to the tasteful evaluation of marketing strategies for award-winning Vermont wines. All total she’s been a leader in bringing in more that $2,225,000 in grants.
And Liang’s research doesn’t shy away from controversy. After two unconventional, high-profile studies tracked the marketing and distribution of Vermont milk, she naturally raised the ire of stakeholders when she concluded, to put it mildly, “there is a market disorder between producer, handler and consumer My results were not popular with the stakeholders but created a ripple effect that led right to the USDA,” Liang says.
As a result, her newest project is a three-year, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture farm research grant for more than $470,000.
In it, she’s evaluating what may just be the crux of the relationship between small- and mid-sized farms and the well being of local communities versus the gap between food producers and “food scarcity” – people who go hungry.
She’s testing the hypothesis that a “multifunctional approach enhances the long-term sustainability and prosperity of both farmers and the communities in which they are located. “Multifunctional approach” means: ” sell direct to customers, promote agri-tourism, offer specialty foods and include off-farm employment. Already, over 1,000 Vermont farmers and 3,000 throughout New England filled out surveys, and she’s crunching existing statistics.
She explains, “my Hatch and USDA research aims to answer:
- What’s going on in the food market from producer to distributor to consumer?
- What else are farmers doing to supplement their incomes?
- What innovative strategies do farmers implement; did these improve long-term profitability?
- What do consumers think about these farms?”
National Change is Imperative
Besides questioning assumptions, Liang’s research often sets up fresh opportunities. While many other efforts to help farmers focus on raising productivity or cutting costs, one hallmark of her projects has been entrepreneurial efforts converting existing resources into new revenue.
“Farmers are looking for four-season opportunities,” she says, and she has helped them find unexpected project launches such as maple wine, wild rice, shitake mushrooms, ginseng, on-farm tourism.
Liang believes that ultimately her results will address an even larger issue – “how to get food directly from farms to people who are going hungry” by overcoming obstacles such as “no access, no information no marketing channels,” she says. “We will find out where the gap is and how to close that gap.
“Although my Hatch projects focus on Vermont, the bigger impact of my long-term research is to create systematic approach to understand food issues, Liang says. “Most small farmers struggle to survive, and there is an increasing rate of poverty among children in this country. Something has to happen in the food system to make sure we produce good quality food for people who need them the most.”