• Editor's Note Spring 2017

    Editor's Note Spring 2017

    This spring I’ll be leaving Vermont’s Local Banquet after 10 years as its editor. The past decade hasn’t just been a banquet—it’s been a feast!

    Continue Reading

  • Set the Table with TV dinners

    Set the Table with TV dinners

    “I unabashedly describe myself as a local food advocate,” wrote Marlboro College student Nathaniel Brooks in 2015, as he was launching his new business. “I see re-localizing our food system as a key lever for shifting our culture away from its current path toward one of greater interconnection, mindfulness, and sustainability.”

    Continue Reading

  • Here Comes the Sun

    Here Comes the Sun

    Driving around Vermont, people are treated to all kinds of pastoral views. There are acres of cornfields, apple orchards with boughs bending under the weight of ripe fruit, and Holsteins looking as placid as the ones on a Ben & Jerry’s label.

    Continue Reading

  • Soil Heals:

    Soil Heals:

    When you speak with Jon Turner about his diversified farm in Bristol, he talks about the same things many other organic farmers do: the cohesion between species, the value of biodiversity, soil health.

    Continue Reading

  • Tying Traditions Together: The Marshfield School of Weaving

    Tying Traditions Together: The Marshfield School of Weaving

    Down a dirt road on the Marshfield/Plainfield line sits an ordinary barn that houses the only school in the U.S. that teaches historical textile arts using antique technology: barn looms.

    Continue Reading

  • The Perception of Industrial Agriculture

    The Perception of Industrial Agriculture

    Until recently, I was a member of the UVM Extension faculty, helping to develop Vermont’s emerging livestock industries as the state livestock specialist.

    Continue Reading

  • The Meaning of Organic

    The Meaning of Organic

    The produce section of any grocery story offers an array of choices, from mass-produced potatoes to locally grown greens, and many items sport labels indicating the conditions under which those foods were grown.

    Continue Reading

  • Urine as Fertilizer?

    Urine as Fertilizer?

    At the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, staff, board members, and the many local “peecyclers” who contribute to the group’s Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project (UNRP) pepper their conversations with pee-related humor and hold an annual “Piss-off” contest for who can donate the most urine.

    Continue Reading

  • Farmers' Kitchen—Singular Syrup

    Farmers' Kitchen—Singular Syrup

    A few years ago, our friend Bucky came home from a visit to his daughter in Alaska with a bottle of Alaskan birch syrup.

    Continue Reading

  • Appreciating  Neighbors

    Appreciating Neighbors

    “Neighbor” and “community” are two words that show up frequently in our weekly farm blog.

    Continue Reading


The Perception of Industrial Agriculture

Antique tractor

Written By

Joe Emenheiser

Written on

February 22 , 2017

Until recently, I was a member of the UVM Extension faculty, helping to develop Vermont’s emerging livestock industries as the state livestock specialist. Over the course of not quite three years in this position, I was fortunate to meet many great people and do some fascinating work. The connectedness and engagement that I had sensed would be found within Vermont’s agricultural community were very real. The opportunities for Vermont agriculture—especially to grow excellent forage and to capitalize on the Vermont image in marketing—were tremendous, as well. However, I became increasingly frustrated with some cultural dynamics that I had not fully anticipated.

My job was to help livestock producers improve their production efficiency and product quality, with the goal of building diversified livestock industries here. What I frequently encountered, however, was a belief (which surprised and alarmed me) that quality was mostly defined by production methods and farmers’ stories, not by objective attributes of the products themselves. In other words, inefficient production methods were often accepted, or even promoted, because they made a farm’s story more attractive to consumers. I encountered advocates of Vermont agriculture who seemed to feel that it was better to play to consumers’ fears (and often misconceptions) of industrial agriculture than to build sustainable industries by improving production efficiency.

Of course, both marketing and production efficiency are important. It was challenging to encounter people who believed that the two are mutually exclusive, that Vermont’s success relies on its distancing itself from anything perceived as “industrial.” In fact, I believe that Vermont can indeed create more efficient—and thus more economically viable and environmentally friendly—farms while still adhering to Vermont values and the Vermont identity.

The farm I grew up on in Pennsylvania was not profitable. Also, to keep it operational required massive amounts of time—time that became decreasingly available as my siblings and I became involved in sports, Boy Scouts, 4-H, music lessons, and a whole raft of other good things. The economic and time constraints drove my father from teaching to administration, and drove us to purchase more of our food, rather than raise it ourselves. Our productive working farm became a lifestyle farm.

I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to have had that lifestyle. My brothers and I learned the need for hard work, the rewards of that work, and how to handle disappointment when the weather, or other forces that always seemed to be up against agricultural pursuits, didn’t go our way. It felt healthy and wholesome. But I’m also thankful to have realized the limitations of our farm. It was not sustainable. As I grew older and spent time working on other farms, I came to realize that, to some extent, the farm I grew up on was an unnecessary struggle; there was a resistance to adapting. Familiarity and nostalgia were certainly not without value, but they didn’t pay the bills.

I do not see sustainable agriculture as one set of values or one way of producing a product. A sustainable system is one that stays viable by offering choices: lifestyle and income choices for the farmer, and product and price choices for the consumer. It saddens me that there are consumers, marketers, and even large institutions who equate “sustainable” with ”small” or “old-fashioned.” I think sustainable agriculture is a system in which many different values and methods can respond and adapt to inevitable changes in economic, environmental, and social dynamics.

I’ve had the benefit of getting to know and befriend many people in agriculture, including what is often called “industrial agriculture.” Unlike we’re often led to believe, the vast majority of them are real, salt-of-the-earth folks, who hold the same values and passion for their work as I did growing up on that little, non-sustainable farm of my youth. They are trying hard to make it, doing what they love. It’s easy to focus on the corporations and forget about the people. But industrial agriculture is made up of real people, too—people who don’t deserve to be demonized.

I also think it’s important to realize that most industrial agricultural practices began as innovations made by problem solvers. Sow gestation crates may no longer be considered humane, but at the time they were introduced, they were intended to counter the negative effects that sow fights had on animal welfare and producers’ bottom lines. Values and understanding about them changed, but it took time for politics, technology, genetics, and price points to adjust accordingly. If an agricultural practice is truly unsustainable, it will eventually cease. It’s good to encourage folks who offer proactive solutions, and to be sensitive to those whose lives may be uprooted by change in the meantime.

As a scientist, I find it easy to see science as the purest form of truth. It took me a long time to realize that just because a solution is scientifically sound doesn’t necessarily mean it will gain any traction. Emotions, and particularly fear, are always going to motivate people. We fear most what we don’t understand, and when 98 percent of our population is not involved in agriculture, fears are inevitable. I hope that Vermonters can be open-minded and reflect on all the different kinds of agriculture out there before making judgments. I believe that doing so could allow us to embrace new ways of farming in Vermont that could ultimately benefit farmers, animals, consumers, and the land.


About the Author

Joe Emenheiser

Joe Emenheiser

Joe Emenheiser is now the animal husbandry and farm operations manager for an international biomedical company. He resides in Benson.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply. 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Sign up here to receive monthly Local Banquet news in your inbox.