From the Audience: A Student’s Recap of Taking Root Student Symposium

We cannot believe we are already at the end of the 2018 fall semester.  Vermont is currently buried in snow and serious winter temperatures, so we come in from the cold to look back on what has proved to be a stimulating and fun semester.

We are excited to share a post by our UVM Dining Nutrition Intern, Anastasia Tsekeris, who attended the Taking Root Student Symposium this past October.  Overall, 150 attendees, including 83 students from 7 different VT campuses, gathered at UVM on an icy Sunday morning to hear from food system professionals about the innovative work happening in Vermont food and to learn more about what it looks like to launch a career working in food in Vermont.

In addition to reading this post, be sure to also check out this great article in Food Management magazine featuring the symposium! 

Thank you, Anastasia, for capturing the day! Thank you also to our partners VT Farm to Plate, VT Agency of Agriculture, and UVM Event Services for making the event possible!


Vermont First recently held their first student symposium on October 28th designed to celebrate and learn about farm to institution and the career paths within the food system. Vermont chefs, entrepreneurs, farmers, and other leaders in the field gathered to discuss current food systems issues, celebrate Vermont’s farm to institution efforts in supporting local farmers, and to support students pursuing careers working in food.  

The day kicked off with a warm welcome and overview of the day provided by UVM Dining’s Sustainability Manager, Marissa Watson. Watson set the tone of the day by encouraging students, producers, and partners to utilize this opportunity to engage with one another and build new relationships. She then introduced the Keynote Speaker, Vermont author and farmer Ben Hewitt. Hewitt has written six books on agriculture and food, including most popularly The Town that Food Saved.

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Keynote Speaker, Ben Hewitt; Photo credit: Nate Stevens

Hewitt began by sharing an anecdote about his neighbor, Martha – an older farmer for whom he and his children bale hay. Martha returns the favor by providing hay for Hewitt’s sheep. After years of this neighborly trade, Hewitt has come to love baling hay because it requires hard labor and self-reliance, which he feels is one act of protest against the convenient, mindless farming methods employed in industrial agriculture. Through haying and his observations of Martha’s hard work and commitment to stewarding her land, Hewitt realized he saw deeper into the tragedy of the food system:  it requires so little of us, but we require it in order to survive. This disconnect allows us to often neglect and forget our connection to the land. His final parting thoughts highlighted the importance of being independent thinkers filled with gratitude for the outdoors:

  • Remember that everything comes from the soil.
  • Get outside every day
  • There is no better way to reclaim culture and liberty than to produce good, nourishing food in fair, responsible ways.

Following Hewitt’s keynote address was a panel highlighting case studies of innovation in the Vermont food system. Panelists included:

Darby’s areas of expertise include soil sciences and environmental stewardship. Darby described her role in Extension, which includes aiding farmers and processors in achieving their goals by utilizing applied research. She shared her story of living in Vermont throughout her life and having to watch the environmental degradation of Lake Champlain, as well as the decline in numbers of farmers. Similarly to Hewitt, Darby instilled the need to take care of our soils and preserve them for future generations. She emphasized this need as especially vital due to the changing climate.

Kehler’s Jasper Hill Farm makes their own cheese as well as matures cheeses for other producers. Kehler characterized his business as a group of activists working in response to a globalized food system. He explained his desire to redefine cheesemaking by supporting independent cheesemakers and preventing consolidation of the market. “Consolidation stifles innovation,” Kehler told the audience.

Bossen described himself as “an advocate for people’s palates”, which is how he found his niche in the market by producing organic heirloom tortillas made from scratch. Bossen emphasized the need to preserve heirloom varieties, as well as creating a market for crops that consumers are not currently accessing.

Snow described “food as a lever for social change” in which we are able to capture food not reaching the market and provide that food to vulnerable populations. Snow emphasized the need to create a more inclusive food system that undermines the power of corporate control. Through a research study done in 2016, Snow discovered that 15% of production was being left on farms. She utilized this data to create Salvation Farms and begin the process of creating a more regional food system.

