In Vermont, Innovation Advances Local Food Systems

This is the seventh in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards and preventive controls rule that FDA is proposing as we implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA). 

By: Michael R. Taylor

Innovation was the theme of our day in Vermont on Wednesday, Aug. 21. We visited food operations that have developed enterprising ways to make the most of local produce markets and to expand the options available to both growers and entrepreneurs.

Mad River Food Hub owner Robin Morris, right, gives a tour of the food distribution and processing facility.

Our first stop was at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. Food hubs are all about connecting small farms with markets. They distribute locally grown foods in a way that would otherwise be difficult for the owner of a small farm.

Owner Robin Morris has also provided space for the use of small food businesses. People who want to make and sell food but do not have their own facility rent space at Mad River, using the industrial kitchen, cutting room and other facilities there.

It’s an enterprising way to provide a critical service and is a central part of the economic model of a local food system. Small-scale entrepreneurs can get a start in a licensed facility, while keeping costs at a manageable level.

Robin is doing this as a business but also as way to give back to the local food system, whose broad, community-oriented values he strongly embraces. Robin and his team are very tuned in to food safety and part of the service they provide is to support the use of safe practices. Even though many of these small businesses are likely to be exempt from certain requirements under the proposed FSMA rules, they know they also have to meet their customers’ food-safety expectations, and Robin’s team helps them do that.

Later we stopped at Intervale Food Hub in Burlington for a great discussion with Travis Marcotte, Sona Desai and others who are playing leading roles in the food hub movement nationally. In addition to deepening our knowledge of the diverse food hub business models in New England and elsewhere, we had a great lunch in their big old red barn.

Mike Taylor in the hydroponic greenhouse with David Hartshorn, right, owner of Hartshorn Farm.

One of the most interesting stops on our trip was at the Hartshorn Farm in Waitsfield, where owner David Hartshorn has invested in a hydroponic facility in addition to his traditional organic farming operation. Hydroponics is a kind of agriculture that does not use soil – the plants are grown in nutrient-enriched water.

With one hydroponic greenhouse so far, David has a very high-tech system for growing lettuce with amazing efficiency. He estimates that he can grow as much lettuce in one-quarter of a hydroponic acre as he could on 10 acres of farmland. And crops could be grown all year round this way. Such diversification can help keep growers on the land, with real potential for growth. And you’ve got to love David’s entrepreneurial spirit!

Unlike the conversations in Maine and New Hampshire earlier this week, the conversations in Vermont were less about concerns that the federal government will roll over local growers with its proposed regulations, although the “don’t squash the little guy” message still came through.

This day was more about showing FDA how Vermont is using smart and creative tools to make local growers and food producers successful. What they are doing here is truly impressive and bodes well for the robust and highly diverse local food systems in New England.

Our last stop on Aug. 22 was in Massachusetts, where we received a warm reception from a key state partner—Greg Watson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Commissioner Watson and his colleagues joined us at a listening session at the Plainville Farm in Hadley. More than 150 growers and other stakeholders attended this session and expressed many of the concerns we’ve heard in the other states about the potential impact of these proposed regulations on their operations and on their very livelihood.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

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