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Ellen Kahler
Executive Director
Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
May 26, 2015

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I grew up outside of Buffalo, NY on land that used to be farmed by my great grandfather (mostly for self-sufficiency but also pickles and cabbages for wholesale). My grandmother was the last generation in our family to grow up on a farm but she married an engineer. So by the time I was born in the late 60s, the farm had long since been sold off in chunks and only grew houses. Still, I remember a great deal of pride in our family's background and a strong connection to the land itself.  During those years, my parents planted a 1/2 acre vegetable garden and because we didn't have a lot of money back then, my mom canned and froze whatever we did not eat fresh. Starting when I was 6 years old, I would take whatever fresh veggies my mom was sick of processing and sell them out of my green wagon at the top of our street ? my own 'farmers market'. Berry picking and homemade pie making has ALWAYS been big in our family.

In 3rd grade my family moved a few towns over to the suburbs 'because the schools were better'.  We still maintained a very small veggie garden and there still were large diversified vegetable farms within a 10 minute drive, so during the summer months we could easily get fresh produce and pick-your-own berries.  Gradually, however, all those farms got sold and became suburban housing developments. It was very disheartening to watch.

Part of the reason I moved to Vermont, after graduating from college in 1989, was because of its strong cultural and historical connection to the land, farming, and the natural world. I felt drawn to this state and have never left. I found a wonderful patch of earth that I have called home for over 20 years, and I feel very rooted and connected to this place.  So in some ways - in terms of connection to a special place - I have recreated what I had in my earliest years, though the multi-generational aspect is not present.

I worked in the social and economic justice movement until 2002, took a year off to go to grad school, then started to explore how I could continue my economic justice work from a different angle - by understanding  why so many small businesses struggle to pay livable wages to their employees even though they say they want to.  None of my early work had an explicit tie to farming or food systems development.

How did you get your current good food job?

In 2005, when my current job opened up, I applied and was lucky enough to get it.  The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund was created in 1995 by the VT Legislature to accelerate the development of Vermont's green economy.  By statute, our grant and loan making, and technical/business assistance is focused on 5 market sectors: sustainable agriculture / food systems; forest products; renewable energy; green technology; and waste reduction / pollution abatement.  During the first 4 years on the job, I worked mostly on projects aimed at supporting sustainable forest products development and on-farm bioenergy production (in the form of oilseed crop production to be turned into biodiesel for on-farm self-sufficiency purposes).

Then in 2009, the VT Legislature asked my organization to develop a 10 year strategic plan to strengthen Vermont's food system (i.e. to increase jobs and economic activity in the sector plus increase access to healthy local food for all Vermonters). It was through the 18-month public engagement process we designed and implemented, and writing of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, that my staff and I became more knowledgeable about the current status of - and new opportunities for - our local and regional food system.

The plan was released in January 2011 and was adopted by the Governor and Legislature as THE food system strategic plan for the state of Vermont. We were tasked with overseeing the Plan's implementation and with tracking progress towards the 25 goals that are part of the plan.  So in October, 2011 we launched the Farm to Plate Network, which is now 350 organizations strong.  We take a collaborative, networked approach to the Plan's implementation, organizing ourselves across 5 Working Groups, 6 Cross Cutting Teams and more than a dozen Task Forces. Our Network is 4 1/2 years old now and the progress we have been making is pretty remarkable. You can learn more about it at www.vtfarmtoplate.com.

How did your previous work or life experience prepared you for a good food job?

I never set out to have a good food job and in some ways I still don't - at least not in the way you ask the question.  Food systems development work is just one piece of the work we do - albeit a very large piece!  However, it is through our food system development work - our methods, approaches, intention, values-based strategic lens - that we believe we can impact and transform other economic sectors.  We believe that our food system development approach has relevance to those interested in transforming the very foundation of our economy - although that will take many more decades to make manifest.

Name one positive thing that a former employee taught you that you continue to appreciate?

It's challenging to answer this question because throughout my career, across three different jobs, I've always been the boss. There are so many things I've learned about being a good manager and a good leader over the years.  Some of it was through leadership training programs I attended on the side, but much of it has been through trial and error. I've always been really lucky to be able to attract and hire really great people who are passionate about the mission of our organization, are hard workers, and who really live their lives from a place of intention.  For me personally, there's not a lot of separation between how I live my life and the work that I get to do.  My work has deep spiritual meaning and helps me to grow as a human being and enables me to help others and our society.  It's important for me to have a career and to work with others to create a society that is fair, just, inclusive, caring, and enables every human being the ability to reach their true potential in this lifetime.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

We need to 'rebuild' the middle - middle scale production, middle scale processing, middle scale distribution and middle scale retail.  Over the past 40 years, we've seen a massive consolidation in the industry and the number of food enterprises that control the vast majority of production, flow and selling of food has become highly concentrated.  Small enterprises abound and fill various niches and are the ones driving and creating the change we are seeing in the local food movement, but it's unclear if this can be sustained long term profitably. We need farms and food businesses that are profitable and successful at ALL scales of operation. Competition is good and healthy for our economy. Right now there's a lot of competition among and between small producers and then practically a monopoly of relationships at the very largest scale of enterprise.  So if you are a farmer or a food entrepreneur that wants to really make a difference in changing our food system away from the industrial scale model, I think there's a lot of potential and need for mid-scale farms and food businesses that produce a high quality, authentic, regionally sourced  food that can break into the institutional and smaller grocery store market channels.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

TIME!

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