Consumers as Coproducers
NOFA Vermont’s executive director reflects on 20 years of involvement in the state’s local organic food movement
Written onDecember 01 , 2008
People frequently ask me: Why is Vermont’s local food system so strong? Of course, it is difficult to name one reason. Is it the quality of our farmers who steward the land, mentoring each other and increasing in numbers annually? Is it the localvore movement, which is building a social food and farm network among neighbors and an organizing structure that addresses the barriers to greater local food production? Is it the 100 schools in Vermont that are integrating farm and food lessons into their curricula and partnering with farms to serve local foods in their cafeterias? Is it events wholly outside of Vermont that provide an external stimulant, such as the high price of fuel, food safety scares, and the slow decline of rural America?
I think the answer lies in our bedrock. The local food movement has elements of the types of rock we see in Vermont. It is sedimentary, in that it has built over time. It has undergone key structural changes, consistent with metamorphic rock, such as the founding of a Vermont organic dairy co-op and other community-based businesses. And it is igneous, as a result of the “fiery” farmers and consumers who have spurred the movement on. Regardless, the local food movement in Vermont is strong, is growing, is inspirational, and will undoubtedly keep me engaged for at least another 20 years!
But what needs to happen over the next 20 years for us to progress even farther? First, a look back.
In 1987, I was hired by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont to certify organic farms in the state. That year there were 17 farmers certified, compared to 543 producers today. At the end of the season, NOFA Vermont needed a coordinator and asked if I were interested in the 10-hour per month job. There was a handwritten database with 120 names on it, and a board that needed refreshing. But what was so clear, even then, was the deep conviction of the farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders who were providing leadership for the early certified organic movement.
As with other counterculture movements of the time, organic agriculture was a response to the trend toward larger farms and vertical integration in the agricultural industry. The late 1980’s were a kind of primordial soup of organic agriculture, with farmer-gatherings to discuss food access, state organic certification standards, and what practices were consistent with our ideals. These gatherings included long discussions on topics such as the use of black plastic—important for season extension and heat-loving crops, but reliant on the petrochemical industry and a contributor to landfills—and debates about when young stock could be considered organic—from the last third of gestation or birth? The Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), the certification program of NOFA Vermont, had a quorum of “consumer members” that they invited to their annual meetings to provide a consumer voice during the standards-setting process, but there was little consumer ownership of local and organic foods at the time.
Eventually, though, pivotal events in the 80s contributed to the “tipping point” at which consumers became much more aware of their food consumption. For example, in 1989, Meryl Streep served as a high-profile spokesperson against Alar, a plant growth regulator used on apple trees to delay ripening and to prevent apples from falling prematurely. Even though the science behind Alar was controversial, and is still being challenged, it alerted parents to the fact that food may contain chemical residues or breakdown products that may impact their children’s health.
In the late 80s, when Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, then-Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, asked me, organic farmer Will Stevens (president of the Vermont Organic Farmers at the time), and other agricultural leaders in Vermont what we thought about developing national certification standards, it was seductive. Not that organic farmers were necessarily disenfranchised at the time, but people in high places did not necessarily ask us for our opinion, nor acknowledge the growing national importance of a practice like organic agriculture. As an organization, we were a combination of wowed, honored, wary, and belligerent. We didn’t trust the federal government to establish and uphold the very certification standards that we had created during many farmhouse kitchen discussions, but we also wondered: with national and international growth, what was going to keep the word “organic” credible without some oversight?
From 1990 until the National Organic Program was implemented in 2002, farmers and consumers in Vermont and around the country engaged in that debate. NOFA Vermont led the very vocal minority opposed to a government-administered certification program. We did not disagree on the need for a uniform national standard that we all adhered to, but we did not want it administered by the federal government. When a pivotal national vote was taken and we did not have the backing of enough other certification programs to challenge the proposed National Organic Program, we vowed to shift our energy toward making it the best program it could be, with quality standards that farmers in Vermont would support and that would benefit consumers.
An unanticipated outcome of this process was the emergence of a strong consumer voice. In 1997, the first draft of the National Organic Program rules was released for comment. When the federal government asked whether the spreading of sewage sludge, irradiation, and the use of genetically modified organisms were consistent with organic agriculture, they received comments from 280,000 citizens, generating more comments than any other issue in the history of the USDA. And the USDA listened, adding more ballast to consumer ownership of food production.
Now the floodgates are open; consumer interest in local and organic foods in Vermont is unprecedented. I believe that over the next 20 years, we will see consumer ownership of food continue to grow until consumers are truly “coproducers.” By transitioning from being pure activists to engaged advocates, “coproducers” will engage in a shared partnership with food producers. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a prime example of a shared partnership between farmer and consumer, and that partnership is being transformed into business models such as Restaurant Supported Agriculture, Community-Supported Kitchens, and Community-Supported Businesses. These are all examples of individuals investing in their communities, whether they are consumers who want to “put a face on their food” by purchasing a share of a farm, or chefs who support access to the freshest foods.
Just as “local” has emerged as the rallying cry of the last five years, “community” will emerge as the new organizing concept in food. Individuals seek community and a sense of belonging. Whereas “place-based” education supports community learning about local heritage and cultures, I believe we will move toward “taste-based” agriculture, in which we celebrate the tastes of the Champlain Valley or the communities of the Connecticut River Valley and the prime Hadley loam soils that reside there. To support community-based food systems, regional storage and processing facilities will be developed, and farmers will organize into producer hubs to share equipment and to develop cooperative marketing structures. The traditional Vermont values of entrepreneurialism, hard work, stubbornness, and self-reliance will play important roles in this transition to strong community-based food systems.