by Erin Buckwalter, MS Candidate, University of Vermont

What are your hopes and dreams for our time together?  This question, too often asked rhetorically, was brought to the forefront this morning as participants were encouraged to stand-up, share and engage with this topic.   One participant shared the first line of the FFA creed, “I believe in the future of farming,” while another hoped that their grandchildren will say thanks one day for their participation in making the world a better place.”  A third person echoed an optimism heard during the welcome last night – instead of focusing on the doom and gloom, we’re now hearing that we can be grounded in our food supply, in our soil…that it is possible to renew ourselves from the inside as well.

The morning discussion got off to a dynamic start with a keynote from VT Secretary of Agriculture, Chuck Ross entitled “Whole Systems Approach to Sustainability: Leverage VT to Leverage the World.”  While Ross acknowledged that “it’s pretty audacious to suggest that VT can change the world,” he noted specific examples of that exact occurrence from John Deere’s agriculture changing invention to Justin Morrill’s establishment of Land Grant Colleges to Vermont led legislation to curtail the use of polluting CFCs.  (Added to the list by a couple women sitting behind me was Ben and Jerry’s effect on the world’s ice cream industry!).

UVM Gradate Student Abby Smith tweeted an apt Ross quote, “I don’t want to let the preference for the perfect be the enemy of the good.” here.  Ross discussed that while our system in Vermont isn’t exactly perfect, we’re positioned to be a global leader for change through its’ focusing on a whole systems approach and discovering the leverage points in three core areas: agriculture, energy, and government.  The whole systems approach suggests the need to set a direction, analyze systems, identify leverage points, establish goals and develop action steps, and continue to revisit/rework action steps as things change and evolve.

AGRICULTURE:  This systems approach has been applied to agriculture through the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Farm to Plate Initiative (F2P).  F2P has established a strategic 10-year plan for sustainable agriculture in Vermont, focusing on increasing economic development and job creation in Vermont’s food and farm sectors and improving access to healthy local foods.  A notable figure is that VT’s major agriculture and food product output totaled $2.7 billion in 2007 whereas the stat’s gross product is $22 billion – making agriculture and food over 12% of Vermont’s economic output.  With an expansion in the food system of 5% per year, it could lead to an increase in over $135 million by 2020.

ENERGY:  The Vermont Energy Action Network is applying the systems approach to energy as well with a goal of 80% of all energy in VT to be renewable energy by 2030 (the website for the EAN is still in process but GMCR has a little info).  They’ve focused on 4 leverage points: learning and engagement, mobilization of capital, innovation in energy technology, and regulatory and permitting – showing that if we can work on these leverage points, we can improve VT quality of life.

GOVERNMENT:  Ross also highlighted the leverage points in Vermont Government.  These included:

  1. Town Meeting  (where we can talk about potholes to large international issues important to the global community),
  2. A Responsive and accessible legislature which Ross argues is one of best examples of representative democracy in world…,
  3. The large number of community and non-profits groups working on our behalf,
  4. 1 of 50 governors, representing our state equally among other states,
  5. an influential delegation at national level (which is well placed, has seniority, and is influential and well respected)
  6. and an active and engaged citizenry.

At the end, a question from the crowd challenged us to think about the connections between the systems analyses of Agriculture and Energy and to focus on making the connections that are there.  A further question broached the subject of regional approaches, which prompted Ross’ response that creating arbitrary borders doesn’t always make sense and that a regional approach may be in effect a better goal.  This response harkened back to the beginning of his talk when he noted that we’re in a global society – the key is to restructure our systems to allow us to leverage our actions to change the world.