Q&A: Chuck Ross, from farm family to farm chief

first_imgGovernor Peter Shumlin’s appointment of Chuck Ross as secretary of agriculture won praise from Vermont farmers as well as political insiders. Ross, 55, is well known for his work as Senator Patrick Leahy’s state director for the past 16 years. He also served six years in the Vermont Legislature as a representative from Hinesburg, where he has worked as a farmer on his family’s homestead. Discussion with Chuck Ross, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Part 1 More videosVermont Business Magazine reporter Kevin Kelley recently spoke with Ross about his plans for the state’s agricultural economy. An edited transcript of the hour-long conversation follows (video of the interview can be found by clicking the picture above. All five parts of this interview can be found by clicking “More Videos” or going to www.vermontbiz.com/videos):         VBM: Please start by telling us about your background in agriculture.        ROSS: Two aspects of my background are relevant. One is certainly my experience working with Senator Leahy on the Agriculture Committee, on dairy and other farming issues.        The other part is that my family has been involved in agriculture for generations, both on my father’s and mother’s side.My father is a native Vermonter, seventh generation. His family owned an orchard on Lake Champlain and exported apples from their dock before World War I. They also raised trotters and owned a wood lot in Huntington where we cut Christmas trees.        I was running a part of the family business with 500 acres of square-baled hay in Hinesburg. I also managed farm operations in Iowa on land that was on my mother’s side. Her family were original sod-busters in Iowa.        VBM: In your work with Leahy you became probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on the complex subject of price supports for agriculture. What would you say is the likelihood that Vermont dairy farmers might finally get good, stable pricing for their product?        ROSS: Some years ago we started the interstate dairy compact which passed in Congress largely through the efforts of Sen. Leahy. It worked really well for the Northeast dairy community but it was never a permanent law; it always had a sunset provision. Dairy politics led to its demise because it not seen as being as favorable to other parts of the country with dairy interests.        Prices have been volatile since then. I remember about five years ago sitting in Sen. Leahy’s office with Vermont dairy farmers who wanted him to fix the problem. We said the senator can’t fix the problem unless his colleagues hear from their own farmers that they want a solution as well. Rather than lobby us, who are already supportive, we suggested they reach out to dairy farmers around the country.That led to a lot of Vermont dairy farmers flying around the country on their own nickel, which in turn led to awareness of the need for a new dairy pricing system and a unified approach for such a proposal.        Until about a month or two ago, it had the support of both processors and producers, but as it came closer to becoming an actual legislative proposal the processors broke away.        Congress is in a difficult place right now. They don’t need more budget impacts and they don’t want to jump into managing a divisive conversation about dairy. We’ve gone from having a great chance to see a unified dairy community pushing for a proposal that Congress would be quite likely to take up, to a situation that isn’t as positive.        But I haven’t given up hope. There’s still a good chance we can get something done. We’ve got a well-placed delegation from the Northeast.        VBM: Speaking of budget impacts, Congress is making lots of cuts in lots of programs. What do you think will be the effect in Vermont of Congress’ cuts in agriculture?        ROSS: The proposal we’ve been working on is believed to actually produce a savings for the budget, but it has not been scored by the CBO [Congressional Budget Office], and that’s the acid test.        We’re not immune from federal budget cuts on other fronts. It will play out in the farm bill with potential reductions in nutrition programs, which help people buy food, and probable reductions in conservation programs, which help fund practices that mitigate impacts on water quality in the state.        Energy programs involving agriculture will take a big hit. There will be a cut in the Agriculture Innovation Center supported by Sen. Leahy that has helped fund Vermont farmers on energy programs and in diversifying agriculture. It was going to be funded for a million dollars and it just got zeroed out.        VBM: Governor Shumlin speaks of an agricultural renaissance in Vermont. What’s your strategy for making that happen?        ROSS: I’m actually very bullish on Vermont agriculture because we have a foundation, built by the dairy community, that includes the critical assets of farm land as well as highly talented businessmen and businesswomen. They’ve had to be highly talented in order to survive the recession of the past two years. We also have access to a powerful market stretching from Montreal, to Boston, to New York.        As for the renaissance, there are young people interested in agriculture ‘ some of them trained specifically in it, others educated in fields that have given them an interest in agriculture. They’re smart and motivated.Vermont is seeing an increasing number of non-dairy farmers but we’re also seeing an increase in dairy farmers. Yes, a lot of dairy farms are going out, but they’re also coming in. Some of them are organic or diversified farms.        The renaissance of agriculture in Vermont is mainly about dairy. You’ve got Commonwealth [a yogurt maker] starting up in Brattleboro as well as all the artisanal cheese makers. Vermont is recognized as one of the top three artisanal cheese locations in the world; there’s us, Quebec and France.        Our biggest challenge in the agency is providing the regulatory support to make the renaissance continue and expand.        