Summer 2005

Vern Grubinger
Vern Grubinger. English photo.

By Jean English

© 2005. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the author.

Vern Grubinger’s epiphany was the topic of his keynote speech at MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor last November [2004]. He was the vegetable and berry specialist with University of Vermont Extension, but realized that nobody was going out of business from lack of knowledge about how to grow vegetables. “The challenges to farmers are actually much broader – the marketplace and regulations and labor and intergenerational transfer … That’s one reason I’ve been directing the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture for the past 10 years,” he noted, adding, “Just giving production talks was a lot easier.”

Grubinger confessed that he got off on the wrong foot early. His mother was a tour guide in a Twinkies factory, and as a child he visited the giant factory after school, watching “the quivering little yellow things coming down” the production line. “I’ve got to tell you, a Twinkie hot off the press is a heavenly gift to the taste buds if you’re nine years old. Never mind that they are loaded with saturated fats and sugars and other unhealthy stuff … I would chow down on these things,” adding Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos to his diet as well. “In hindsight, who would ever think of eating stuff that’s named Ding Dongs and Ho Hos?” he asked. “There’s something so transparently wrong with that!”

We’ve come a long way, Grubinger pointed out, with the government starting to require labeling of trans fats in foods; with General Mills switching to whole grains in its cereals. “There is a sea of change under way, but there’s still a long way to go.” In fact, the company that makes Twinkies filed for bankruptcy protection last fall, creating “mixed feelings” for Grubinger, he joked.

Cherish the Planet

Last summer Grubinger read the book Cod, concerning the decimation of this once-abundant fish. In the 1970s, when the cod industry was dying, “countries were investing [some] 90 billion dollars to extract 70 billion dollars worth of fish. It didn’t even make economic sense … we were just propping up all these systems that were in place.” The lesson, he concluded, is that “we have to learn to cherish natural systems more and stop exploiting them to the point of exhaustion. We have to find alternatives to simple materialistic goals if we are to manage the planet sustainably.”

Grubinger believes that climate change is “the most critical environmental issue of our time.” Scientists believe unequivocally that climate change is happening, “and actually the planet has already warmed by 1 degree F. over the past 100 years. The Northeast has warmed by 1.8 degrees F. It’s not the end of the world; it just means there is going to be a lot of change in the world, but it’s worth doing things to minimize how much change occurs.” Agriculture can help mitigate climate change by growing cover crops to take carbon out of the air and put it into the soil. Buying locally uses less fuel to move products around. We can burn waste oils and make biodiesel using carbon that’s in plants instead of taking more fossil fuel carbon from the ground.

“Climate change is really going to kick into gear soon. If you grow cool season crops, over the next generation or two there’s cause for concern in some locations. On the other hand, there’s going to be a longer growing season, which might be good for some other crops. We’ll also be seeing new pests. Already there are reports of Japanese beetle moving northward and more frequent problems with leafhoppers. Precipitation patterns will change, and rainfall is going to be a lot more erratic,” Grubinger continued. “There will be more droughts and flooding. What’s really disturbing is that some people continue to say we’re not sure that climate change is real. It’s as real as smoking causing cancer. What scientists are debating is how much and how fast the climate will change.”

The other challenge, “so invisible in our North American world view,” has to do with social justice. A recent article in the Monthly Review by Fred Magdoff, a professor at UVM, points out that 3 billion of the 6 billion people on earth are hungry or “food insecure”; 2.5 billion have no sanitary facilities; 2 billion have no electricity; and 1 billion have no access to clean water. “A lot of these problems are exacerbated by international monetary policies,” which drive people from rural, subsistence lifestyles into cities. In the countryside, “they were poor but at least they had food. Now they’re poor and they have no means of growing food, either.”

Grubinger challenged the very idea that growth is good. He recommended John Carroll’s book, Sustainability and Spirituality, paraphrasing it by saying, “One cannot sustain what one does not love. There’s an ecological awareness that everything’s connected … I’m not going to wait until there is scientific proof that new measures of success are needed besides never-ending economic growth. You either get this or you don’t. But today, most people are stuck in the corporate paradigm…they believe that consumption and growth are the only measures of success; that we always have to have ‘more.’ But the truth is: There’s more to life than stuff.”

