KILLINGTON — From Cabot cheese to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Vermont dairy products can be found on the shelves of any supermarket or food co-op. Is produce the next frontier in local food retail?
This question was one of many considered during the third annual gathering of the Farm to Plate Network, held Tuesday and Wednesday at Killington Grand Resort and Conference Center.
The event drew more than 250 network members from a diverse range of fields: farmers, processors, retailers, governmental entities and dozens of nonprofits advocating for food justice or offering technical assistance.
Among the attendees was Chuck Ross, secretary of the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
“Vermonters want to buy local and engage in their communities, and you folks are making that happen in Vermont,” Ross said. “We are the leader in the country for community-based agriculture.”
The event highlighted success stories, such as connecting livestock ranchers with meat processors and distributors and ultimately chefs, who can share what kind of cuts they are looking for. During a series of panel discussions, network members addressed the higher costs of local food, how the changing climate is affecting the state’s food system, and the challenges and opportunities of selling local food at the retail level in the future.
Retail food sales are a $2 billion-a year industry in the state, according to Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, which has more than 600 member stores across the state.
The association has small independent stores, such as the Woodstock Farmers Market, which, according to owner Patrick Crowl, has annual sales of $5 million as the market carries numerous products made in Vermont.
However, according to Harrison, 65 percent of food sales come from the three supermarket chains found in the state: Hannaford, Price Chopper and Shaw’s.
Suzanne Kelley, who manages a program to fight obesity with the state Department of Health, asked why chain supermarkets are not carrying locally-grown apples. Andy Willette, store manager for 14 Hannaford supermarkets in Vermont, said his stores source their apples — and other products locally — as they are available.
“We carry 100 percent of what Champlain orchards offers, but that doesn’t meet 100 percent of customer demand,” Willette said, while noting that on many occasions, local growers don’t offer the diversity of products, or have the ability to keep up with the volume of product needed.
One grower said the packaging — plastic bag and UPC — required by supermarket chains is an obstacle to being able to bring his product to those markets.
If there were no solutions to these hard questions, it was a step in the right direction for the Farm to Plate Network, which has a long-term vision for food production in the region, according to Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the backbone organization of the Farm to Plate Network.
“Vermont has more land in agriculture than many other New England states, but other New England states have more consumers,” Kahler said. “So, Vermont is increasingly affecting the broader supply chain, which aligns with the emerging vision for New England to produce 50 percent of its food by 2060.”
For more information about the Farm to Plate Network, visit www.vtfoodatlas.com.
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