Letter from Caroline Gordon, Rural Vermont’s Legislative Intern
March 9th, 2019
As you may know, I came to Vermont from Germany in 2017 and recently graduated from Vermont Law School with my LLM in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy. I started to work for Rural Vermont as a legislative intern in January. Here I would like to share with you some of my experiences and thoughts thus far.
Democracy in the State House and the Role of Lobbyists
The Vermont State House is the oldest in the United States that has continuously operated as a legislature since its opening in 1859. You can learn more about the State House here.
It is also the place to show you whether democracy actually works exactly the way you learned it back sometime when you were in high school. I realized after watching a webinar by Amy Shollenberger (former Executive Director of Rural Vermont and founder of the consulting firm Action Circles) the importance of the role of lobbyists for the success of a bill. Suddenly the complexity of the process appears like a strategy game once you try to approach it with fun instead of reacting with confusion. I used to think of lobbyists as representatives of the establishment (the industrial/agricultural establishment especially). I see Andrea Stander (Rural Vermont’s Policy Consultant) and Amy more as being like shepherds for a bill’s success, by being carriers of information and establishing relationships that help guide the bill through a highly complex process. A great part of the backbone of our legislative work is the grassroots organizing and coalition building work of Graham Unangst-Rufenacht (Rural Vermont’s Field Organizer). Credibility is so critical for gaining momentum for our issues.
In this first quarter of the biennium, I got the impression that it is pretty amazing that representatives of the people, who are not experts on most of the issues, manage to come to informed conclusions and decisions on so many bills covering such a wide array of important issues. I think it’s equally amazing what kind of commitment you have to bring to the table in order to stay on top of things as a legislator. After years of law school, this is the first time I have been able to follow a legislative process this closely. I’m looking forward to learning more about how the democratic process functions effectively in practice.
Rural Vermont and My Role in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees
We have succeeded in gaining attention for all the issues we brought to the table in both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. My role this session, and I feel fortunate about it, is to be a fly on the wall by taking notes in committee sessions, as accurately as possible. For the second half of the session, I’m trying to document not only the conversations in the committees but also to capture the overall atmosphere on the issues discussed. Clearly, with so much happening simultaneously, I will continue to benefit from Andrea’s and Graham’s insights.
Questioning the Future of Agriculture
I was very surprised by the holistic approach the agricultural committees took at the beginning of the session, by making the dairy crisis and the report of Chapin et al., “A 2018 Exploration of the Future of Vermont Agriculture – Ideas to Seed a Conversation and a Call to Action” (2018) the foundation for their debates. Rather than being a specific vision for the future of agriculture, the report is a call for action to contribute your ideas and concerns.
If you want to take part in this on-going conversation, please contact Jake Claro at Vermont Farm to Plate: Jake@vsjf.org. I see this report and the invitation to contribute to the discussion as an opportunity to shift the paradigm and move agriculture in Vermont in a more sustainable direction.
There are also other movements in Vermont, where communities come together and try to envision their future in and beyond agriculture, such as the 4Town Future Community Visit process which is taking place in the area where I live. Rural Vermont has worked on the big-picture questions for all of its over 35-year existence. The founder of Rural Vermont, Anthony Pollina, is now a Senator for Washington County and a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. I find the community-based, small-scale and sustainable agriculture that Rural Vermont is envisioning is in line with the academic conclusions that have been reached by over 500 scientists in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), “Agriculture at A Crossroads – Global Report” (2009, summary 2016) about what is best for the world’s agricultural landscapes.
In Vermont, the vast majority of farms are small-scale and the rural state has a great sense for the community. This is why I believe it could be possible to even further promote local consumption and sustainable production. A variety of testimony to outline the dairy crisis has been heard by the agriculture committees, including the idea of making payments for ecosystem services provided by farms. This shows me that Vermont is the place I thought it would be. A place where the big-picture question is asked, especially because of the dairy crisis, and therefore a place where an agricultural paradigm shift is possible. This belief is why I have turned my back on Germany (and my home state Brandenburg), as an industrial nation that continues to vigorously promote Big-Ag and have become politically active in Vermont instead.
The hemp and dairy discussions though very much show that there is a question whether the mistakes of the past will be repeated. For example, some legislators wish the agricultural and food systems of Vermont to become more export-oriented and to further develop the Vermont brand. Regarding the export orientation of decision makers see, for example, the recent publication of the International Panel Of Experts On Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), “Towards A Common Food Policy For The European Union” (2019), which states:
“In theory, trade liberalization can promote the uptake of sustainable practices by linking producers to new markets (e.g. for organics), by encouraging technology transfer, and by allowing for more efficient use of resources based on comparative advantages. However, various studies suggest that these benefits are canceled out by trade- and globalization-driven increases in overall consumption. The assumption that increased growth (inter alia via trade) brings long-term sustainability gains has also been shown to ignore key trends, including the possibility for wealthier countries to outsource their environmental footprint via trade.”
After recharging our batteries over Town Meeting Week I’m looking forward to the second half of the 2019 legislative session. I’m hoping to meet more of you at our Small Farm Advocacy Days, or at the information table at the on April 4th, or the workshop Ben Hewitt and I are organizing on April 17th at the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier. I would like to thank Rural Vermont and Action Circles for this opportunity. I really enjoy working with you.
Caroline Gordon LL.M.