Grubinger recalled a lecture he heard by Wendell Berry, where he discussed the economics of making milk, noted what is not being counted, and asked, what is the value of the relationship the family has with the family cow? More recently, Grubinger heard a dairy farmer talking about his cows by name and saying that milk is their gift to him. “It’s just a whole other way of looking at dairy … so some people are already thinking differently.

“What’s magical about the organic farming community is how they feel about soil. It’s something inherently deserving of respect and attention and long-term stewardship. If you don’t have that affection for the resources you’re working with, you use them up.”

His college genetics class was one of Grubinger’s most spiritual experiences. “When the structure and function of the DNA double helix was first revealed to me, it just struck me in a way that other facts had not. It was way bigger than science. That anything that could have evolved so elegantly, with just a few building blocks being the basis of all life on earth; it was so magical and unbelievable that it was clear to me that we’d never understand what forces could have been at work to make that happen.”

This viewpoint might make you “look at genetic engineering in a different way than somebody who just sees it as a mechanical, technical process. We have a lot of people at land grant universities who are doing gene jockey stuff, and they see genes as a tool, ready to be manipulated. There are very disparate viewpoints on the same information.”

Sustainability Principles: We’re All Beavers

Sustainable agriculture is about profitability, stewardship and community. “As farmers you need to be profitable in our capitalistic society; that’s reality; but you also need to steward the natural resources necessary for the long-term viability of your operations. And to be truly sustainable over time you need a connection to community, whether local or regional or whatever fits your enterprise. Basically this means not being anonymous. It’s all about developing strong relationships between producers and consumers.”

Grubinger believes that we’re not going to take down our Goliath of a corporate-dominated food system with a single, well-aimed stone. “My belief is that progress will occur the way beavers build their lodge: one bite at a time. So we’re all beavers, and we all keep chewing. Beavers don’t go out into the forest and say, ‘Oh my God! Look at all those trees!’ No. You pick a tree, you start chewing. If all of your fellow beavers chew a tree in the right neighborhood, the lodge gets built. It’s really the only option, and this idea keeps me going-saying ‘I’m going to keep chewing. I hope you’re chewing too.'”

One area that needs a lot of chewing is the food marketing system. “We’re spending more and more on food, and over time less of our food dollar has been going to farmers. It’s getting eaten up by the distribution and marketing system. We need to find ways to get away from that.” One good source of information is Northeast Farms to Food – Understanding Our Region’s Food Systems (at, and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group itself, which is trying to pull together numerous small, forward thinking groups and give them credible mass.

“Who’s really in control of the food system? Largely oligopolies,” i.e., a market with a few sellers of a product, in which sellers can dictate price and availability. “These are not monopolies. The government doesn’t like monopolies, but they don’t mind three or four big companies completely dominating a market sector.” (See When a handful of multinational corporations dominate a market area, new companies have difficulty succeeding, because larger companies “either buy it or find a way to kill it. You have to be careful. Success breeds failure … unless you have a way to be structured to control your destiny in the marketplace. That’s where cooperatives become so important.”

Agricultural oligopolies include companies that make inputs, such as Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and Syngenta. “It’s interesting,” said Grubinger, that “the latest organic pesticide, Entrust, is made by Dow. We’re getting intertwined in more ways.” Grubinger cited an “increasingly short list of those that control agricultural markets (see and the retail food market (see Kroger, for instance, has 4,169 stores and $56 billion annual sales. “Think of the buying power and the influence …” And although only one-third of Wal-Mart stores in the United States deal with groceries, they are the #1 food retailer in the world.

We’re paying three times for our food – at the checkout; through taxes; and by assuming the long-term social and environmental costs of unsustainable production methods. “There’s a huge transfer of money to the transnationals that control the food system.”

When The Organic Cow of Vermont became successful, Hood bought it. Then Horizon bought it from Hood, and Dean Foods bought it from Horizon. “Where will it all end?” asked Grubinger. “Will Wal-Mart control most all the food and retail shelves in supermarkets? “

A concern of Grubinger’s is that the consumer is often deceived. Many brands do not reveal their corporate parentage. For example, the label on Dean Foods cartons of Garelik Farms mik is “trying to make you think they’re a farm” by using various warm, fuzzy but meaningless statements, a trend that reminds Grubinger of one of his favorite Web sites, the Dilbert mission statement generator site, which pumps out important sounding statements with no real meaning. (See and click on “games.”) Likewise, company annual reports note growth in annual sales of their organic food holdings but don’t say, “We’re supporting family farms, and we love the soil.”

