Friday, March 25, 2011

Vermont Agriculture Myths


Agriculture, like any industry, seeks to perpetuate favorable public perception, especially to maintain public subsidies and support for its operations. Vermont agriculture, like its counter parts across the country, has been very successful in fostering a host of myths that among other things maintains public support and favorable public policy. Since most of the statistics and information about agriculture is produced by agricultural proponents, with little independent review, much of this information is skewed and/or inflated to give a positive view of agriculture’s economic and social importance.

In Vermont, more than any other state I’ve lived in, cows are sacred. Because of this uncritical acceptance of dairy operations as somehow iconic or representative of the state, there is virtually no objective research on the real costs of Ag both in terms of its real economic value, as well as its large ecological/environmental footprint. Even though Ag is one of the most destructive activities engaged in by humans, the common refrain in Vermont is how Ag maintains the environment. As we shall see later, this is more wishful thinking than reality if any kind of objective review of farming’s real environmental costs were ever reviewed.

In any discussion of Vermont agriculture it’s important to distinguish between farmers who are producing food for direct human consumption (i.e. say veggies and fruit) as opposed to livestock production (dairy and meat). The vast majority of large scale commercial operations in Vermont are involved in dairy. When one thinks of a “farm” in Vermont, they think of dairy farms. Most of the acreage devoted to Ag in Vermont is committed to dairy production.

By comparison, the number of people employed and acreage producing food for direct human consumption is relatively small (for instance only slightly more than 2000 acres are in vegetable production in the entire state of Vermont). Most of the ecological damage done to the land and water is the result of livestock production.

This may be nuanced, but most of the critique here is focused on the large scale dairy/livestock operations, not the small scale vegetable/fruit producers.

More on this later, but the bulk of all tax dollars (subsidies) as well as the externalized costs of Ag production to the environment and wildlife is a consequence of livestock production. When one travels around Vermont and sees a “farm”, chances are it is producing dairy and/or meat. These farms are responsible for much of the biological impoverishment of Vermont’s landscape—a corn field is a biological desert, made worse when one considers that the bulk of all corn fields in Vermont are growing forage for dairy cows, not sweet corn humans might consume.

By contrast local vegetable and fruit production, which has many more health benefits and a smaller ecological footprint to Vermont’s landscape, currently receives little public financial support, though in reality it is these small farm operations and backyard gardens,( not the large farms that garner the bulk of tax subsidies), which provide the bulk of food for “farmer’s market” and “local Agriculture.”

Bear in mind that perspective is critical for understanding the role of Ag in Vermont’s economy. For instance, the often quoted statement that Vermont is the largest agricultural producer in New England is accurate, but fails to place that in context. New England is the least productive agricultural section of the entire contiguous United States and has the fewest farms of any region of the country.

Vermont has 6,984 “farms” as defined by the USDA. Vermont ag promoters are always telling the public that Vermont is an important “farm” state, but in truth, it’s a marginal place for agricultural production.

Connecticut, which is half the size of Vermont, has approximately 4,200 farms and far more people. But proportionally Connecticut actually has more farms than Vermont—yet few consider Connecticut an “agricultural state.”

But the real point is that there are not very many farms anywhere in New England. Maine just has 7000 farms. And Rhode Island is so small as to be unimportant, and New Hampshire is too rocky for much farming. Thus overall New England is marginal for agriculture. So the fact that Vermont is the largest agricultural producer in New England is only significant because the competition is extremely limited.

By comparison New Jersey, a state not known as a big agricultural producer, and one that is smaller than Vermont and with far more people, but with more favorable climate and geography has over 9,000 farms—2000 more than Vermont.

Indeed, the vast majority of states in the country are better for agriculture than Vermont. Vermont ranks 41st in the nation in terms of Agricultural output, just ahead of such “farm states” like Alaska and Rhode Island.

Comparative advantage is an important concept to understand. When it comes to agriculture, Vermont does not have a competitive advantage. There is a good geographical reason why the number of Vermont farms has shrunk over the past century. It’s cold climate, hilly terrain, and overall rocky soils make it uncompetitive with other agricultural production regions of the country. Even within the Northeast, other states like Pennsylvania (58,000 farms) and New York (34,500 farms) have better terrain and climate for growing most farm produce—and many more farms even after accounting for their larger size.