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Posters telling the stories of the producers who provided the food for our meal. Photo credit: Nate Stevens

Our lunch break was based on the theme “Close the Loop.” The goal of this theme, Watson explained, was to raise awareness about food waste and some of the innovative ways Vermont producers work to mitigate waste through the creation of their products. Prior to walking to the lunch, the producers featured during lunch each spoke to the story of their business and products. Products included ice cream from Wilcox Ice Cream incorporated into the Caramelized Apple Compote, chicken from Maple Wind Farm incorporated into the Pulled Chicken Salad on a Baguette, and many more delicious options. Lunch was in UVM’s Central Campus Dining Hall, the new farm to table residential dining hall on campus.   

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Student attendee enjoying the charcuterie spread featuring Jasper Hill Cheese, VT Salumi, Grafton Village Cheese, and Red Barn Crackers. Photo credit: Nate Stevens

 

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A lunch dish featuring VT Chevon goat, VT Bean Crafters beans, and squash gleaned from local farms by Salvation Farms.  Photo credit: Nate Stevens

Following lunch, representatives from Vermont Farm to Plate, Jake Claro and Kristyn Achilich, took the stage to briefly discuss career pathways in the food system as well as the Food Sector Job Growth report. The data from the report indicated that jobs within the food system comprise one of the largest growing sectors in Vermont. Achilich offered insight to Vermont Farm to Plate’s new available resource, Career Profiles, which details the many pathways of a food systems career as well as qualifications needed, salary, and more information about these positions.

The final panel of the day featured five panelists, each speaking about their individual career journey and their words of wisdom along the way:

Labun spoke about her non-linear career path. She described jumping from job to job in the field of rural development, and then finally landing her current position where she works to connect chefs to local farmers. When asked what advice she would give to students, Labun encouraged students to take time for themselves away from their career and not to feed into the romanticization of overworking yourself.

Alexander spoke of her experience working currently as the harvest manager as well as the wholesale manager at the farm. She described the difficulty of having a constantly changing schedule, as well as the immense gratification she feels from farming. Alexander recommended students find a career in which they love and to be a problem solver in whatever position you take on.

Myers discussed her experience owning and operating a new business. She founded the company after working in the restaurant industry in New York City, in which she discovered a disconnect between farmers and restaurants. Myers decided to create a business in which she could connect restaurants that were looking for local food to farmers who were looking for a market to sell their produce. Myers’ advice to students: “create the job that you want”.

In addition to running his own cattle business, Schubart also works to source local meat for Walden Local Meat. Schubart’s day in the life was a bit different than the other panelists, which includes rotating cattle three times a day as well as working remotely for Walden Local Meat. He encouraged students to embrace failures as opportunities to learn a new lesson.

Langan spoke on her experience working on the culinary side of the food system. Langan shared her extensive background working in restaurants across the globe, ultimately landing back in her home state of Vermont to follow her passion of teaching students. She described the busy atmosphere of working in a dining hall that serves hundreds of meals a day, and being constantly on her toes for what comes next. Sarah closed the panel by inviting students to be open to whatever journey their career and life may take them.  

The day finished with a final career networking session in which students could speak to panelists and representatives from across the state. Employers present included Green Mountain Farm to School, Intervale Food Hub, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Jasper Hill Farm, Sodexo, Maple Wind Farm, and many more. As food systems continues to grow as a field, connecting students to innovative organizations offers an opportunity to build professional relationships as well as open up new understanding of the evolving food system.

 

Tracking Institutional Local Purchasing

As she tallied up the final numbers, Sodexo’s Vermont First Coordinator Annie Rowell already anticipated the decrease in Sodexo’s local purchases for 2017.  Launched in 2014, Vermont First is Sodexo’s commitment to increase local food purchasing at all of Sodexo’s Vermont accounts, which helps achieve Vermont Farm to Plate’s goals of increasing instiutional consumption (Goal 2) and increasing local food production (Goal 7). Vermont First is also aligned with Farm to Plate’s local food definition: Raw products grown in Vermont or within a 30-mile radius around the state borders or food manufactured within the state.

