IV. Vermont rural food systems—from milk to maple

This is the fourth of five reflective journal entries assigned for class.

During breakfast we briefly discussed final projects with Amy. She also talked more about the final reflective essay. She is interested to see we met the learning outcomes for the class. We should consider the contemporary versus the historical working landscape of Vermont, as well as post-commodity agriculture for milk and maple production. We should discuss what we’ve seen, experienced, and learned. Choose a theme and make connections to broader concepts. How to synthesize may depend to a main controlling idea, but again to apply the personal and experiential to broad contemporary and historical texts and contexts. A lot to think about. A lot to draw that we’ve experienced and learned so far. I haven’t put a finger on the concept that’s most intriguing to me. Perhaps something along the lines of the yuppy going back to rural, land-based roots. I’ve been feeling utterly disconnected the past few years especially.

For the first session this morning, Karen drove the group to Websterville to visit Vermont Butter and Cheese. Alison Woolf talked to the group about the history of V B&C and explained the business and marketing of their products. Though sadly we were not given a tour of the facility. The format was essentially a cheese tasting and Q&A. V B&C work exclusively with seventeen independent goat milk producers from around the area. The goat farmers have herds between 50 and 500 heads of goat. A goat “nanny” at V B&C recruit, support, the quality, production, and management of the goat farms. Milk is tested, as well as the cheese, by V B&C and again by Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Maintaining standards—of quality to ensure no microbial contamination—is one recurring theme this week. I believe contaminated spinach and beef resonates throughout the food producing world. An outbreak of E. coli or Listeria would have an drastic effect on any sector of agriculture. While I remain skeptical of FDA and USDA oversight of production (mainly at the CAFO level), this week has shined some light that not all is lost to fiscal interests.

While we tasted cheeses, issues of terroir were discussed. Responding to some questions of diet, Alison explained goats eat mainly grass during summer and silage during winter. This likely has an effect on the taste of the cheese. The ‘micro-cave’ of French imported poplar wood their Bijou, Bonne Bouche,—my new personal favourite; I love the ash-ripened skin—and Coupole allow for aging and ripening after purchase. Each package lists their sell by date. In cheese, that refers to the length of time recommended for aging, after which the cheese can become soupy.

After Vermont Butter and Cheese we headed over to Montpelier for lunch at the New England Culinary Institute. Chef Joe Buley was our host and talked to us about his intensively farmed one acre. He does not follow Federal organic standards but he follows organic and biodynamic practices. Folks who come to his farm and buy his product know Joe and know his product. With this face to face relationship, largely absent in the urban landscape, emphasizes the importance of knowing your food and who produces it. Whether to create and maintain intimate relationships with all of our dairy, meat, and vegetable producers is possible, it is no less and ideal, and worthy of weekend trips and joining a CSA. Both popular solutions to enhancing consumer agricultural acts.

Joe also talked about the difficulty for producers to sell directly to restaurants. Again the issue of first year failures was emphasized. Working through a distributor for local and sustainable producer sourcing is a more reliable route for producers. He is hopeful the skyrocketing costs of fuel will see a leveling of markets between large and small producers. I can see the logic in his statements and wouldn’t mind if this extended to a leveling of costs for locally procured foods. When I hear mention that USAmericans spend between ten and fifteen percent of their disposable income on food, I laugh, then choke. I have no income at present, so nearly eighty percent of what scant funds I do have goes towards food. I buy whole foods from my local Fairway and Greenmarket. Despite, being cash poor as I currently am, still has led me down the low road of over-processed techno foods. I think this one falls under priorities and values.

One thing that bugged me and is beginning to become apparent on this third day are issues of food security for poor and vulnerable populations of Vermont—those who cannot afford or access the fresh and local agricultural products. I asked Joe food reclamation and redistribution programs. His response was essentially gleaning for the poor. In a community nutrition or nutrition education class, or one looking at historical food supplies, gleaning as well as foraging, in the civilizing process of humans, are the lowest forms of food procurement. Those who glean and forage have throughout history been considered poor, uncivilized, barbaric; today, those who glean (see freegans.info) and forage (see Wildman Steve Brill) are considered on the fringe, and likely crazy.

Out last meeting of the day with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, also located in Montpelier, offered no real answer to my questions of food security. The main priority is to buy local, as evidenced in their “Buy Local” program. I have no witnessed their programs in action. But we were shown flyers and 8”x11” posters farmers can post and mark the price of their produce at Vermont farmers’ markets. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed with VT Ag efforts. They are conducting no real evaluation of their programs and are largely in the dark about how effective they are. Perhaps this part of the program was not planned. They did not seem to know what the class was there for and perhaps did not know how to prepare. But I ask myself whether their Buy Local program is white noise.

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