Vermont has seen strong growth in the number of diversified farms and in value-added food production, as many American consumers have become more aware of where their food comes from and how it is produced. At the same time, challenges for small diversified farms continue to mount, from new crop pests and diseases to regulation, changing markets and climate change.
To address these issues, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), in partnership with the University of Vermont, has established its first food systems research station designed specifically to study diversified food systems and the small farms that contribute to those systems.
The research station will identify factors that affect economic and environmental sustainability, with the goal of better understanding how small farms survive and thrive, and how consumers can best access local sustainably-grown food.
The cooperative agreement, funded at $3 million for the first year, provides for UVM faculty to collaborate with ARS researchers imbedded on the UVM campus. The ARS Food Systems Research Station agreement will be renewed annually for at least five years.
As vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy authored language in a 2019 appropriations bill to establish and fund the UVM-ARS collaboration. A provision that Senator Leahy secured in the FY20 Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill would increase funding to $5 million per year should it become law.
Senator Leahy said, “The University of Vermont is known nationally and internationally for its expertise in nutrition and sustainable agriculture, and I’m proud that the USDA ARS researchers will now have a station on campus to draw upon and expand that knowledge base. Vermont has been at the forefront of diversified, sustainable, local food systems, and this research station will allow other regions to benefit from what we have learned and are building here in Vermont.”
“We couldn’t be more grateful to Senator Leahy for seeing the great need for this research and crafting legislation to support it,” said Suresh Garimella, UVM president. “Helping small, diversified farms succeed is critical to Vermont’s economic health and at the heart of UVM’s land grant mission. I’m very proud that UVM will be part of this effort and the larger mission to help small farms across the country.”
The goal of the project is to create tangible information farmers can understand and put to practical use to help them sustain their operations, said Jean Harvey, interim dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a co-director of the project.
UVM faculty, in combination with ARS staff, are ideally suited to that task, Harvey said. “We have agricultural economists, dairy specialists, agronomists, experts who study environmental issues, data modelers, consumer preference specialists and social scientists – all of them focused on Vermont’s small farms and value-added producers,” she said. “We believe the end-product of this joint project with ARS will have tremendous value for the small farm sector in Vermont, in the region and across the country.”
ARS has maintained long-standing collaborations with universities across the country. The UVM project is another opportunity to partner with academia to find solutions to critical issues related to agriculture.
Small farms account for roughly 89 percent of all farms in America, according to the UDSA’s Economic Research Service.
The Agricultural Research Service was created in 1952 to be the USDA's primary scientific research agency. Its main focus is on research to develop solutions to agricultural problems and to disseminate that data. ARS research complements the work of state colleges and universities, agricultural experiment stations, other federal and state agencies, and the private sector. Its research, as in the case of the collaboration with UVM, often focuses on regional issues that have national implications, and where there is a clear federal role.