Lawmakers in New Hampshire are considering a program that would convene industry, nonprofit and UNH representatives involved in the state’s local food and agriculture industry. The group would be charged with researching and reporting back to the Department of Agriculture. The bill’s sponsors are using Vermont as a model.
In fact, New Hampshire’s SB141 is based almost word-for-word on Vermont’s farm to plate bill, which passed that state’s legislature four years ago. The major difference is funding, says Senator Martha Fuller Clark, the prime sponsor of the NH bill. While Vermont has allocated $100,000 annually first from federal stimulus funds and then from their general fund – and more recently appropriated another $1.17 million in grant funding for businesses and technical assistance programs which will be distributed using the Farm to Plate guidelines — the New Hampshire bill will not have an appropriation at all.
- The key to success is giving all stakeholders — from pig farmers to foundations to lawmakers — ownership over the strategic plan. “It takes time, and it has to be built into the planning process itself,” Kahler says.
- “I think what would be terrific is if the Legislature in New Hampshire gave its blessing to that planning process, and then make a small allocation of funding available in exchange for the group presenting back to them. And that would then give that group the ability to leverage foundation dollars, and way more money, to actually get the plan done, and then present it back to the legislature.”
- But if the Granite State can’t invest funds, Kahler says, “at the very least having the Commissioner of Ag and her staff engaged to whatever degree they can would be a good first start.”
- Vermont was uniquely situated to implement a farm to plate program because of their Sustainable Jobs Fund – a nonprofit created by the state’s legislature in 1995. That organization, which has both state and private funding, was able to provide infrastructure and administrative functions for the farm to plate project. Kahler says she hopes an organization like the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute can serve that function for New Hampshire.
- In the meantime, Kahler warns, don’t stop moving forward with public policy or regulatory bills that would help an industry or subsector to grow, while you build a strategic plan. You can always go back and make modifications.
Do we need state funds?
Ellen Kahler is executive director of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which administers the Farm to Plate project. She says Vermont’s investment in the project has “allowed us to leverage twice as much in private foundation funding,” by showing that Vermont lawmakers were serious about stimulating jobs and the economy in the local food sector. The state’s investment also meant the legislature could require an annual report back on the project’s process. Kahler says because the funds are contingent on that progress, the legislature is able to create an accountability “feedback loop.”
Vermont was the first state to create a statewide farm to plate program, and is the only state to make a budget appropriation for it. Rhode Island has created a smaller-scale five-year plan similar to Vermont’s; Connecticut is more than a year into the strategic planning process; Massachusetts is in the “planning to plan” phase with funding from private foundations; and food funders are trying to move forward with a plan in Maine.
While Fuller Clark says while New Hampshire is “in no position to invest money in new programs,” there’s a possibility this bill could allow the Department of Agriculture to target some of their resources to “grow the local movement.”
How Vermont’s Program Works
Vermont’s Farm To Plate project is administered by the Sustainable Jobs Fund, a 501(c)3 that was created by the state’s legislature in 1995. Over the first year, the VSJF hired a six-person research team, and committed staff and interns to conduct a comprehensive inventory of the state’s local food ecosystem – documenting weaknesses from the state’s dairy infrastructure, to nutrient management. That process included a “stakeholder outreach” program that took input from 1,200 people and over 100 organizations, cost about $300,000, and took two and half years. The resulting plan, Kahler says, is over 1,000 pages long. Those 1,000 pages contain 25 goals. To give you a sense of them, the first goal reads “increase local consumption” of local food; goal nineteen reads “increase business planning and technical assistance” for producers and processors of local food. Kahler says their overarching ambition is to double the amount of local food consumed in the state from 5 to 10 percent.
The Vermont planners were committed to including just about anyone with a stake in the local food movement. They ended up with what comes off as a mess of bureaucracies, known as the Farm to Plate Network. That includes six working groups, eight task forces, and five “cross-cutting teams,” made up of individuals from the private sector, government agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions and capital investors. But, Kahler says, all those players are working together on “the big projects that no one organization can do alone.”
For example, a Meat Processing Task Force, made up of seven or eight organizations, meets once a month. They’re trying to reduce bottlenecks at slaughterhouses that reduce profitability. By cooperating, she says, they can go after new funding from the private sector and foundations that wouldn’t be available to the organizations individually.
Has It Worked?
To measure impacts of the project for farms, farm labor and agricultural production, VSJF is waiting for 2012 Census of Agriculture data. In the meantime, the network has raised $262,410 from private foundations. Last session, the Vermont legislature appropriated an additional $1.17 million for a related project called the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. Kahler says that money is flowing in because funders and the state “are seeing real results in terms of new jobs and new businesses.” She says the project “creates real momentum and energy, and everyone wants to be a part of it.”