Many Vermonters see labeling GMO foods as essential to building a sustainable food system. But food values researcher Rachel Ankeny doesn't buy it.
"Labeling everything is not an answer," said the professor from Australia's University of Adelaide, addressing hundreds of local food advocates at the University of Vermont's Food Systems Summit last Wednesday, June 15. "That's money being spent in a particular way, in the name of [consumers] having more choice," she went on. "Choice is not the answer."
Last week, UVM's two-day food systems summit — the school's fifth — brought more than 300 food policy students, researchers, advocates and farmers from around the country and world to talk local food and address the question: "What makes food good?"
Short answer? Depends on whom you ask.
In a breakout workshop after Ankeny's morning talk, Vermont Farm to Plate project manager Jake Claro posed the summit's central question to a couple dozen panel attendees, including a boisterous set of student farmers from UVM's Catamount Farm.
"What are some values that are really important to you [for food]?" Claro asked.
The crowd dutifully chimed in with ideas about environmental responsibility, locality, freshness, justice, health, flavor ... and, eventually, affordability. "Production in a way that preserves the working landscape," added one of the UVM farmer-bros.
But at the mass-market institutions and grocery stores that feed most Vermonters, logistics and price points tend to be the main priorities. If something can't come to the store via warehouse, loading dock and pallet, it likely won't appear in the store at all.
Therein lies one of local food's major problems.
Most farms in Vermont aren't geared toward production-by-the-pallet. And wholesale markets aren't structured to accept relatively small amounts of food that's diverse in quality and unpredictable in quantity. To stock shelves with fresh local food, they might need to source from dozens of farms within a day or two of harvest.
And for most grocery chains, that's just not possible.
To illustrate the value of face-to-face contact between consumers and food producers, Claro orchestrated a point-of-sale role-play. Playing the "farmer" was Karen Guile, a third-generation Northeast Kingdom potato farmer. Her family business — Peaslee's Vermont Potatoes — produces 1.5 million pounds of potatoes annually on 60 acres in Guildhall.
"What kind of potatoes are these?" a "farmers market consumer" asked her.
"These are probably Yukon golds," Guile said, turning a spud in her fingers. "But we sell a whole bunch of different kinds."
"I want to make roasted potatoes," the "consumer" said.
"Roasted? Then reds!"
"Are they organic?"
"They're not," Guile said, then explained that her farm has been in operation for almost 90 years. The potatoes are produced naturally, with care for the land. But certifying them as "organic" would require the farm to take tilled land out of production for three years. "That's not realistic for us," Guile said. "But we don't spray [pesticides] or anything like that."
The "consumer" asked about cost, then "purchased" a five-pound bag.
In this direct-sales model, Claro said, it's easy for customers to learn more about what they're buying and to make informed decisions. Even when few words are exchanged, interacting with a farmer face-to-face gives consumers far more information than they'll get from a silent bin of russets in the produce aisle.
Lacking source-identifying signage, like the ones at co-ops and community markets, consumers have to make an effort to learn where their food comes from. That might be somewhere like Peaslee's, which is large enough to distribute potatoes to a few wholesale accounts. Or it might be a chemical-drenched factory farm in the Dakota tar sands that exploits underage workers from marginalized communities.
Key to making local food an option is distribution. Later in the panel, Claro paired Guile with a student "consumer" and Saint Michael's College dining services manager Brian Roper, who buys about 15 percent of the school's food from local sources through Sodexo's Vermont First program.
"I'll often have conversations with farmers," Roper said. "Like, 'I'm really looking for a local potato, maybe something I can cut into French fries.'" When a farmer says she's got the goods, Roper's first question isn't about process or land stewardship. It's: "What distributor do you use?"
When Guile responded that she works with Black River Produce, Roper was thrilled. "Great! They have a truck that stops here six days a week." His next step, he said, would be to get on the horn and ask his Black River contact for however many pounds of Peaslee's potatoes — every week for the next nine months.
If his first question to farmers is logistical, Roper's second question is about cost. Inevitably, small-scale products from a land-stewarding local cost more than mass-produced ones from commodity markets. But Roper said he's willing to shuffle things in his budget to prioritize local foods.
"Maybe I run bacon [for breakfast] twice a week instead of three times," Roper said. "It's a delicate balance of looking at the menu, looking at costs and deciding where we can cut back to fit local foods in."
Even with the shifting and shuffling, Roper said, "We end up spending more money when there's more local produce available." But, given more information about where their food comes from, many students choose local.
"Would you be willing to pay a premium for those potatoes?" Guile asked the student "consumer."
"If I knew I was supporting the only female potato farmer in America, I'd go for it," the student said. "Because, honestly, that's important to me."
In a panel later on Wednesday afternoon, Intervale Center farm business specialist Sam Smith explained that institutions like St. Mike's represent a big piece of the food-systems puzzle.
