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Jack Zaleski, Published September 25 2011

Zaleski: Vermont’s blurry view of agriculture

When I spend time in Vermont, I like to talk with local people about their state and about mine. Agriculture often comes up, and I often am surprised at how ignorant (yes, that’s the word) they are about production agriculture of the kind practiced in North Dakota and other Northern Plains states. They just don’t get it. Sometimes it seems like they don’t want to get it.

Vermont is one of those places where “local” is sacred. The state has found a formula to grow local produce, meat and other foodstuffs and then sell them in local outlets, such as small-town general stores and cooperatives. Vermonters are proud of their apples, maple syrup, homegrown veggies, small dairies and grass-fed beef. But there’s a catch.

The “local” system seems to work for people who can afford such high-priced stuff. On average, locally produced milk and meat and “organic” produce cost a helluva lot more than similar items in a Price Chopper or Shaws supermarket in one of the cities. A family of modest means trying to feed three kids can’t afford the luxury of expensive “locally grown.”

In the state’s somewhat utopian conception of itself, the notion of big farms producing food for the nation and the world is anathema. The disdain for Midwest commodity-based agriculture is palpable.

While sucking on a Starbucks iced coffee (don’t ask), the Vermonters I talked with were so hung up on their skewed views about Midwest agriculture that they could not shed their biases about “factory farms,” for example. They believe, no matter the facts of modern production agriculture, that the land is drenched with pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. They believe feeding corn to beef cows is sacrilege. They suspect milk produced in traditional ways contains dangerous growth hormones. Somehow they have missed, or happily ignored, the changes in farming and processing practices that dominate modern agribusiness.

Vermonters who ought to know better (lots of Ivy Leaguers and ’60s folks in a time warp up there) think all agriculture should go “local” and that the world will be a better place if farming the Vermont way were the norm everywhere. Some of them really believe it can be.

Well, Vermont can’t feed itself, let alone anyone else. Vermonters would have to forgo those pasta dishes they love if they had to depend on Vermont farmers. North Dakota grows 70 percent of the nation’s durum, from which semolina is made. Vermonters would be hard-pressed to bake the wonderful breads they love without high-quality flours milled from North Dakota hard red spring wheat. Not much wheat grown in the rocky hills of Vermont.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a marvelous state. I love it. The beauty of those forested hills, river valleys and small towns is truly unique. Good people live there. The small-town, common-sense ethic we value among North Dakotans can be found among the people of the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. But when it comes to even an elementary understanding of Midwest production agriculture, they just don’t get it. Tell them the facts, and their eyes glaze over. So that is most disturbing: They don’t want to get it.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.