The other day, I was showing my farmer friend, Alan LePage, the garden soil analysis I had received from UVM. It puzzled him and led to a long discussion of the right way for improving chemical balances in my garden. Before Alan spoke with me, I thought I had a great organic garden in my front yard, but this farming guru was giving me valuable advice I could not have gotten any other way. I learned my soil’s PH was so high that it was a miracle I could grow anything other than Brussels sprouts. Repairing that would take a complex strategy of amendments.

The conversation, in turn, got me thinking that we need to be able to tap the wisdom of our older, retiring farmers if we are to build a secure future for our local food system. I worry about our food system because the next few years promise to bring us a number of shifts in our expectations about our local food security, so we must start planning for those changes now.

Certainly, Vermont may be the best state in the country for local food production and consumption. About 13% of our food (of course, including beer) is produced in Vermont. That small number moves us to the top of the list nationwide. But that small amount is not going to be sufficient to feed us as national supply chains fray and climate change dries out the major food-producing regions of the western U.S.

Food supply disruptions are already happening faster than we would like to consider. Reports of empty food shelves in the local supermarkets are increasing. Given growing challenges in a climate-changed world, rational people might conclude it would be a good idea if the majority of our food were produced locally. Achieving, say, a volume of 80% in locally-sourced food would provide us some decent food security in challenging times.

I believe that, in order to achieve such food security, we must be open to ideas and subsidy demands that may sound impossible to most folks today. This shift will require a lot of work and a revolutionary change in our public support of agriculture. It will demand Vermont, as a state, and we in our communities, begin to focus on some hard realities.

Let’s start with a hard truth. Vermont is no longer a dairy state. Recent shifts in the organic milk market have shown our hard-pressed dairy farmers that their future is rocky, at best. While we have wonderful local dairies, milk as an export crop is dying. It is past time to reconsider the state’s unwavering support for our dairy industry and instead, begin supporting the rest of our state’s farm economy.

We also need to change the way our lands are managed. Our lovely Lake Champlain blooms with algae each summer, thanks to post-WWII policies that flooded our fields with leftover phosphorous from the war. Suddenly, there is a small gesture to help farmers mitigate the damage, but very little, very late. Government subsidies for GMO corn have led to the depletion of our farm soil’s organic content. This is untenable. Vermont’s government needs to support, recruit and subsidize small responsible farmers who are developing regenerative land use practices.

Then, there is our much beloved maple syrup industry, a great symbol of our agricultural economy. Global heating is rapidly changing the economics and sustainability of that product. Last spring, it took 90 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup — twice the normal ratio. Processing costs and lower yields are going to create a challenge to syrup producers, as well.

All of these challenges leave us with a public policy question that has been ignored to date. How are we going to be feeding ourselves, in the near future, if we don’t have the farms and farmers who are going to be producing the vegetables, along with the sustainably produced meats and grains, that we need? Sadly, Vermont’s leaders fail to understand this issue. Our Secretary of Agriculture grew up on a dairy farm; his experience limits his perception of what local food systems should be.

It is time for Vermont to be inventive and aware of the actual needs we face. Why are we rewarding remote workers who move here to work by computer, rather than committing extensive resources into building an infrastructure and workforce of Vermont farmers and farms?

We need inventiveness like that shown by Will Rapp and the folks at Gardener’s Supply, who created the farm incubator set up in Burlington’s Intervale. We need to create a category of Living Vermont Treasures for the aging farmers like my friend, Alan LePage in Barre or others like Will Stevens at Golden Russet. These folks carry the knowledge of how to work with the earth to produce the healthiest produce possible. We need storage facilities and meat processing infrastructure to ensure a year-round supply. With the average age of farmers in the state close to 60, we are in danger of losing productive capacity and wisdom, rather than building it. If we can’t find a way of supporting them and sharing their hard won expertise, we will be betraying future generations.

Once the Champlain Valley was a breadbasket for New England. It could be again, but that might mean the large estates of the wealthy in the valley may be needed for higher and better uses.

Farming is hard work and it requires a lot of energy. If the carbon costs of the machines now doing the work is excessive, then we need to start imagining the real value of human labor on the land, and think about how many people are going to be needed to do that labor. This will be a hard discussion for the promoters of a high-tech vision of our future economy but the times, they are a-changing. We have to be open to a different conversation. Our state’s farmers are caring and responsible. Now is the time to build a secure future on their strong shoulders. Our health and well-being will be dependent on the choices we make now.

I started this essay talking about how Alan was helping me with my front yard garden. I will end by suggesting the lawns of our region, wherever possible, should be turned into food gardens. This would be but one immediate way many of us could all help ensure our future food security.

Dan Jones lives in Montpelier.

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