Is Food Still Saving our Towns? The CAE’s Community Outreach in a Pandemic 

by Anna Kolosky, UVM Community News Service
courtesy photo | The Center for an Agricultural Economy staff in Hardwick packs local produce for delivery to food pantries.

HARDWICK – Growing up on a fifty-cow dairy farm, Jon Ramsay understands farming as essential to both his life and the lives of others. After working for the Vermont Land Trust for 21 years, Ramsay both runs his family farm as a beef operation and oversees a number of food initiatives as the executive director for the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE}.

Founded in 2004, The Center for an Agricultural Economy is a 501(c) non-profit organization that hosts a number of food initiatives like Just Cut, Farm Connex, and Everyone Eats! According to Ramsay, most of the programs focus on food access and finding ways to get local produce to Vermonters, especially with the onset of COVID-19.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of the food system conversation, but it also feels like we’re on a treadmill that’s going really fast right now, because of COVID,” Ramsay said. “Our work this last year led us to invest more in food access and we see a connection between food access and market access for farmers.” 

Through Just Cut, the CAE is able to take raw produce — such as beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbages and rutabaga — from local farms like Last Resort Farm and Naked Acre Farm, and prepare them for use in institutional kitchens, Ramsay said. Thus, the CAE is able to sell farm fresh produce in bulk to hospitals, K-12 schools and universities like the University of Vermont and Norwich University, Ramsay added.

“It creates a market opportunity for farmers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. When COVID hit, we shifted that program and started boxing produce for families and distributed it through our delivery service. Through that, we’ve been able to pack 65,000 pounds of produce.”

Based in Hardwick, Farm Connex is a local, small producer-oriented non-profit delivery service that now operates on a statewide level. From producers like Black Dirt Farm to Jasper Hill Farm, $5.2 million worth of local products were moved through markets for farmers in 2020 alone, Ramsay stated.

“We delivered meals for essential workers around the state through the Farm Connex delivery service,” Ramsay said. “In 2020, we distributed 65,000 meals to frontline workers around the state.” 

Similar to Farm Connex, Everyone Eats! was born out of the need to partner with restaurants and distribute food statewide. One way the CAE did this was by working with restaurants in Hardwick, like the Village Restaurant, to provide meals for community members, Ramsay noted.

“There was a community meal that the United Church of Hardwick did every week that provided meals to about 60, 65 people. When COVID hit, the church wasn’t in a position to keep it going. So we raised around $20,000, and our idea was to work with restaurants that were hit hard and have them make the meal.”

The restaurants were asked to source a percentage of their ingredients from local farmers, Ramsay said. The CAE would then pay for the meals with the funds they raised and distribute the meals to people who needed them. 

Partnering with local farms and educating the community about growing its own food has also been essential to the Center’s work, Ramsay said. The CAE works with over 150 local farms like Pete’s Greens, Jasper Hill Farm, and Myer’s Produce, and educates community members and high-school students on how to grow their own food, as well.

“We have a program called Grow Your Own that is about building leadership in the community and teaching people skills that are transferable to everyday life,” Ramsay said. “We also have a close partnership with the local supervisory union where we focus on incorporating entrepreneurship and youth voice and leadership in curriculum development.”

Even with all of this community outreach underway, the CAE still has big plans for future projects, Ramsay stated.

“We have a lot on our plate, and we’re working hard to understand our blind spots. We have big infrastructure projects related to Farm Connex coming up. We’re looking to expand our loan program and continue to increase market opportunities for farmers. So, we have a big list.”

While the results of these food initiatives have brought positive change, staying rooted in the reality of the pandemic is just as important, Ramsay added.

“It’s been a hard thing to balance all of these positive outcomes in what is a really tragic time,” Ramsay said. “We went through a surge of COVID in the Northeast Kingdom a couple of weeks ago, and it was one of the most difficult times. So, balancing and reconciling all of this and seeing how these initiatives pivot and evolve, I think, is going to take time.”