Over the past three years, Vermont First has become a revered best practice in institutional local food procurement, setting the standard for how to strategically leverage statewide institutional spend, actively engage and collaborate with statewide stakeholders, and transparently track local purchasing.  “VT First has forged a path for thoughtful, intentional, and systematic calculation and communication of institution’s local food procurement,” shares Abbey Willard, Food System Chief for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, as well as a member of the Vermont First Advisory Board. Why, then, was Rowell not surprised to see a downward trend for Vermont First’s local purchasing between 2016 and 2017?

Abbie Nelson of NOFA-VT/VT FEED and member of the Vermont First Advisory Board, explained the 2017 findings best: “The reality is [Vermont First] is getting penalized in the numbers for getting better at tracking.”  Every year, the Vermont First Advisory Board (VFAB), made up of fourteen Vermont food system stakeholders, reviews Sodexo’s Vermont food purchasing totals and identifies opportunity areas for purchasing more Vermont products.  Over the past year, Vermont First dove deeper into the supply chains of regional brands Hood, Cabot Creamery, and Black River Meats’ Northeast Raised Beef to explore opportunities for Vermont producers. After participating in this process as a member of the VFAB, Jake Claro, Director of Farm to Plate, observed, “From the very beginning, Sodexo’s Vermont First has been an exemplar of transparency and integrity, a model for how institutions can accurately track.  Vermont First’s willingness to be transparent in their accounting and open to critical feedback reflects a true commitment to Vermont farm and food businesses and the food economy of Vermont.”

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Sodexo’s Vermont chefs and managers tour Vermont Packinghouse in Springfield, VT, where all animals are slaughtered and processed for Black River Meats.

Black River Meat’s Northeast Raised (NER) beef brand was created on the scalability of a regional model, while also remaining focused on bringing more Vermont beef producers into their folds. In 2015 and 2016, VT First counted 100% of NER beef as local, as the animals were either raised or slaughtered and processed in the state. Sodexo significantly increase NER beef purchases during that time.  In reviewing VT First totals, however, it became evident to the VFAB that Farm to Plate’s definition for how raw, cut beef should be counted for ‘local’ was unclear.  Farm to Plate’s intent was that all raw, cut animal protein could only count as local if the animal was raised (or spent a significant portion of the animal’s life) in Vermont, regardless of whether the animal was slaughtered and processed in the state.  While all animals in the Black River Meats’ NER beef supply chain are slaughtered and processed in Springfield, VT, 20% of the animals were Vermont-raised in 2017.  (As a note, 100% of Black River Meats’ Vermont Grown lamb and pork is raised in Vermont.)
As such, in October 2017, Vermont First modified their tracking to count only 20% of NER beef purchases as local. While this change negatively affects Vermont First’s 2017 totals, it means Vermont First will be able to track the growth in number of Vermont raised animals in NER’s supply chain over the long term.

 

 

 

“Better tracking. More transparency. At the end of the day, that’s what counts!” Peter Allison, Executive Director of Farm to Institution New England, sums up.

Much like NER Beef, Hood and Cabot Creamery are brands that are dependent on the regional infrastructure needed to aggregate, process, and distribute dairy products.  Dairy is Vermont’s largest agricultural industry, and Vermont produces 63% of the milk in New England (Vermont Milk Matters Report, 2016). Tracking aggregated fluid milk volume back to individual farms is a laborious and complicated process, but necessary to understand how much of the milk in supply chain of companies like Hood and Cabot comes from Vermont farms.  With the assistance of Hood and Cabot, Vermont First narrowed in on the Hood and Cabot products that meet the Vermont First definition – either produced or manufactured in Vermont +30 miles.

Overall, more than $250,000 of beef and dairy spend in 2017 no longer qualifies as local for Vermont First. As a result, Vermont First’s 2017 local purchasing totals were $2.6 million, decreasing from 15.5% local in 2016 to 13.74% local in 2017.  While the numbers show a decrease, the 2017 totals tell a more accurate story of the volume of products purchased that were either produced or manufactured in Vermont.  “The purchasing numbers reported by the program are not window dressing, but an honest accounting of progress and an integral piece of feedback Sodexo management at all levels uses to inform purchasing decisions and improve institutional market access for Vermont farm and food businesses,” said Claro.