VBM: Part of it has to do with community-supported agriculture [CSAs: farms that grow food for distribution to prepaid members.] There are more and more CSAs around the state, right?        ROSS: Yes, and there’s also the issue of slaughter facilities, making them more widely available for Vermont farms that raise animals. There’s a lot of demand for infrastructure support.        We’ve also had the growth of a whole food hub in Hardwick, which has been a bright beacon on the agricultural landscape in Vermont. But Hardwick isn’t alone. You can look at the Intervale right in Burlington which, despite the problems with composting, has been a raging success. There’s talk of having a food processing center there.        We’re also seeing it happening in Rutland, which has historically been quiet on agriculture. Now there’s a group there called RAFFL [Rutland Area Farm and Food Link] that’s creating local food hubs. If you go to the farmers’ market in Rutland, you’ll see it’s really dynamic.        VBM: The whole localvore ethic is important for Vermont ag, right? Maybe we’ll see more farms with non-traditional products.        ROSS: Yes, we have an increasingly diverse agricultural economy, but dairy will continue to be a huge and necessary part of it because of dairy’s support for infrastructure. Dairy has also kept the land open in Vermont and put opportunities in place.The localvore ethic helps new farmers stand up their businesses and get to the point of scaling up their businesses.Learning how to support a local agricultural economy is important for its positive health benefits as well as agricultural and economic benefits. Fletcher Allen has spent years figuring out how to source food locally. The hospital is buying food from the Intervale because it’s healthy and tasty for its clients. Dollars meanwhile go into the local economy and not away from it. It closes a circle by supporting local producers who are supporting your mother who may be in the hospital.VBM: What about agro-tourism? Do you think that will be important to Vermont’s farming sector?ROSS: I’d say agro-culinary tourism. We’re looking at proposals to build that market, working closely with the Agency of Commerce. I actually spend more time with Lawrence Miller [secretary of commerce] than with anyone else outside my own agency.Agro-culinary tourism does offer a tremendous opportunity. Vermont is becoming a popular food destination. NECI [the New England Culinary Institute] has had a big impact in populating our towns with people who know how to cook.VBM: You’ve been in office four months and have at least 20 months more to go. What do you want to achieve in this term? What’s the one biggest thing you want to achieve?ROSS: I’d like to assist in the implementation of Farm to Plate [a 10-year strategic plan to strengthen Vermont’s food systems.] It will be a comprehensive road map for how to build the future of agriculture.I would also like to participate in passing national legislation on dairy pricing. It’s something that’s beyond my control because it’s on the federal level, but I can certainly help if we do go in that direction.I also want to see us make strides on more effectively addressing water quality issues.Agriculture is part of that but it’s not by any means exclusively so. The problems that we have in Lake Champlain, for example, were not created in the past five years and are not going to be solved in the next five years. They’re a product of our society over the past 50 years or even 100 years. It’s not fair, in my view, to hoist today’s farmers on the petard of yesterday’s failures and to tell them you’re responsible for solving the problem.It will take years for Lake Champlain to get better. We have to all take responsibility for making that happen.The risk Vermonters face on the water quality issue is that we’ll stand among ourselves and point fingers, saying, ‘you’re the problem; no, you’re the problem.’‘ We should instead be standing together with our arms locked.There’s a lot of emotion around this issue but it needs to be channeled in a constructive way.        VBM: Let’s go back to the dairy situation in Vermont. Production is up even though there are fewer farms and even fewer cows. Do you think that trend will continue?        ROSS: Production fluctuates, but if the price of milk stays relatively stable I do expect production to go steadily up in Vermont. The reason is there’s a level of demand for our exports that we haven’t seen in a while.        Historically, prices move in a cyclical direction, so they’ll probably go down again at some point.        Yes, there has been a decline in the number of farms, but that’s been offset in terms of production by more efficient management and improvements in bovine genetics. Also, our dairy farmers are as good as any in being able to squeeze a little more output from their inputs.        VBM: Is it inevitable that Vermont dairy farmers will rely more on BST [bovine somatotropin, an injected growth hormone that increases cows’ milk production]?        ROSS: No. Consumers aren’t demanding it. We’re actually seeing an awakening of consumers’ interest in how their food is produced, who’s producing it and where. That’s expressing itself all over the country, especially in New England.        In Vermont, which is a small place, people can know who the farmers are, where that special cut of beef comes from, who produces their milk and cheese. Cabot has seen phenomenal growth in a declining market for cheese because they produce a great product.        VBM: So there’s an opportunity for marketing Vermont as BST-free?        ROSS: There was an upsurge in farmers’ use of BST and then consumers started asking questions about it and we saw many producers move away from it.        VBM: How widespread is the use of BST in Vermont now?        ROSS: I don’t have those statistics. The agency’s budget is being slashed and we don’t have the personnel to collect those stats.         VBM: Are there technologies related to agriculture that are being developed in Vermont that we might export to other states?        