Mares: New Ag Institute

Dec 6, 2013

Well, I may not have been a fly on the wall, but I was a figurative bee at the table, representing the Vermont Beekeepers Association. It was a round-table at Vermont Technical College to discuss their new Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems - built upon a $3.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Labor Department to improve job opportunities in rural areas.

The money will help the College to develop educational programs in agriculture and to invest in its farm infrastructure. The Institute will be a “full agricultural loop from dirt, to plant, to animal, to food processing, to dining hall, to waste handling, to methane digester, (and) back to dirt, “ according to Chris Dutton, its Director.
Around the table were administrators from VTC and people from various segments of Vermont’s non-dairy food industry. Our charge as outsiders was to help the College design one- or two-week short courses for next year in cider making, spirits, meat cutting, viticulture - or grape-growing - yoghurt, brewing and beekeeping. These courses could be used for college credit at VTC or as certificates of skill in job applications for outsiders.
Each course will have four components: food safety; a practical portion - preferably taught in the field at an active, for-profit operation; the science behind the practice; and the business side.
Besides students at the college, classes will be open to people who might want to start a business from scratch - and potential workers in such industries.
Phrases like “value-added,” “distribution models,” and “early adopters” flew around the table. Some of the discussion was quite technical, some was more general.

Interspersed with the green flags of encouragement were a number of yellow caution pennants. “Think about the business model at least as intensively as you think about the actual production,” said one person. Another worried that the Vermont cheese market might be too saturated and the brewing scene too crowded. Yet another wondered what to do when your biggest customer drops you without warning. The importance of sanitation was very important to some: “Ninety percent of your time you’ll spend cleaning up.” Others warned, “It’s all very good to make a great hard cider, but you still have to market the product” and “Students need an understanding of failure, and the relentlessness of the market.”
Two things stood out for me. You know how you often go to a meeting and there’s someone who MUST talk on every topic, often at some length? Well, there was one guy there who did speak on every subject, but he was informed, economical in what he said, and not the least bit didactic.
Secondly, having myself taught beekeeping for 15 years I’ve never quite figured out how to include financial advice for those who want to start a part-time honey business. Now, because the Beekeepers Association will be part of this training course at VTC, we’ll be able to add this knowledge to our own courses. How sweet that will be!