The Grass-­Roots Food Movement in Vermont

The Grass-­Roots Food Movement in Vermont:

Documenting New Models of Locally-­Focused Agriculture in the State

We are in the midst of an agricultural renaissance in the United States, one that places emphasis on smaller-scale farming, locally grown and locally distributed agricultural products, and on the manufacture of specialty food items crafted for local and regional consumption. This broader movement, framed by Tanya Denckla Cobb as “the grass-­roots food movement” (Cobb 2011), seeks to re-­localize agricultural output and consumption, and represents a fundamental shift in longstanding agricultural practice and policy in the United States.  

Vermont is one of the states at the forefront of these national efforts to restructure the occupational activity surrounding food production and distribution.  The USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture Preliminary Report Highlights  (USDA 2014) indicates two important factors in Vermont in relation to grass-­roots agriculture: over the years 2007-­2012 both the number of farms in Vermont and the total amount of land in farming increased in contrast to a nationwide trends (4). These more numerous—yet individually smaller—farming operations are in turn buttressed by growing networks of State and municipal offices, nonprofit organizations and for-­profit enterprises that provide logistical support, financial investment, and market opportunities that make grass-­roots farming and small-­scale food production economically viable.

Farming has held a central role in the culture and economy of Vermont since the colonial period. The current explosion of grass-­roots agriculture in the state draws on this long history, mixing a legacy of methods and philosophy with contemporary ideas, needs and goals.  This emergent model of agricultural practice represents an under documented facet of agricultural practice in Vermont, and the support from the Archie Green Fellowship program would allow the Vermont Folklife Center to fill this hole in our record of the folklife of our state.

The Vermont Folklife Center has undertaken an ethnographic research project exploring the occupational cultures and practices of these emergent, locally focused, “grass-­roots” agricultural enterprises. We are conducting interviews with a cross-­section of stakeholders—as well as undertake photographic and audio documentation of farms, distribution centers and retail outlets—engaged with the production, distribution and direct sale of locally produced agricultural products. The goals of the project include: 1) documenting the occupational landscape of contemporary, grass-­‐roots agriculture in Vermont, 2) developing an understanding of the motivations and methods of those professionally engaged in locally-­focused agriculture in the state, 3) creating a portrait of the scope and scale of these new, innovative agricultural models in Vermont, 4) exploring the long term economic sustainability of farming in our region.

Photographs from field site visits to Pitchfork Farm, Mad River Food Hub, Windfall Orchard, and the Intervale Community Farm.

We argue that many of the approaches being implemented through these grass-roots re-­localization efforts represent a dynamic revisiting of historical approaches to agriculture in the state, one that couples relevant historical practice to contemporary methods and needs. At the same time, these efforts also involve the adoption of new ideas and approaches that were never part of past agricultural practice in Vermont or the region. In Vermont prior to the Second World War practically all food—with the exception of white sugar, flour, coffee, tea, and “spices”—was locally produced.  The food system of this past era is well documented in the VFC Archive, and it is with interest that we observe the passionate entrepreneurs of the present (who are both insiders and newcomers to local farm communities) reinventing much of what had formerly been in place, often with the assistance of older community members whose experience is linked to the historic practices of an earlier era.

The individuals involved in these emergent agricultural approaches are varied and represent a kaleidoscope of interests, backgrounds and experience—long-time farmers running multigenerational operations, new farmers just starting out, entrepreneurs focused on distribution and retail sale, restaurateurs, nonprofit organizations, municipalities and state government officials. The movement is inclusive of sites as varied as chain restaurants and national and regional grocery stores as well as natural food co-­ops, local farmers markets, nonprofit food hubs and regional produce distributors.