"Institutions and distributors are looking at their price sheets," Smith said, "and they're buying the more expensive thing. Without that happening, this whole [local food] thing wouldn't have gotten off the ground."
Even so, not all farms are suited to working with large accounts — they need to be able to provide the right products in the right quantity. As Sodexo Vermont First coordinator Annie Rowell explained in Claro's distribution workshop, good bets are products that can be grown in volume, store well and are in high demand in institutional kitchens.
"Potatoes are a good example," Rowell said. "It's a product we use across all of our accounts."
Guile, of Peaslee's Potatoes, attested that, for her, accessing larger markets meant increasing her tilled acreage. "We needed to scale up to save the family farm," she said. "Via Sodexo, I was able to sell to UVM and a few other outlets. We could plant this stuff and know where it was going — and, hopefully, not have bins of potatoes left over."
The afternoon panel, moderated by Kristina Sweet of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, looked at farm viability through the lenses of economics, market innovation and entrepreneurship.
Often, a farm can become more viable by selling more product in multiple venues, Smith said. "Farmers need to grow appropriate crops for their land base and sell some to premium markets [such as farmers markets], then get rid of the rest in secondary markets," he said.
Salvation Farms founder Theresa Snow spoke to the value of those "secondary markets." Her organization supplies many of them using its statewide gleaning operations, which "rescue" millions of pounds of food from farm fields and processing facilities.
Vermont farms lose around 3 million pounds of salable produce every year, Snow said. Salvation Farms diverts that waste to wholesale outlets such as state-run institutions and the Vermont Foodbank. While those markets pay less than a retail customer or co-op might, they represent a new income stream for farmers. And they provide fresh local food to schoolkids, prison inmates and food-shelf beneficiaries, who often lack choices about what they eat.
"This is about pushing for new markets," Smith said, "and pushing farmers to produce to these new markets." If producers can't align themselves with demand, everyone loses.
A late-afternoon panel took a closer look at a market that could expand in coming years. While consumers have long been interested in farm-fresh tomatoes, peppers, greens and meats, fewer have sought out locally grown grains.
"I can get everything on my plate locally, except the grain," said Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket (Chelsea Green, 2015), who moderated the panel on northeastern cereal grain production. Though Halloran sees grain as "the last leg of the locavore revival," she admits it's not a glamorous crop. While fresh produce benefits noticeably from careful cultivation, "it's hard to make a crop distinction with grains," she said. Therefore, she said, "It's hard to get consumers interested in where their wheat comes from."
More and more northeastern farmers are growing grains, from New York to Québec to Maine to Vermont. But in a humid, hilly landscape with short summers and turbulent weather, grain production is tough. And economies of scale demand that grains be grown in quantity, given the processing required to render them usable.
Still, Vermont's local grain market has been gaining steam since Ben Gleason of Gleason Grains planted his wheat field in Addison County in 1981. With the formation of the Northern Grain Growers Association in 2004, grain quality has steadily improved, said Red Hen Baking co-owner Randy George.
Red Hen partnered with a farm in Québec in 2014 and now sources about 85 percent of its wheat within 150 miles of the bakery. The farm has expanded its wheat-flour production to meet Red Hen's needs.
In Lamoille County, wood-fired bakery Elmore Mountain Bread entered a similar arrangement with nearby Rogers Farmstead the same year. "We buy their whole [wheat] crop," said baker Blair Marvin at the panel.
Marvin takes the process a step further and buys whole wheat berries, which she and her husband mill into flour themselves. They use the Rogerses' Vermont wheat exclusively in oblong loaves of Redeemer wheat bread.
Both bakers represent a new model in the bread world. "This is a unique opportunity," George said. "Wheat is everywhere, and we don't think much about its source. To really know the farmer, to be able to give them feedback about what needed to happen [in the field and mill] for the wheat to perform properly — that's unusual."
It's asking something of customers, too. Though local wheat is similar in quality to midwestern varieties, it has different flavor nuances. "Maybe [my bread] tastes a little different than it did last week," Marvin said, "because it's a different variety of wheat from a different source."
She had to "retrain" her customer base to accept some variability in her loaves, she said. "I do all my deliveries so I can tell people about this," she said. "We're in this time where these conversations are being had."
Halloran had her doubts about the future of this crop. "There's no social cachet with wheat ... People don't have warm, fuzzy feelings about flour," she said. "And you guys are making this whole economic devotion—"
"But people get it," George interrupted, "and they taste the difference. That's what ultimately hooks people," he said. "It's gotta be good bread."
As the session wrapped up, the bakers cut into two fresh loaves, baked earlier that day in Elmore and Middlesex. The bread was crusty, moist and sturdy with fragrant, wheaty flavor. Workshop participants lingered and nibbled, chatting with the bakers until both loaves were gone.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Good Food Ain't Easy"