The USDA definition of a “farm” is one way that agricultural proponents exaggerate agriculture’s importance. According to the USDA a farm is "any operation that sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities or that would have sold that amount of produce under normal circumstances." This is a very low bar and results in unrealistically high number of “farms” found in Vermont. Thus someone who sells 25-30 Christmas trees and/or 15-20 gallons of maple syrup qualifies as a “farmer” by the USDA standard. Not to denigrate these efforts, but when the public hears there are more than 6000 farms in Vermont, they think of 6000 large scale operations with barns, fields, and so forth. In truth, only a small percentage of Vermont farms are that large—and there may be less than a thousand operations that would qualify as a “farm” as envisioned in the popular imagination.

To have an entire Dept of Agriculture, not to mention, many other agencies working to subsidize, help, and otherwise support such a small industry is an archaic relic from the time when the vast majority of Vermonters were indeed involved in farming. There are likely more full time software engineers and designers in Vermont today than farmers. Indeed, there are more car salesmen than full time farmers but we haven’t yet created a Dept of Computers and/or a Dept. of Car dealerships to aid and subsidize these industries, even though I think any realistic economic analysis would demonstrate that these occupations now employ far more people than farming. And while there is a “School of Agriculture” at the U of Vermont, we do not yet have a “School of the Automobile Industry” even though clearly there are far more jobs and direct use of cars by most Vermonters.

Though the USDA lists 6,984 farms in Vermont, most of those businesses do not provide a sufficient profit to support the operators without outside income. According to the USDA only 49% of Vermont farmers get their primary income from farming and many depend on outside jobs and other monetary sources to maintain their lifestyle choices. More than 58% of all Vermont gross less than $10,000, and the vast majority of Vermont’s farms are “hobby” operations that provide a little additional income and perhaps lifestyle values, but do not contribute appreciably to either regional employment, income or food production.

This is not to denigrate the contribution small farm operations might make to local food production but they are not an important economic engine for the state’s economy as implied by many Ag boosters.

Other than the relatively few individuals who own large farm operations and may make a significant income, most Ag jobs pay poorly. Even if it were possible to increase employment in Ag, most of these jobs would not pay a living wage. A public investment in almost any other industry would yield far better wages and jobs.

If the definition of a commercially viable farm operation were based upon the ability of that farm to provide a family a livable income, the number of economically viable Vermont farm operations would likely be less than a thousand. And contrary to popular assertions about how important Ag is to rural economies and employment, the reality is that the availability of outside employment is what supports most of Vermont’s farms rather than the farms supporting regional economies. It is the jobs as bus drivers, snowplow operators, teachers, etc. that provide the outside incomes to farm families that permits most “farms” to persist at all.


Because of the false and flawed assumptions about Vermont agriculture, this industry has been successful in acquiring a disproportionate amount of public dollars and favorable treatment in public policy (for instance exemption of farms from environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, etc.) However, public funds are not unlimited, and funds spent subsidizing agriculture either directly and/or indirectly because many costs are externalized (such as environmental degradation resulting from agricultural production that others must pay to fix) produces poor public policy that results in inefficient use of public resources.

For instance, one of the stated goals of the Farms to Plate campaign is to increase employment. Would a similar investment in say higher education and/or energy conservation produce more jobs in the state than spending scarce public resources on agriculture? Such comparison or cost-benefits are almost never considered because of the Sacred Cows that dot the Vermont landscape.

Below are a number of common myths often heard about agriculture with a short response. More detailed review is needed, but these responses can point the way towards the areas where greater scrutiny may be profitable. As with all myths, there is often a kernel of truth to them, however, the implied message often exaggerates the reality.

MYTH: Agriculture is important to Vermont’s economy. An often quoted figure is that Vermont’s agricultural and food product output is worth $2.7 billion a year.

RESPONSE: Farming actually makes up a small sub-set of Vermont’s economy. Since the mid-1800s there has been a gradual decline in Vermont farms and land in farm largely due to the comparative disadvantage of climate and terrain found in the state.

Indeed, some historians speculate that if Ohio and other rich agricultural lands in the mid-West had been available for white settlement in the late 1700s, Vermont may have remained largely a wilderness. And once those better farmlands were available, many a Vermont farm family in the mid-late 1800s migrated to those better lands.

