Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, right, came to Rutland to promote farmers markets Saturday. In front, from left, Rep. Larry Cupoli, Sen. Peg Flory and Abbey Willard of the Agriculture Department display goods at the Rutland Farmers Market.
Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross departed Rutland on Saturday laden with carrots, potatoes, cucumbers and a bottle of St. Croix wine made from grapes harvested and processed in Vermont.
He also left with a fresh appreciation for what he called one of the most important educational and economical tools available to Vermont farmers.
“It’s great getting out and recognizing the work in terms of quality and quantity that Vermont farmers and doing and contributing on so many different levels,” Ross said.
He came to the Rutland Farmers Market to launch National Farmers Market Week, promoting the benefits of buying locally grown products at the state’s 80-plus markets.
Ross didn’t do it with speeches and fanfare. Instead, carrying a black tote bag with the “Got Milk?” slogan, he circulated through the throng of customers who crowded the market in downtown Rutland, sampling the fare and talking to growers about their products, progress and obstacles the state could help them overcome.
“I always learn something when I talk to the growers,” the secretary said after buying a purple potato from Heleba Potato Farms of Center Rutland. “They all have different points of view and every farm is different, but you do discover different challenges and opportunities.”
One of the challenges for any small-scale grower is trying to compete with larger operations that have smaller profit margins and rely on much greater volume.
But Ross — and his agency’s local foods administrator, Abbey Willard, who accompanied him on his trip to Rutland — said the discrepancy in prices isn’t as wide as some consumers might perceive. They pointed to the nutritional benefits of organically grown, locally produced products compared to conventional store-bought produce.
“The cheapest food possible is not always the best, and it’s a misconception that the price of food in a grocery store is always more affordable than (at) a farmers market,” Willard said.
But she said there’s much more evidence that locally grown foods available at farmers markets are superior in nutritional value.
In an effort to bridge the price perception gap, Vermont has been encouraging farmers markets, including vendors in Rutland County, to accept electronic benefits transfer or EBT cards used by food stamp recipients.
And the state, starting last month, has been matching up to $10 worth of food stamp purchases per visit using Harvest Health coupons, Willard said.
“They’re doubling the value of the $10 worth of products they’re getting,” Willard said. “We believe that socio-economic factors should not affect a person’s ability to buy healthy food.”
In Rutland County, where Ross said 12 percent of Vermont’s food stamp recipients reside, the food stamp program and the general appeal of the local food market to the broader public has far-reaching affects for both those in need of assistance and local growers.
“Food literacy is one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome,” Ross said. “When people interface with where their food comes from and is processed, it increases literacy.”
He added, “That’s important when 99 percent of the population have no idea where their food comes from.”
Also important is the economic engine created by the local food markets.
Among all the industries in the state, the agricultural secretary said dollars spent at farmers markets are most likely to recirculate locally.
“They support the community and the economy,” Ross said. “They magnify the economic impact by keeping the dollars local.”
For Dave and Elaine McDevitt, the survival of their Broken Shovel Farm in Fair Haven relies on venues like the farmers markets in Rutland, Castleton and West Rutland.
“There’s no way we could exist without them,” Dave McDevitt said, standing behind a table piled high with carrots, beets, herbs, garlic, cut flowers and jars of his wife’s fruit preserves.
The McDevitts said they chatted with Ross briefly about their small farm. But while they couldn’t live off their farm income alone — Elaine works a full-time job — the couple said they had no complaints for the secretary.
“It was just great to see him walking around talking to everybody,” Dave McDevitt said.
While the McDevitts are local growers, the secretary learned a little more about the far-reaching nature of the state’s web of farmers markets when he bought a bottle of wine from the East Shore Vineyard of Grand Isle.
That operation — almost unthinkable before the development of hybrid grapes able to grow in Vermont — started as a retired couple’s hobby in 2007, according to Evan Anderson, a Killington resident who sells the vineyard’s wines locally.
Seven years later, the enterprise has grown due to in large part to its owners’ decision to reach out to local markets, he said.
“We ship now to multiple states, but we want to keep that small time feel and contact with our customers,” Anderson said.
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