19 May 2011

Tour of Hardwick, Craftsbury, Montplier in Vermont

The day began with a nice breakfast and we left at 10 am to Hardwick. The economy of the region has not been doing well in recent years. The Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) has been trying to revive some of the farm related business around the region. Their Program Director Elena Gustavson and a Masters student working on her thesis Heather Davis explained to us the situation in Vermont. The amount of crop land growing organic would be about 15 per cent but it is only about two per cent in the whole country. Similalry, the population associated with Community Suported Agriculture (CSA) would be about three-to-four per cent but it is only one per cent in the country. The figures are low, but they are much better than the country as a whole. On food insecurity for the state, we were told that it has increased from 10 per cent of the population in 2007 to 12.1 per cent in 2009. On the other hand, this is a healthy state and the life expectancy of the state is among the highest. The harsh weather conditions have also developed a camaraderie where people are ready to help each other.

An activity that CAE has been involved is the setting up of the Vermont Food Venture Center. It has come up as an incubator kitchen to facilitate farmers with small business. The center has been built on a federal grant but the day-to-day management expenses have to be borne from the operations. It is likely to commence work soon and the farmers can get their produce to help them come up with finished products for bakery, cutting and processing vegetables and also producing sauces and jams. The farmers will have to pay about 48 dollars per hour to take advantage of this facility. This will help small farmers package and sell their produce and also perhaps help them reduce their costs in the value addition activity.

We then went to Bonnieview farm where there are about 200 sheep from which they produces cheese and  they are helped by an intern, Joe, from an agricultural college who is also learning through this on-the job training. He plans to further study and someday be a farmer on his own. The prolonged winter this year was harsh on the lambs and they lost a few. They have a Llama, an animal that saves the sheep from predators. There are plans of expanding the business by getting more lamb and also some cows.

Our next stop was Pete's Green, a village farm at Craftsbury, Vermont. They are part of a CSA, but suffered losses due to fire in their storage yards in January 2011. They were underinsured because of astronomical insurance costs and received about 250,000 dollars as compensation whereas their total losses was three-to-four times more. Their clients raised funds of about 100,000 to 150,000 dollars. It is this response from the community that has made the proprietor think that in five-to-seven years time they will repay the money to a fund to be managed through the help of CAE that will help similar farmers in distress. Now they are trying to revive their work and they will start CSA again from end June of 2011. They are able to supply through out the year by storing some foods that cannot be produced in winter and also by producing some vegetables under greenhouses during winter.

Our last visit, also at Craftsbury, was Sterling College  where they have a course on sustainable agriculture. They provide hands-on training to students and unlike other agricultural colleges most of the training uses minimum of machines and tools. About 25 students join per year for a four year program. The tuition fees and also lodging and board costs would be around 16,000 dollars. The college also produces 25 per cent of its food requirements - they are not able to increase it more because this could affect the academic content of the program. They also had a greenhouse but this does not use any heat machine during winter. The plants do not grow but are put in a dormant stage. This reminided me of the Scandinavian story of how a man had hid his father in the basement against the kings's dictum of killing all old age people. But, a very harsh food shortage during one winter led him to take advise from his father to plough the lands along side the road where grains would have been burried but the seeds would have been dormant and ploughing in the spring following winter would germinate these seeds. It is this act that saved the land from hunger and the king from realizing his folly. Getting back, the larger concerns of sustainable agriculture is to reduce costs so that more and more farmers take it up while remaining small.

On our way back we stopped and Montplier the capital of Vermont. Their capitol has a statue of Ceres the Roman godess of agriculture indicating the relevance of agriculture in Vermont's economy. One of the major agricultural products of Vermont is Maple syrup. This is produced by boiling the sap of the maple tree that is collected in a six-week period after winter and before spring, which at times is refered to a fifth season the muddy season. Vermont borders Canada and is about 90 miles from Montreal, the capital of Quebec in Canada.

In the evening we went to the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting. Met an wall street analyst who was pissed up that half the Americans need to be given subsidy because they are hungry or old or vulnerable and thought that if this happens then the economy cannot revive. Then on a high he started talking about his horse and how for the last half mile he gets down and walks along with him. I told him that that is perhaps the solution to the financial mess - we need to walk together. He agreed that the greed was indeed a problem if you whip the horse and wound it to take you faster and faster then it will trip and you will ultimately fall. Another financial analyst said that he is now producing onions and tomatoes as a hobby - perhaps he will have time to empathize on the farmers. Another group I met was The Chill Foundation that is helping the undeserved youth - most importantly they teach them patience, persistence, responsibility, courage, respect, and pride. Important lessons here!

Eli was considerate enough to drop me back and on the way showed me the floods along the banks of Lake Champlain, which also borders New York state on the other side. It is time I call it a day. Tomorrow we start early, move around in Vermont and in the evening drive down to Boston.

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