Grubinger cited The Non-GMO Source, a publication for businesses making non-GMO products for market. Its March 2004 issue listed who owns popular organic brands, and the list includes many of the world’s top food companies that are becoming big players in organic foods. “I know you have the same angst I do about this,” said Grubinger. “We’re all for organic, but we don’t want it to be a corporate takeover. There is a huge amount of growth going on, in the neighborhood of 20% each year, but “none of the growers I know are making 20% more every year. A lot of the growth is in processed organic foods. It’s organic pop tarts, soda and a lot of strange organic products.”

In Brattleboro, Northeast Cooperatives recently built a multi-million dollar warehouse, which specialized in organic produce. Inside, it was hard to find much local produce, even from the wholesale growers 20 miles up the road. “The produce buyer we met with there was quite frank. He said, in California they fill the truck with one product; it’s here, done. Here I have to go to 10 farms to fill the thing up. Then they complain about price.”

The Northeast warehouse is now empty, the company having been bought by United Foods. “Granted, United’s been good to the Brattleboro Food Coop. (Grubinger was on the Co-op’s board.) It’s not like they’re evil. And taking them on doesn’t make any sense, because right now they’re a big ally. Without them, we’re going to have trouble putting products on the shelf in the Brattleboro Food Co-op in any way that our customers can afford them. It’s become a quagmire. Where does this all lead? Will United, with just over $2 billion in sales, get bought up by somebody who’s got $40 or $50 billion kicking around?”

Jim Hightower’s book Thieves in High Places talks about our modern “kleptocracy.” “The powers that be are pickpocketing us,” said Grubinger. “The role of corporations is to make a profit. They aren’t required to have any moral obligation. It’s nice when they do. The problem is, it’s the role of government to set boundaries on them, to protect the public interest.” Hightower points out that people who used to work for companies now often regulate those companies for the government. Grubinger thinks the relationship between business and government “should be like the separation between church and state.” He recommends Hightower’s book, and “just to test the Patriot Act, I had my library order this book.”

Where to Go?

“Use the power of the purse,” said Grubinger. Where you spend your food dollars makes a statement. Get involved in politics and policy making. Use healing practices, in soils and bodies. Encourage healthy partnerships, such as the very exciting “and fast-growing movement across the country to link healthy food from healthy farms with schools.” (See

Marketing ‘below the radar’ is an idea that Grubinger got from a sheep farmer and cheese maker in Vermont. “If you get big enough, and you try to get into those [big] markets … you can get co-opted or taken over.” Beneath the radar are food co-ops, general stores, independent supermarkets, CSA farms, roadside stands, and family-held food companies that are still able to foster personal relationships.

“Relationships take care of a lot of things,” such as the need for organic certification. If you sell retail, sometimes it makes more sense to talk to your customers than to focus on meeting the organic standards. That’s not true in wholesale, but even there, “You’re less likely to have to fight over nickels and dimes in price when you know someone over time and they like you and the quality of your stuff.”

Farmers’ markets are community happenings, social events that enrich far beyond the value of their products. But direct marketing is a relatively small part of the total market for farm products, so many farmers have to find ways to get into wholesale markets and onto store shelves. One way is to focus on family- and farmer-owned, local brands. For example, Butterworks Farm, Echo Farm and Oakhurst Dairy tell great stories. “It’s important to support these entities.” Another example is Oxford Foods.

The Cains company recently closed the Oxford Foods pickle plant in Deerfield, Mass., when it pulled out and went to Mexico. A group of Connecticut Valley vegetable growers got together and took a risk to buy the plant. “They have some other investors, too, but the growers are on the board. It’s cool-growers trying to vertically integrate a bit. There are problems. It’s hard enough trying to farm 80 hours a week; now you have to go to a board meeting. It’s lots of work.”

The cooperative economy can improve if food co-ops work and buy things together and don’t reinvent the wheel and stay isolated. The next step “is to get out and have a cooperative relationship with farmers. Have policies that support local organic. For example, if you have a 40% markup on a tomato from California, and the local one costs a little more, and you mark it up 40%, you’re penalizing the local grower. Why not have the same absolute markup, or even give them a break?”

Co-ops need to give their customers information about what’s on the shelf, so they can make informed buying decisions. Florida’s Natural orange juice, Grubinger continued, is a citrus co-op, and Tropicana is owned by Pepsi. Organic Valley products come from CROPP (, a national co-op of organic farmers.

