(HOST) How many farms has Vermont lost over the last generation? According to commentator Vern Grubinger, who’s been looking at some agricultural statistics, the answer to that question might surprise you.
(GRUBINGER) Media reports about farming often remind me of a quote from Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” In Vermont, agriculture isn’t dying, and it isn’t going away. But it is changing. Yes, one can find hardship, but there’s also plenty of good news about farming.
For one thing, we’re not losing farms. According to the Census of Agriculture, in 1974 there were just under 6,000 farms in Vermont. By 2002, that number had increased by 10 percent! But in the ’70s, three-quarters of our farms were dairies. Now, three-quarters of our farms produce something else.
As Vermont’s dairy farms have become more productive and more consolidated, they’ve also become fewer in number. Meanwhile, other kinds of farms have increased. Farming in Vermont is becoming more diversified. Dairying still dominates the farm economy and the agri- cultural landscape, but thousands of farm families are engaged in “alternative” agriculture, finding their niche in the marketplace with agri-tourism, farmstead cheese, flowers, grass-fed beef, fruit, sheep, vegetables and much more.
And not all dairy farms have gotten bigger. Some that have stayed relatively small remain economically viable through diversification. These dairies may also grow Christmas trees or pumpkins, produce maple syrup, make compost or saw lumber.
Across the state, one of the most serious challenges to sustaining agriculture is the loss of farmland. We’ve gone from 1.7 million acres in 1974 to 1.2 million acres today. Once it’s developed, fertile soil cannot be replaced. That’s why farmland conservation programs are so important, and why I’m proud to serve on the board of the Vermont Land Trust, an organization dedicated to conserving land for the future of Vermont.
Supporting and protecting agriculture in Vermont makes sense because farming is an economic engine. Census figures don’t fully reflect that because they only measure sales of farm products, worth about half a billion dollars annually. According to a study by the Ver- mont Sustainable Agriculture Council, the actual value of farming to our state is closer to three billion dollars a year. That value includes: wages paid; feed, fuel and equipment purchased; and support for Vermont’s farm-related food industries. Think ice cream, cheese, yoghurt, salsa and maple products.
But the greatest value of our farms may have little to do with food. It can be found in Vermont’s remarkable landscape, in open spaces for rec- reation and wildlife. Farms also defend against sprawl, helping to maintain small towns and village settlement patterns, an essential factor in participatory local democracy.
All this brings in billions of dollars, both in tourism and in economic development, as entrepreneurs and employers seek out Vermont for its quality of life.
With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.
Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.