On November 8, 2017

New challenges being addressed in food economy

Over 270 members of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network convened Oct. 26-27, 2017 at the seventh annual Farm to Plate Network Gathering in Killington to address workforce development and business succession challenges in Vermont’s farm and food economy.

The local food economy is growing and gross local food sales currently account for approximately 7 percent ($189 million) of total food sales (compared to 5 percent in 2010). Food manufacturing is one of the few growing manufacturing sectors in Vermont and the food system employs 64,000 Vermonters.

“The Farm to Plate Network’s efforts to implement Vermont’s food system plan has resulted in greater collaboration in our farm and food economy and has led to strong job growth, economic development, and improved local food access—all goals of the plan,” said Jake Claro, Farm to Plate director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. “However, as the farm and food economy grows and more jobs are created, we are seeing workforce challenges for both employees and employers.” 

Many food system businesses report they have trouble finding work-ready employees, and that this lack of labor is stifling their ability to grow. Businesses report that entry level skills such as timeliness, accountability, work ethic, and basic writing and math skills are hard to come by. Additionally, food system jobs are often perceived as being low-wage with low-benefits and offer little room for career advancement, resulting in employers having trouble attracting talent. Contrary to these perceptions, Vermont Department of Labor data indicates that many of these jobs offer competitive wages, alongside a good quality of life, and an opportunity to be part of a growing sector of Vermont’s economy. 

At the Farm to Plate Network Gathering, Dan Smith, president of the Vermont Community Foundation, led a panel discussion on how to further address workforce development challenges.

With the overall economic growth in Vermont’s food economy over the last decade, more food businesses beyond farms have emerged as significant economic drivers in the state, and with their growth has come questions and concerns about who will own and operate these businesses into the future.

Anson Tebbetts, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, led a panel discussion to examine different perspectives on why businesses sell, why ownership matters, how owners make decisions between different succession and ownership options, and why it’s never too early to talk about exit strategies.

With more than 30 percent of the state’s farmland currently owned or managed by farmers older than 65, and 91 percent of those farmers working without an operator under the age of 45, farmland succession planning has been a topic many food system stakeholders have been working to address over the past two years.

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