“You have to tell people who owns what: Information is key. It doesn’t mean they never buy corporate products – I like Cascadian Farm’s Honey Nuts O’s, even though they’re General Mills – but at least I make that decision knowing what’s going on.”

Grubinger railed against marketing via “fake people and fake farms.” This marketing method is nothing new. “Aunt Jemima (1893) is not a sugar maker; the Jolly Green Giant (1923) is not a vegetable farmer; the Marlboro Man (1955) is not a very healthy cowboy. The hardest part for me in buying those Cascadian Farms Honey Nut O’s was the fake lady on the back of the box” telling consumers why to buy the product.

“I think … as they treat us more and more like idiots and have more fake people telling us more false stuff, the market for credibility and authenticity will continue to grow. The struggle is going to be how to have credible relationships. It’s hard unless you have a venue to communicate with the consumers, and credibility is a tenuous thing.”

Participating in policy making is important, too. “You see the lobbyists, the unbelievable forces of money and power at work, but I think politics is still an open process. People can get in and testify. However you want to criticize it, there is a bunch of democracy still left. People can write letters. Look at the whole organic standards thing: 280,000 people wrote! In Washington State progressive farmers mobilized and got the University of Washington to create a sustainable agriculture and organic program, and they got $2 million authorized and hired people.”

Get the facts to support your case, Grubinger continued, and take your message to other groups, not just to the converted. Stick out the fight. “It’s not going to happen overnight. I just did a sabbatical leave on school food changes. It came to me that this is where smoking was 30 years ago.” But there’s a groundswell of change; people recognize a problem and know it has to change.

Indirect Value of Agriculture

“The whole value of agriculture goes way beyond economics,” said Grubinger. He put the lowball, farmgate value of agricultural products in Maine and Vermont at about half a billion dollars. This is “all the money that’s reported from farming, without the value added: no farmstead cheese, no recreation, no tourism.”

What’s the connection between farming and the 2 billion-dollar Vermont tourism economy? “There’s never going to be a definite number, but it’s important to lay it out. People aren’t going to come to look at condos and warehouses. They want to see a working landscape, and although trees are nice, fields and barns add scenic value.”

Specialty foods in Vermont are about a $700 million industry. “Some things are connected in people’s minds with the name ‘Vermont.’ The same is true for ‘Maine.’ People in certain states don’t put their state name on products, because those states have a different image. But in northern New England, people have a positive image, and it’s connected to what the land looks like.” Wildlife habitat, hunting, recreation … all require the open space and management that farming and forestry provide.

Farms and forests also help keep property taxes down. Grubinger quoted American Farmland Trust data showing that farm and forest land in 40 towns in the Northeast costs towns less than $0.40 for every $1 paid in property taxes; but when land was developed for houses, towns spent $1.10 for every $1 paid in taxes. As the New Jersey Farm Bureau says, “Cows don’t go to school, tomatoes don’t dial 9-1-1.”

Although the cost of industrial development to towns is similar to that of farms and forests, Grubinger noted that people build houses so that they can work in those industries, “so growth is not a way out of the property tax problem.”

Grubinger cited the following statistics regarding agriculture in Vermont:

1974 2002 % change
# of farms 5906  6571 +11
# dairy farms 3899 1508 -61
# other farms 2007 5063 +153
Farmland (acres) 1,667,561 1,244,909 -25
Farm size (acres) 282 189 -33
Value/acre $462 $2051 +344
Farmer’s average age 50 54 +8
# farmers working off-farm 2,202 3,542 +61

“We’re not losing farms,” Grubinger explained. While Vermont has lost dairy farms, the remaining dairies are bigger and have about the same number of cows and amount of milk. But new farms are making agriculture in the state more diversified. “That’s where we need support in Vermont, where dairy is so dominant. We’re saying diversified farms are an important part of agriculture” that should be measured in more ways than just acres or gross sales. “How about the number of farm families, or net income or employees? These are all important ways of assessing the status of farming.

“We are losing farmland, the farms are getting smaller, and the value of land is going up astronomically. Look at southern New England: Prices are off the charts. We need mechanisms to protect land for the future. We’ve lost one-fourth of our farmland in a generation.”