The trend in farm decline has continued. In 1950 there were more than 11,000 dairy farms in the state, and by 2011, the number had fallen to less than a thousand.

Part of the decline is attributed to greater production per farm, so the total output in milk per cow has actually increased significantly—which is one reason why the alarm over the loss of farms is somewhat exaggerated. Fewer farms are producing more milk today than was produced by far more farms decades ago—while overall demand for milk products has not kept up with supplies resulting in lower prices for farmers.

Nevertheless, overall the economic value of farming to Vermont incomes is far less than commonly asserted. There are numerous ways in which economic value of Vermont’s farm production is an exaggeration.

First, Ag boosters combine many different employment sectors through the use of “multipliers” to exaggerate the value of Vermont agricultural production. The largest sector of the Ag employment is what is termed “Ag related employment”.

According to the latest available USDA data I could find (2002), Vermont had a total of 63,384 Ag employment jobs out of a total workforce of nearly 410,000 jobs. But the bulk of those jobs (44,331) are Ag wholesale and retail trade.

Among others trades and employment “Ag related employment” includes people who work in bakeries, micro breweries, and the checkout at the grocery stores. In at least one other similar study for Utah, I found that even waitresses were included among Utah’s “Ag workers” because they handled food—thus waiting on tables was considered to be Ag related employment. While it’s true that all of these workers handle agricultural products, most of these jobs would exist whether there were any farms in Vermont or not. The people working at Green Mountain Coffee, for instance, are included in the Ag related workers—yet the product produced, coffee, is not grown in Vermont. To attribute these jobs to Vermont farms and the Vermont farm economy is deceptive at best.

By combination of all these employment sectors, one gets a very big number—like $2.7 billion. But nearly all of that economic activity would exist whether there were farms in Vermont or not. People would still buy groceries at Shaw’s or Walmart and the value of those sales and employment would exist regardless of Vermont’s agricultural output.

Another way that employment figures are inflated is to count any employment that can be attributed to agricultural activities, whether Ag makes up the bulk of that job or sales or not is still counted as Ag dependent. For instance, a veterinary service whose business is largely focused on cats and dogs, but may occasionally treat a cow or horse will be counted by USDA as Ag dependent even though the majority of their income and business is non-Ag related. Similarly a store that sells a few tractors to farmers, while earning the bulk of their income selling ride on lawn mowers to urban and suburban dwellers is still counted by the USDA as an “Ag related” sector or employment.

In other words, there is no attempt to determine to what degree that any business is actually dependent upon Ag sales or what percentage of its income is derived directly from Ag. By lumping all these businesses that have even a remote connection to Ag as Ag dependent, the overall contribution of Ag to the state’s economy is greatly inflated.

MYTH: Vermont agriculture contributes to food security

RESPONSE: Vermont is 41st in agricultural production behind such states as Delaware and Rhode Island and Alaska—not exactly a high bar to surpass. The bulk of its commercial farm operations are dairy, yet Vermont’s share of dairy production is only 1.4% of value in dairy products nationally. So even what Vermont does best is relatively unimportant from a national Agricultural production perspective.

But the worse aspect of all of this is that the majority of all Vermont farmland does not grow food directly consumed by humans—rather the bulk of all farm acreage is devoted to livestock forage crops dominated by hay/pasture and feeder corn to feed cows. Over 330,000 acres were in forage production (hay, alfalfa, etc) and 91,000 acres were in corn silage.

By comparison farms growing vegetables only occupy 2,947 acres or a fraction of the more than 1.2 million acres of land considered as farmland.

This is not to suggest that Vermont could not obtain more of its own food in-state, but currently little agricultural production is directed towards producing human foods. Increasing production of locally grown fruits and vegetables is possible and desirable, especially if consumption of these foods were proportionally increased in Vermonters diets. Conversion of Vermont’s large grassy lawns into vegetable gardens and orchards could go a long ways towards achieving greater local food production. But most of this production would not and is not occurring on the bulk of today’s prime farmlands.