Looking ahead to 2018, Vermont First is focused on identifying and purchasing ‘Priority Products’ that are best-suited for Vermont production and that currently or have potential to be used in institutional dining.  The growing list of Priority Products will inform chefs which products are grown or manufactured locally and alert producers about the local products Sodexo is looking for.

Priority Products are identified with support from the VT First Advisory Board, Sodexo’s local produce distributors, and Vermont’s Farm and Forest Viability Program, among others. For instance, one priority product that was developed in response to institutional markets seeking a 100% Vermont-raised beef product was Precision Valley Specialty Meats’ hormone and growth promotant-free beef, which is a ground beef product made from transitional dairy cattle (cattle that are no longer productive for dairy).  Precision Valley offers Vermont dairy farms a reliable premium for cattle that would otherwise be sold at highly-fluctuating regional cattle auction prices. Currently, all Precision Valley cattle come from dairy farms in Addison County and are slaughtered and processed in Springfield, VT.

Tying It All Together – Our Regional Network

 

Complex, wicked problems are dynamic [and] require generative responses – learning, innovation, and adaptation over long periods of time.

– Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, John Cleveland
Connecting to Change the World

Lynn Jennings, one of the best female American runners of all time, posts up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for a few months of the year as a running camp director.  When asked why even some of the most committed, self-motivated runners seek out her camp year after year, her answer is simple: “Because we all get lazy.”  We all need a jolt, a reminder of what all our training, day to day, is amounting to.

In the first meeting of Farm to Institution New England’s (FINE) Network Advisory Councilfine logo this past winter, Executive Director Peter Allison instructed us Advisory Council members to be on the lookout in our mail for a book.  Sure enough, a few days later – signed, sealed, and delivered – it arrived: Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact.

I must admit, before I began reading, I was feeling comfortable in my understanding of the language, function, and importance of networks.  All to quickly, I realized that like Lynn’s runners, I was in need of a boot camp jolt in my network training.  So I kept reading.

Taken from the book, here are eight insights I will pass along so that we all keep our pencils sharp in the intentional act of building and participating in networks.


  1. Know the Network Difference. Networks have unique capabilities for achieving social impact that distinguish them from other forms of social organizing, and generative social-impact networks are particularly suited for addressing complex problems
  2. Design Thoughtfully. Social-impact networks can be thoughtfully designed from the start; you don’t have to fly blind.
  3. Connect, Connect, Connect. The foundation of generative social-impact networks is the connectivity of its members to each other, which can be cultivated by network weavers.
  4. Anticipate a Network’s Evolution.  A generative network’s capabilities, complexity, and potential for impact increase as the connectivity of its members deepens and the structure of their connectivity evolves.
  5. Enable and Adapt. The growth and development of established social-impact networks depend on managing a set of inevitable challenges.
  6. Assess to Improve. Monitoring and assessing a social-impact network’s condition and performance is the basis for improving its impact.
  7. Revisit Design. Making an existing network more generative, with more engaged members and impact, requires resetting of key design decisions to boost members’ connectivity.
  8. Be Network-Centric. In addition to skills and knowledge, network builders hold a distinct net-centric point of view with its own rules.

Following the lessons and insights from the pages in his library, Peter and his team at Farm to Institution New England announced the launch of the New England Farm and Sea to Campus Network earlier this week.

We are proud to be a member of this new network – follow the link above to join us in being part of the learning, innovation, and adaptation needed in building a sustainable New England food system.

 

 

 

Case Study: Farm to Institution New England Reviews Vermont Tech’s Market Garden

Remember our post from way back in June (how is it August 31st already?) about Vermont Tech’s Market Garden?  Our friends at Farm to Institution New England have recently highlighted the Market Garden, too – check it out here!

Note: In addition to selling to Vermont Tech, the Market Garden also sells to other Vermont campuses – St. Michael’s College, Champlain College, and Norwich University.