Grubinger is on the board of the Vermont Land Trust, which gives farmers an infusion of money for development rights. The downside is that the next generation cannot do the same. Now, 7% of Vermont is under conservation easements, including many big forestry projects, but also over 400 working farms. Land Link programs and new farmer programs are helping, but “we’ve got to have a pipeline. Bigger farms don’t come out of thin air. People start small, and then it either becomes their main livelihood, or it doesn’t, but you’ve got to give them a chance to get off the ground.”

Another issue is the aging of the farm population, and the fact that farmers are working off the farm increasingly. “Even though they’re making more money from what they’re selling, expenses are going up more than income.”

Success Stories

Despite the trend to larger dairy farms, some dairy farms are modernizing but staying small. Grubinger cited a 50-cow farm featuring a barn built with lumber from the farm property; the wife is a horticulturist; the farm produces maple sugar and Christmas trees; and financial viability is being secured through diversification rather than specialization. Such farms have “many ways to connect to the community.” Other farms support agri-tourism; still others “get value from the other end of the cow” by making compost from manure. And the government is starting to help – not just through the invaluable SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program, but through NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service; programs that help build composting pads, for instance; and other funds for intensive pasture management education. NRCS funds help support the 250-member Vermont Grass Farmers Association, for example.

One Vermont farm has only 17 cows but also has an organic cheese facility – the only organic cheese maker in the southern part of the state. The challenge comes in growing the feed and making milk as well as cheese, and marketing. “You’ve got to have partnerships to make all that work.”

Grubinger noted that marketplace vulnerabilities exist for branded identities. For example, sales of one organic sheep cheese fell 35% in a day during a Mad Sheep scare. Still, “I love going into the Brattleboro Co-op and seeing all the cheese – 30 or 40 Vermont farms are making cheese. All are very small and would probably not be in business if they were selling fluid milk.” Likewise, he buys milk in glass bottles from a nearby farm, which sells its milk in the Brattleboro Co-op for less than the cost of milk at the local Hannaford. “The match is right. The size of the farm and the distribution fits the local co-op system.”

A farm in Hadley, Mass., takes orders for its numerous products and, for a $1 fee, delivers them door-to-door. “We’re starting to go back to where everybody had a milkman.”

At a farm near a culinary institute in Montpelier, pastured poultry are fed entirely on food waste from the institute; they receive no grain. “When you have to buy organic grain, you have to charge a fair amount for the eggs. But when the feed’s all free and you’re actually recycling it, you’re doing a service, and it’s easier to make a profit.”

Owning land is getting more expensive and challenging, especially for new growers, but creative alternatives are emerging. The CSA to which Grubinger belongs was established by getting a lifetime, 10-year-renewable lease from a nonprofit foundation to use its land. The CSA is in its third year and has 70 members.

Grubinger noted that 15 years ago, California started selling us tomatoes – “little hardballs, four for a dollar, that didn’t taste like anything and could be used for batting practice.” Consequently, the credibility of California tomatoes went down, and a market opened for real, local tomatoes. Now, about 100 Vermont growers produce greenhouse tomatoes. “I want a real tomato, and I’m willing to pay $2.50 or $3/pound for it.” Some of these greenhouses are heated by burning wood and several are burning waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants. “We need more organized community facilities to recycle vegetable oil into biodiesel.

“Organic is growing,” Grubinger continued. “People have successfully survived the USDA takeover of it and continue to battle to keep its integrity. People in the wholesale market have no choice. If you want to sell organic, you have to be certified. The next level is the real research and support where you start to learn how to manipulate habitats to control pests. One example is New Hampshire grower Eero Ruutilla, who controls Colorado potato beetles with interplanted rye.

Another encouraging development is the growth of projects involving kids and agriculture. At Grubinger’s office on a former farm, a youth horticulture project teaches kids to grow food in greenhouses and fields, harvest it and take it to the farmers’ market. A lot of the produce is also donated to local food shelves.

Other positive changes are the “huge interest in healthy eating, the looming awareness of ‘diabesity’ and its link to bad eating habits”; and Buy Local campaigns, as well as “the idea of fair trade with places far away. I’m not going to stop drinking coffee, but I’d like to know that it’s helping the farmers wherever it comes from.”

Grubinger concluded with a pledge that his kids learned in daycare:

    Earth who gives to us this food
    Sun who makes it ripe and good
    Dear earth, dear sun: By you we live.
    Our loving thanks to you we give.

He challenged conference participants to “think of all the corporate heads bowed at the table with their organic milk and vegetables in front of them, reciting the daycare pledge.

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