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67 Merchants Row
Rutland, VT, 05701
United States

(802) 417-1528

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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Closing the Gaps between Food System Education and the Needs of Today’s Farm and Food Businesses

Phil Gurley

By Sarah Galbraith

Vermont’s food system is strong, and growing. Newly released data compiled by Vermont Farm to Plate shows 607 new food manufacturing jobs in Vermont in the first half of 2012.  Additionally, there are new job titles in the classifieds, such as Local Foods Coordinator and Market Garden Assistant.

Increasingly, Vermont’s youth and adult learners are making educational and career choices that lead them to Vermont’s food system. There is an expanding list of food education and certification programs available for students of all ages. Stafford Technical Center’s culinary program incorporates visits to local farms and teaches students how to work with local foods.  Green Mountain College has undergraduate and graduate programs for sustainable agriculture and food systems.  Many GMC students intern at Rutland Area Farm and Food Link or become farm apprentices.  Graduates with farm businesses include India and Andy Farmer of Northeast Vine Supply, James and Sarah Elworthy of Liberty Farm,  Tim and Brooke Hughes-Muse of Laughing Child Farm, andKris and Adam Stevenson of Old Gates Farm.  “The undergraduate Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Program is one of Green Mountain College’s most popular majors, and the Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems program is growing much faster than anticipated, attracting students from all around the country,” says Program Director Philip Ackerman-Leist.

But are we doing enough? A recent study by the Education and Workforce Development Working Group of the Farm to Plate Network, Closing the Gap Between Food System Education & Employment asks, “What are the education and training needs of Vermont’s food system employers and is our education system aligned with these needs?”

There are many good signs that Vermont’s workforce can meet the needs of the growing food sector, including a ready and able workforce, strong leadership, innovators aplenty, an expanding food sector, and many high-quality educational opportunities. Still, as Closing the Gap shows, there are opportunities to improve current educational offerings to better meet the needs of today’s farm and food businesses.

Two researchers, Holly Tippett and Wendy Meunier, were hired to conduct interviews with Vermont food system employers and educators. Employers across all types of food business esexpressed frustration in finding qualified employees, from entry-level employees with basic math and writing skills to more skilled workers for positions like dairy herd manager, cheese maker,machinist, or quality control manager.

One value-added food producer interviewed for this study reported, “Folks that are in a college or a graduate program need to have a lot more hands on experience during the educational program for them to build skills. Education institutions should not really leave the training up to the businesses. They can’t afford to make mistakes to hire someone without enough experience.”A poultry farmer reported, “Based on the last 8 applicants, it is a valid statement that the lack of employable applicants is a major constraint in our growth.”

The Closing the Gap report gives 10 recommendations, such as developing clear pathways to food system careers from grades 7 and 8 through to post-secondary courses and degrees. Other recommendations include providing regular opportunities for educators and administrators to collaborate on food system curriculum, and to improve the role of guidance counselors in helping students identify and pursue food system careers.

Closing the Gap will be released at an upcoming half-day conference entitled Groundwork: Connecting Education with Employers. Researchers Tippett and Meunier will share their findings in a keynote address. The educators and employers in attendance will discuss the recommendations and identify ways to close gaps between education and employment.

The conference is on Tuesday January 15, 2013, at Vermont Technical College in Randolph from 8:30am to 2pm.  The event is being hosted by the Institute of Applied Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Technical College and co-sponsored by the Farm to Plate Network, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the VT Departments of Education and Labor, and the VT Agencies of Agriculture, Food & Markets and Commerce & Community Development.  The conference is $25 and includes lunch. To attend, please register in advance by visiting www.vtc.edu/groundwork.

Sarah Galbraith works for the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. VSJF, located in Montpelier, Vermont, was created by the Vermont Legislature in 1995 to accelerate the development of Vermont’s green economy.

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.