However, as previously mentioned Vermont does not enjoy a comparative advantage when it comes to food production. The state’s cold climate, short growing season, and terrain limitations means that the bulk of all Vermont’s food supply comes from outside of the state. Wheat can be grown far more efficiently and for less cost in other parts of the country. The cost of shipping wheat to Vermont from say North Dakota or Kansas is a very insignificant cost of the total price paid for any wheat product. (Energy used for transport is usually less than 1% of the energy used to produce any food product.) Similar competitive advantages exist for most other foods consumed in the state. Not to mention that many of the foods like oranges and bananas enjoyed by Vermonters daily could not be grown here at all and/or even if they can be grown here, like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are only seasonally available.

The majority of all American’s food calories come from grains, not from vegetables and fruits which make up the majority of food products available at local farmers markets. Foods like breads, pasta, baked goods, and so forth make up the majority of the calories in a typical American diet. Almost no grain is grown in Vermont. For example, only 379 acres of wheat are produced in Vermont. If “food security” were really the goal, Vermonters would shift the emphasis from dairy production to wheat and other grains, not wasting good farmland growing feeder corn for cows.

It is doubtful whether Vermont can ever provide for the majority of its food. That is not to suggest that encouraging more local production, including more backyard gardens, as well as food storage practices like canning and fruit drying isn’t desirable from a cultural and social perspective, but Vermonters are unlikely to get the bulk of their food from local sources. Nevertheless, a shift from dairy/livestock to small scale orchard, mixed vegetable and grain production could be encouraged by moving production from dairy/livestock.

MYTH: Eating local reduces greenhouse gases and energy use.

RESPONSE: There are many advantages to consuming locally grown foods, but a food mileage is not one of them. Transporting food consumes less than 1% of all the energy used in growing, processing, and getting food from the field to table. The biggest energy consumption in food production is the fertilizers, fuels for equipment, and processing/packaging food, not the energy used to bring the food to markets. Water transport, trains, and even semi trucks are fairly energy efficient in terms of per calorie energy used to bring food to markets. Making a special trip in one’s car to a farmer’s market to get some local strawberries will consume more energy and create far more greenhouse gases than if one purchased strawberries shipped in from Florida or California at the regular grocery store where all other food is purchased.

MYTH: Vermont's dairy cows and barns are essential to Vermont's tourism industry.

Response: While there are some people who no doubt are attracted to Vermont to see its bucolic landscape, whether farms are "essential" to tourism as often asserted by the Ag industry can be questioned. After all at the same time as the number of farms has declined, tourism has increased in the state. One could even assert flippantly that the decline in farms is responsible for an increase in tourism--though more likely people are attracted to Vermont for a host of reasons including its small communities, lakes, forested hills, ski resorts, and other factors and would continue to come to state even if there were no farms remaining.

MYTH: Vermont agriculture helps sustain healthy environment.

RESPONSE: Agriculture is the most destructive human activity globally. A third of the globe is devoted to agriculture—more than any other human activity. Since Ag is by definition the funneling of solar energy into a single or few crops and/or animals, it represents a significant biological impoverishment and loss of diversity. A corn field is a biological desert, and only ranks slightly more diverse than a Walmart parking lot. The 1.2 million acres of Vermont considered farmland is by far the most biologically disturbed and simplified landscapes in the state. By comparison your average subdivision with its shrubby and trees will have far more native wildlife and plant life than a typical farm field. This is not to suggest that subdivisions are desirable. Your typical urban lawn is also a major source of water pollution (due to excess fertilization), and many larger animals like bear are not sustained by urban land uses. Sprawl costs energy and fragments wildlife habitat.

Nevertheless, many species of native vegetation including aspen, birch, and maple are abundant in suburban housing tracts along with many native birds, insects, and small mammals, so that the conversion of a farm field to a housing tract may be an improvement in overall biodiversity from a strictly biological perspective, though still not nearly as biologically diverse as the native forest that once cloaked nearly all of Vermont’s acres.

Since more than 400,000 acres of Vermont’s landscape is devoted to field crops like alfalfa and/or corn. These monocultures have replaced native plant and wildlife communities to their detriment and more importantly have fragmented a lot of native plant and wildlife communities. Farming is far more responsible for wildlife habitat loss in Vermont than sprawl, but much of it occurred so long ago we consider it as the “norm.” Wildlife that tolerates degraded habitat like whitetail flourish with farming, but many other species including many native amphibians, birds that need interior forest and mammals like fisher and bear suffer when native forests are converted to agricultural fields.

