Looking back to look forward in Vermont

A recent article in the Burlington Free Press about local eating in Vermont covered much familiar ground — a mention of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book (“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”), some quotes from nearby locavores, and the inevitable “What about eating [fill in a tropical or exotic food]?” question. Most such articles end up as a sentence in the Digest, if that. Free Press reporter Tim Johnson rose above the normal standard by examining the past and present of the Vermont food system and citing several interesting reports about local eating, two of which I was able to find online. I was curious to see what scholars were saying about whether and how states with intemperate climates can provide for their residents, should everyone start shifting their dollars to local growers as Michael Shuman and others are urging us to do.

Cows in VermontVermont, located in frigid New England, would seem to be an impossible place for year-round locavorism, but before canals, railroads and interstate highways made long-distance food the standard in America, Vermont was mostly self-sufficient. Vermonters grew wheat, rye, peas, beans, oats, beef cattle, peaches, and many other crops. Wheat production in Vermont hit its peak in 1850 at 536,000 bushels, which would be enough to satisfy 38% of Vermont’s demand for wheat in 2002 (see notes at end of post). Wheat growing has moved to America’s breadbasket in the Great Plains; the USDA reports that the top three states are Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana, with almost 40% of the United States’ production. These days, Vermont’s main agricultural product is dairy — about 80% of farm revenue, with 85% of the products exported.

One of the studies was prepared in response to the 1970s oil embargo — “Land, Bread, and History: A Research Report on the Potential for Food Self-Sufficiency in Vermont,” by George C. Burrill and James R. Nolfi (available at the Vermont Peak Oil Network) — examined food consumption in Vermont and calculated whether the state’s farmlands could provide for all of the state’s residents. Chapter 1 recounts Vermont agriculture as a story of shifting production and consolidation driven by economic reasons. The authors conclude the chapter with the contention that society, not physical factors, is what will determine the extent of Vermont’s self-sufficiency. They next look at food consumption patterns, with the end result being an “average diet” that will be used to guide the authors’ self-sufficiency calculation, and then explain how they performed the calculation, including simplifications to the diet and inputs (e.g., 1 pound of beef required 0.0013 acres of pasture, 0.0012 acres of hay field, and 0.0002 acres of corn field).

The result: 478,000 acres would be needed to feed Vermont’s 1974 population of 470,000, an area then comprising somewhere between just 20% and 54% of the state’s land used for agriculture. In the 21st century, the population is 30% higher, with about 567,000 acres of cropland (not including noncommercial, private gardens) currently in production. Extrapolating from 1974 to the present gives a requirement of 630,000 acres, a shortfall of about 60,000 acres. However, back in the late 19th century, Vermont had over 3.2 million acres in agricultural production. Unlike many states, this land hasn’t been paved over; instead, much has reverted back to forest.

Burrill and Nolfi also estimated the effect of switching the population to an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet or vegan diet. Their estimate for the former diet was only 10% fewer acres, while the vegan diet required about 33% fewer acres.

The second report cited by the Free Press article is a 2006 master’s thesis submitted to the University of Vermont by David Timmons (available here) that considers how to quantify local food purchases. If you are interested in academic approaches to local eating, the introduction and literature review are certainly worth reading. Timmons first reviews the local food movement (and cites the oft-quoted report from the Leopold Center at Iowa State that calculated the average distance U.S. food travels to be 1,500 miles), then provides some “Classical Agricultural Location Theory” (which includes data on historical overland transportation costs) and literature review, then presents new methods of calculating local food consumption. Lacking detailed information about consumer purchases, the author uses publicly-available data to estimate local food purchases in each state in the U.S., ending up with two maxima and two minima that set boundaries on local food purchases. The two maxima are the amount of food produced within the state (residents can’t eat more local food than they produce) and the amount processed within the state. The two minima are the amount of direct purchases by consumers from farmers and the portion of national production by a state. The results span a significant range: local food purchases in Vermont comprise somewhere between one percent and thirty percent of the diet.

The final study cited in the Free Press article is a 1990 one from the Netherlands — neither title nor author is provided — that estimated the amount of land required to produce food for an average household of 2.4 people (presumably Dutch). The “menu” included meat, eggs, dairy, grains and vegetables, and would require 0.86 acres per household.

One very important thing missing from the above calculations of “acres per person” is how the food will be grown. Becoming self-reliant by setting up CAFOs, producing tasteless but fast-growing vegetables, and dumping huge amounts of chemicals on farmland is a fool’s errand; self-sufficiency must also be sustainable. Samuel Fromartz at Chews Wise put it nicely: “The problem with local is that distance gets the major emphasis, rather than environmental impact, the way the food is produced, or the myriad other issues to consider in reaching a higher food standard.”

With that in mind, it’s almost a good thing that the current food system is so entrenched; we need time to determine which techniques are truly sustainable, and which ones are merely mirages.

Notes: The wheat calculation was performed by Timmons using data from the Burrill and Nolfi “Land, Bread, and History” report and 2002 wheat consumption figures. Photo by Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, photo NRCSVT84001. Caption: “Dairy cows graze in lush pasture in central Vermont.”

2 Responsesto “Looking back to look forward in Vermont”

  1. Man of La Muncha says:

    The June 28 issue of The New York Review of Books touches on the changes in Vermont’s agricultural habits in its review of Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future”, which chronicles a year of eating locally in Vermont.

    You’ll have to find the paper version, or subscribe to The NYRB, to see the full version. A blurb is at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=20333.

    The bulk (2/3) of the article reviews Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” to which I say, “You are late to the party but welcome.”

  2. I had forgotten about McKibben’s writings about local eating in Vermont and also have been behind on the NYRB website (which frequently posts complete articles). Thanks for the reminders.