By Tara Kelly
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job at RAFFL is sharing information with new organizations, especially those with similar efforts in supporting the local farm and food system. Friday turned out to be one of those days.
A few months back I was invited to be a guest speaker for a lunchtime seminar at a small college in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I had been recommended by a colleague from southern Vermont who is familiar with RAFFL’s work. Sometimes I will accept an invitation like this, trusting the instincts of the person who connected me, even though I have no idea what to expect. As the date approached, I realized I had never found out why they invited me and worried that it might not be worthwhile. Regardless, I printed off a set of directions on Wednesday, updated my presentation materials on Thursday, and headed down Route 7 on Friday morning.
As I passed through Bennington I recalled the different times over the past couple of years that I’ve spoken with various community development groups. Those memories bolstered my confidence as I crossed the border and pulled into my destination. Armed with Locally Grown Guides and the prerequisite PowerPoint presentation, I was ready to go.
As the room filled up, I had a chance to meet the professor who had invited me. Sarah Gardner, as it turns out, is totally immersed in her community and concerned about the future of farming in her part of the world. She has been guiding her students to think deeply about the role of farming in their area and why locally-controlled, independent farms are critical to the future of food and our communities. Her class has been conducting hands-on research to examine the dynamics of agriculture as it is now and how to influence its future for the better. That data will then be submitted to the area’s regional planning commission and other relevant groups. It all became clear – this was why I had been invited – good call Donald C. (the connector).
I quickly realized the significance of sharing the work we’ve done in the Rutland region, as well as throughout Vermont, to this particular group. I excitedly talked about RAFFL, how we came to be, the work we do, the supportive partners we have locally, and how we connect to statewide efforts. And I had the chance to reflect on how much things have changed in our region over the past eight years. Our region, and the rest of Vermont, is making headway. The work being done by farms, food enterprises, educational institutions, food system related trade associations, co-ops, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, private funders, and community groups are each a piece of the puzzle.
When I speak to groups outside of Vermont, the piece that fascinates folks is another critical layer of activity: the Vermont Farm to Plate Network. As local initiatives like RAFFL sprouted up in communities all over Vermont, it became clear that better coordination and communication would be helpful to all. The Farm to Plate Network provides structure for learning and coordinated action among food system stakeholders playing a role to advance the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan.
If you are interested in farm and food issues, you will want to check out this plan. It is chock-full of data, analyses, and strategic actions. The power of having this comprehensive plan is immense and should be put into use by many types of people. This plan is critical to helping legislators and private funders better understand the issues and guide investments. RAFFL heavily relies on this resource to supplement our own local understanding of farm and food issues as we set priorities that will have the greatest long-term impact. And, private farms and other food enterprises can find useful data to inform their own business decisions.
Groups like the folks I spoke to in Williamstown yearn for the level of support available from statewide networks like Farm to Plate and the state’s Agency of Agriculture. Talking with them about it helped me to remember and appreciate that together we are making headway toward shaping the future of our state’s rural economy.
Tara Kelly is Executive Director of Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL).
Find information about the Farm to Plate Network and the plan at: www.vsjf.org
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.