Furthermore, many of these acres are soaked in pesticides and fertilizers, and are a major source for soil erosion and sedimentation in streams. For example, approximately over 70% of the runoff from the Missisquoi watershed is estimated to be from agricultural operations. Thus one of the major factors in the decline of Vermont’s aquatic ecosystems is the habitat degradation resulting from past as well as on-going agricultural practices.

However, since these environmental costs, including loss of wildlife habitat, water pollution, soil erosion are ignored and externalized by farmers and Ag boosters, the real cost to Vermont of expanding or even maintaining existing agricultural production is overvalued—since none of these negative costs are included in economic valuations. Instead they are transferred to the land which is degraded (i.e. the pollution of Lake Champlain by farming for instance) or transferred to taxpayers who pay for things like restoring species that are endangered, cleaning up waterways, and so forth. If these externalized costs were included in the cost-benefit of farming in Vermont, nearly all farming would be negative.

Indeed, it could be argued that the less farming (particularly dairy farming) that occurred in Vermont, the better for biodiversity and even for taxpayer pocketbooks. This raises an important issue. If we must accept at least some environmental degradation to grow food for ourselves, shouldn’t we be growing more crops that can be consumed directly by humans rather than processing that vegetation through domestic livestock like dairy cows?

MYTH: Vermont farms produce healthy food.

RESPONSE: The bulk of Vermont’s agricultural lands are used to produce dairy and meat or food that is unhealthy to consume in large qualities—as is typical in American diets. Both dairy and meat are both implicated in many diseases and health issues. For instance, according to the Physicians for Responsible Medicine, consumption of dairy products including cheese, yogurt, ice cream, milk, are high in saturated fats which are linked to heart disease and high blood pressure as well as contributing to obesity and diabetes. Consumption of dairy is also linked to prostrate, breast, and ovarian cancers.

Despite these well documented health risks, Vermont actually promotes the consumption of these unhealthy foods, much as southern states once promoted the consumption of tobacco products despite numerous studies linking their use to cancer. In truth, if the dairy lobby were not so powerful and aided by farm state legislators like Senator Leahy in Vermont, one could argue convincingly that milk and other dairy products should come with a warning label like tobacco products advising that consumption is a health risk.

If the health costs alone of dairy and meat consumption promoted by Vermont governmental agencies were included in the real cost of these agricultural products, the overall economic value of dairy production to the state would be negative.

MYTH: Investing state and federal funds in Vermont agriculture will contribute to significant employment opportunities.

RESPONSE: While there is no doubt that additional tax payer subsidies can increase employment in Ag production and products, it is also true that most direct employment in agriculture results in low wages positions to the extent that many farmers feel compelled to hire undocumented workers rather than employ Vermonters. Whether this is the best use of scarce tax dollars is the larger issue. Would a similar investment in say higher education and/or energy conservation result in more and perhaps better paying jobs than more agricultural subsidies?

For example, currently Vermont has one of the lowest state supports for higher education in the country. It ranks 48th in state support for higher education. The direct tuition cost to Vermont students of attending a Vermont state supported college or university is often as high as or higher than attending some other state universities and paying out of state tuition and fees. Yet study after study has shown that many of today’s high paying industries and businesses seek out an educated workforce.

Promoting higher education in Vermont is where the state could have a competitive advantage, in particular, when linked with other quality of life attributes such as small, safe communities and relatively low cost of housing (by regional standards). Not to mention Vermont is an attractive place for non-residents to attend school—bringing in outside dollars and promoting many high paying jobs in academia.

Alternatively investing in energy conservation in Vermont would have many long term advantages. Vermont has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation (hence the least energy efficient). Investing state dollars in reducing energy consumption would create thousands of jobs, make Vermont a far more competitive place for business by reducing energy costs, and keep Vermont dollars in Vermont instead of going to out of state energy companies.

I offer these only as examples of how investments in non-agriculture industries could ultimately produce far more employment as well as other benefits to the state compared to using the same dollars for a dying industry—namely Vermont’s dairy industry.

Farm to Plate Strategic Plan Page 12
Farm to Plate Strategic Plan Page 16.

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