By Julia Purdy
WEST RUTLAND—Greg Cox, well known for his involvement in the Vermont Farmers’ Market and the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center on West Street, is a contender for a Senate seat representing Rutland County. Cox also operates Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, where he cultivates vegetables – and young farmers-to-be.
Originally planning to run as an independent, Cox decided he would have a better chance as a major-party candidate, so he’s running as a Democrat. As senator for Rutland County, Cox wants to make Rutland County a success story by developing a robust agricultural economy here.
The Mountain Times caught up with Cox at his farmhouse.
As a self-described “dirt farmer,” educator and activist, Cox, 67, credits two main influences for his passion for farming: a childhood spent in the countryside and the old-time Vermonters he has gotten to know.
Cox was born in Queens, New York, but when he was 8 his family moved to Long Island farm-country.
“I grew up working with my grandmother. She was perhaps the most influential person in my life. My grandmother had instilled so much in me with saving seeds and growing food, it just became part of my life.”
Next door and down the road lived aunts, uncles, and cousins – an extended family that furnished “a sense of belonging and value and worth… it was all about giving and caring, being immersed in nature.”
He chose to attend college in Johnson because it was small and close to Canada, where he yearned to live self-sufficiently “in the woods,” he remembered.
“I met the old-time Vermonters. They had such a connection to the earth and nature and each other,” he said.
At Johnson State, Cox spent four years studying education to be a teacher, “but probably by my junior year I knew I wanted to be a farmer, because I literally had fallen in love with these folks.”
After college he became a caretaker on the old Mooney farm in Wallingford.
“I had no experience, I had a great work ethic, and I really began to learn about agriculture, food, animals, their interrelationships, and forestry and I basically learned by going, reading, doing, and I just was hooked. I would never be the same … I never stopped the thought process on what could be and how to make it happen.”
Dreaming big, with a knack for entrepreneurship, in 1977 Cox turned to raising turkeys in Wallingford. Back in the day, he explained, “Vermont tom-turkeys were the talk of the nation, and how we fed New York and how we fed Boston. I became one of the largest turkey producers in the state of Vermont. The food police had not yet arrived, so I was able to sell uninspected poultry to virtually every restaurant in Rutland County and I sold them at the farmers’ markets. We sent suckling pigs to New York City, chevon which is milk-fed goat to New York City, we had specialty markets. We did very well.”
As he became more rooted in the community he became aware of the connections between poverty, food and social justice. “That became one of my new passions and still remains that today… There is no lack of opportunity in that area and there is no lack of need.”
Drawing on his experience, Cox sees a direct link between the drug epidemic and the lack of health and opportunity.
“Drugs are the symptom, not the problem,” he said. “The problem is economic, powerlessness, because you see the haves and have-nots. You begin to blame yourself. You see society culturally breaking down, because we are all struggling, families are struggling. Drugs make you feel good so kids turn to drugs.”
The untapped potential of the big metropolitan markets to the south fueled Cox’s sweeping plan to put Rutland County back on its economic feet as a wholesale supplier of Vermont foodstuffs to those areas.
“Looking at the food dollars, and being on the ground level and going to meetings for almost two years, I realized that perhaps as our industries began to leave our area, we could backfill a lot of those industrial jobs with agricultural jobs.
“Vermonters collectively spend annually $2.5 billion to feed ourselves,” he continued. “We were the leader, but we were only at about 5 percent of local food.”
The state, and Rutland County specifically, could spur its economy if we focused on more local food, he said. “We could not just feed ourselves, but with a very small population, a large land mass, and 9 million hungry people in New York City alone, not counting Boston – some of those historical markets could in fact be part of the solution.”
Then there is the multiplier effect, Cox said. He said that Ken Meter, an agricultural economist and local food security expert out of Minneapolis, determined that every dollar spent on local food generated $2.6 in economic activity.
“We will make Rutland County a pilot for a solution, basically resurrecting an agricultural economy that will bring people here, that will make people healthier, not just physically, but economically,” he said.
When he began to see this, he began to plan in earnest. “I got involved with the farmers’ market, came up with the idea of the 52-week farmers’ market, worked on it, implemented it, and made it happen. The farmers’ market grew from $500,000 gross sales in 2007 to in excess of $2 million in gross sales in 2016,” he said.
The group formed a nonprofit called the Vermont Farmers’ Market Education Center. They had already identified the main obstacle to creating a true agricultural economy.
“It was the infrastructure that was no longer here,” Cox explained. “Where the TD Banknorth ATM building is, there was Vermont’s largest food storage-aggregation-distribution facility. There were Vermont turkeys, wool, lamb, sugar, dairy, vegetables, they all went to New York. We can do this again. … It’s a long-term plan, but we can get there by putting one foot in front of the other.”
Cox said a Vermont Farmers’ Food Center survey of New York City food stores asked if they would carry Vermont food products.
“We have to act now. We can’t be talking about it anymore. We have to come up with the funds… It’s easier as a senator because you have the ability to make some of those connections within the state and you have credibility,” he said, noting that the VFFC was recently approved for an $80,000 USDA planning grant to hire Ken Meter to do an agricultural assessment of Rutland County. “It will give us data that will inform the business plans, and that then puts us first in line for the implementation funds, that is $3-5 million of USDA money.”
“Our economic needs have been overlooked for too long, and we need to work together to come up with a reasonable plan that we can pitch and somebody will listen. I think I have a better chance of doing that than virtually anyone else who is running,” Cox told the Mountain Times. “It’s what I have done for the past 30 or 40 years. I think this is the natural next step, to view Rutland County as one large community working together. I have a lot of friends that are staunch Republicans that are ready for a change, that view me as somebody that gets things done. The Democrat label wouldn’t stop them.”