Vermont is using an innovative approach and philosophy for creating economic development and growing local jobs through the food system. Building on consumer demand and interest in local foods and farming, in 2009, Vermont’s legislature passed a law directing the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) to develop a Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. The goals of this 10-year plan are to increase economic development in Vermont’s food and farm sector, create jobs in the food and farm economy, and improve access to healthy local foods. Then VSJF launched a Farm to Plate Network to provide a structure to coordinate action on the Plan, as I have written about in previous blog posts for year one and year two.
Insights from the Vermont Farm to Plate Network
Now, three years in, the Network has 300 organizational members (e.g., businesses, non-profits, educational institutions, capital providers, state agencies) and we are starting to see the results. According to the recent 3-year update on Farm to Plate “since 2009—when Farm to Plate legislation was passed and the national recession ended—Vermont’s food system added at least 2,162 jobs and 199 establishments.” A recent Vermont Public Radio show, entitled, “Farm to Plate: From Plan to Reality?” featured Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of VSJF, reflecting on what has worked.
The philosophy underlying their approach is for the network to take a systems view and invest in core elements that work together to create conditions for economic development. In a sense, they are strategic investments in creating a “field” that enable all the players to self-organize to be more effective. While there are many aspects that make this initiative effective, I’d like to highlight some key elements that work together synergistically and illustrate the power of a systemic, strategic, networked approach:
Strategic Plan as Market Research for the Field – Developing the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan involved public events that got input from 1,200 people, 250 interviews, working sessions, and data collection, plus more events to analyze, synthesize, and prioritize goals and actions for the food system as a whole and its parts. The full plan was shared freely and publicly on the web (click here to see it on the VT Food Atlas web site.) Ellen said “we had the entrepreneur and farmer in mind when we developed the strategic plan. We were looking for data and trends that were market research. These small businesses don’t have dedicated staff to do market research. We wanted to provide a more comprehensive view of what was changing in marketplace so they could take advantage of opportunities.” She shared the story of how Robin Morris, an entrepreneur, studied the plan as he developed a business plan for his business. Data showed that smaller producers wanted to make value added food products but did not have the capital and resources to have a building/equipment that could meet food safety regulations. He developed the Mad River Food Hub, a 4,000 square foot shared use facility that farmers and food entrepreneurs can rent to make value added meat and vegetable products. Ellen said “he used the Strategic Plan to inform his decisions about what type of food hub to create, e.g., the level, size, scale, and scope of the business.”
(Note: I think this approach of the state investing in market research and strategic planning from the perspective of the food system as a whole and the farmer/entrepreneur is innovative. More typically, a strategic plan is developed from the perspective of what the state or one actor in the system can do.)
An Infrastructure Continuum, with Technical Assistance and Financing – The Strategic Plan looked across all aspects of the food system. Ellen said “we recognized the need for an infrastructure continuum. Often we have people starting to make products in their kitchen, then they need to graduate into a shared use facility, and then graduate to a co-packer, and eventually, they can grow to their own facility. We needed to have all types of infrastructure available in the state, as well as good technical assistance and financing to help businesses in each stage.” One early task in the Network was to create a Working Group that brought together all the technical assistance providers helping farms and farm businesses so they could align and coordinate their work and services.
Likewise, a Finance team did similar mapping out to index and align the various types of financing vehicles available through stages of business development. Ellen said “if the state (not just government) could provide the environment, businesses will invest and grow.”
Networked Collaboration with a Common Agenda and Systems View – Vermont already had a lot of activity in local food and farming. Ellen reports “we have seen an increased amount of collaboration because of Farm to Plate. We have a common agenda and a plan with a basic road map, which enables people to see a bigger picture of the opportunity and illustrates where their organization can have a role. The Network enables state agencies, businesses, and non-profits, to share market intelligence in a much faster way. That then leads to really creative innovative ideas that I don’t think would happen otherwise.” The Network coordinates and invests in research, convening, and other big projects that no one organization can pull off alone.
In summary, this story illustrates several valuable roles that a network can play to enable a large system to shift toward a new goal:
- Aggregate knowledge of the field – Conduct and share research, survey people across the system, etc. to synthesize information about the state of the field, the needs, opportunities, and barriers to progress. This data can help each organization’s strategy as they focus on where they can add value and identify the most important areas for joint collaboration, investment, and action.
- Align work and infrastructure – We typically do not take a systems view so the various parts of a system tend to be fragmented and unaware of each other’s work. In the example of the technical assistance providers, the Network helped align and coordinate their work so they could see gaps and overlaps, where they could collaborate, and how they could ensure the state had the continuum of services that farmers and entrepreneurs needed.
- Connect and learn together – Regular network gatherings, work group meetings, the on-line Atlas, newsletters, and the hundreds of strengthened personal relationships provide multiple ways for information to flow more quickly across the system. This enables all parti
cipants to be smarter about their work and what they can do together to speed progress, as well as learn together over time as they have access to broader “market intelligence” through their network connections.