ROSS: Bio-digesters leap to mind. We’re the No. 1 state in bio-digesters per capita. This is a wonderful technology that helps farmers manage manure systems and produces a product that farmers can use. Bio-digesters also burn up methane which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.        It’s a technology that’s also generating research opportunities at the University of Vermont. They’re exploring ways to mitigate the methane emissions of cows by looking at the ruminant systems of cows. Getting better bugs into the digesters would also allow them to generate more methane.        The aim is to drive the economics of methane digesters to they can be used on ever-smaller farms. Right now, they make sense for a farm of one size but not of another.        VBM: We should talk about climate change. It’s the elephant in the room for a lot of the issues we have been talking about. Maybe Vermont will jump up one agricultural zone so we become where Connecticut is now. That will have both positive and negative effects.        ROSS: You need to be careful about being a fortune teller. If the climate does change, which I personally believe is happening, that’s going to make it more difficult for us to do some of the things we’re doing now but maybe also give us some opportunities we don’t have today.        Vermont can play a role in initiatives to mitigate climate change. If we can figure out how to produce ethanol from material besides corn, that will be an opportunity for Vermont farmers. Certain grasses could be made into a biofuel that would be an alternative to Number 6 or Number 2 heating oil.        Being able to leverage bio-digesters so they can be used on a greater number of farms will help mitigate the greenhouse gas impact.        Climate change could also bring us more invasive species, causing sugar maples to be crowded out in the forest. Buckthorn is a classic example of that.        VBM: So the Shumlin administration doesn’t have a definitive plan for dealing with potential climate change?        ROSS: I’m not aware of any definitive plan. I am aware of us working with the governor to figure out the most effective roles we can play on this issue.        Climate change is one of a number of ecological issues we’re facing in the 21st century. It may be the most important one, but it’s certainly not the only one. It will take a long-term effort to address it, and that’s not something you’re going to develop in the first three months of an administration.        VBM: How’s the Vermont apple industry doing these days?        ROSS: One of the biggest problems confronting apple growers in recent years is the ease with which they can get workers in from Jamaica to help them. Some of the Jamaicans have been coming here for generations ‘ 30 years to the same farms. These aren’t foreign workers who represent a threat to us or who are using all kinds of social services.        VBM: The same is true for dairy, isn’t it?        ROSS: Dairy farmers and apple growers are willing to employ Vermonters, but they aren’t getting them to sign up for these jobs. Just as the Irish and Italians did a couple of generations ago in the granite industry and textile industry, workers from Mexico and Jamaica are fulfilling an important role in agriculture. It’s important to remember that they were us a few generations ago.        VBM: Do you see Vermont wines as a growth sector or is that always going to be just a niche product?        ROSS: We’ve got two outstanding commodities now in maple syrup and milk/cheese. Are we going to get to the place where we compete on wines with California? I expect not. But we can get more competitive within a niche market.        Vermont has a lot of cachet. One of our opportunities is to leverage that cachet so we can do with Vermont wine what we’ve done with artisan cheese.Vermont meat is highly desired in certain marketplaces, so we’ve got to continue to ensure it’s of high quality because that’s what people are willing to pay for, which gives us better than an average price for the products we produce.        Vermont wine continues to grow as a commodity, and we will see our vintners get better at making it.        VBM: In introducing you and Lawrence Miller, Gov. Shumlin said something to the effect of ‘this is my jobs team.’ Can you talk about how agriculture can be a source of job growth and economic development in Vermont?        ROSS: I’ve been studying agriculture for much of my life, and I know it’s often overlooked as a fundamental part of our economy. There are agricultural businesses on Vermont Business Magazine’s list of the top 100 companies in the state. There are also some agricultural enterprises that don’t appear on your list but that should. Some of them would show up in the middle and some near the top of that list.        You may not think of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters as an agricultural business, but that’s what it is. Green Mountain imports an agricultural commodity, processes it and then exports it.        Governor Shumlin is right in saying that agriculture and commerce belong together. Farming is not some luxury habit that people engage in here. There may be a few of those, but when you talk to Vermont farmers, you’re talking to business men and women who know how to operate a tractor and how to balance their books.        The dairy industry alone accounts for some $2 billion a year in economic activity in Vermont. If we grow locally the amount of food we consume in Vermont, that will add 1,500 jobs in the next 10 years in agriculture. It’s not going to happen in one place, so it may not be as visible as a business that grows in one place.        If you want to know how to spend a dollar most effectively in the local economy, the answer is through agriculture. Farms are so plugged in to the local hardware store and feed store. When I was farming, I was in my town all the time buying stuff.        People continually miss the pervasiveness of agriculture in their local economy. Kevin Kelley is a freelance writer from Burlington.last_img

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