BURLINGTON, VT — Dr. Chyi-Lyi (Kathleen) Liang researches trends in agriculture and local foods for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). She is finding more and more farmers across the United States who are interested in looking at the New England model of farming by adding value, marketing to multiple venues, adopting agritourism and connecting more closely to their local communities.
She has visited farms in the Midwest with 500 or 1,000-acres in production and losing money. They are consistently impressed when she says she is from Vermont. “We have people doing fine on 20 acres,” she said.
“New England farmers are more used to the small farm lifestyle,” she said. “Our farmers are absolutely more entrepreneurial. They’re very risk-tolerant and they’re very stubborn.” She added that 90 to 95-percent of the small farms in Vermont and many in New England, have an outside income.
Dr. Liang is a professor of entrepreneurship and economics at the University of Vermont (UVM), she works in the department of Community Development and Applied Economics. She recently won a national award for her work with a program she invented to teach students how to be entrepreneurs. She calls it Dollar Enterprise. In this class, she gives students each $1 at the beginning of the semester. Working in teams, the students start a business on campus. At the end of the semester they are expected to give $2 back to their professor. Any extra funds raised are donated to a charity of the students’ choice.
Over 10 years these enterprises have donated $50,000 to charities. Students created businesses from donated ingredients such as extra apples from a local orchard and old bicycle parts, which one team made into jewelry.
Dr. Liang was one of three innovators honored in Austin, TX this past May at the Farm Credit MarketMaker Innovation Awards at the 17th annual National Value Added Agriculture Conference. MarketMaker is a national e-commerce network that brings farmers and fishermen together with markets and with consumers. Dr. Liang wrote a chapter for a textbook describing her program.
A native of Taiwan, Dr. Liang learned frugality and entrepreneurship from her parents. Her father was the vice-president of the largest cargo company in Taiwan. Her mother was a professor of Chinese history and literature.
Dr. Liang went to National Taiwan University and studied agricultural economics. Her first research study was on how radiation and temperature changes affect oyster production.
She came to the United States in 1988 to get a Masters and Doctorate in public policy and natural resources. That led her to research in Nebraska studying buffalo and prairie dogs. She came to Vermont for a job to study underground water pollution and recommended a fertilizer tax which was later put into place.
In 1998, during Howard Dean’s administration, she was hired by UVM to research tourism’s economic impact on Vermont. “We did a national study,” she said. Survey results showed that tourists were coming to Vermont to see the scenery — in particular the working landscape with cows in pastures. “I realized that the agricultural base is the main support for the whole state economy,” she said. “Agriculture supports everybody else relating to tourism.”
She is currently working with other researchers on three national projects. One is to study creative ways farmers are adding value and finding new markets. A second is on farm labor issues, and a third is on looking at the demand for local foods in New England. “We want to see if the method we’re using — to track volume — works,” she said.
She recently traveled to Salina, KS, where faculty at the University of Kansas were looking for ideas and best practices. Salina has a food co-op but no farmers market. The mayor wants to put in a community garden. She recommended putting in a community garden near the river, and changing an abandoned building into a place for a farmers market. “All I did was translate what we have in New England,” she said. “Grow something,” she told them. “That’s the key. Wherever I go.”
“Mississippi has a great opportunity in their low-income housing project,” she said. She said the housing project has a big concrete area. She said people could bring in milk crates or buckets and grow food in them. “You can use a little container. Put some dirt in there,” she said.“ A lot of people talk about local food being expensive,” she said, but it doesn’t have to be. “Nobody says you have to pay $5 for eggs.” She said she drove by three places one day in Vermont where people can buy eggs for $1 a dozen by the side of the road. “I can buy greens on the side of the road for $1 a bunch. That’s my favorite thing to do.”
“I think there are a lot of misunderstandings and mysteries about local food,” she said.
She recently met a young man in the South who had set up a stand beside a church. When he was growing up, he could not afford fresh vegetables. He went to technical school and started a business out of a truck at first. Now he has a farm stand with six tables filled with vegetables, meat pies, flowers, strawberries and more.
Dr. Liang’s studies are not complete, but she is seeing some definite trends. Agricultural census statistics show the average age of farmers is getting older and older. She has seen a trend of people retiring from city jobs and going into agriculture with management skills. These people tend to hire others to do farm work. There is another trend of young people coming right out of college and going into agriculture. The new generation grew up with food safety and health issues in the news, and some had an illness themselves or had personal experience with an outbreak. They are interested in growing their own food and are driven to grow high quality healthy and safe food.
Dr. Liang’s travels have taken her to a wide range of states, from Texas to Hawaii. “It is my duty to promote the spirit and commitment that our farmers have,” she said. “We need to support all kinds of farmers.”
“USDA is really changing the way they work with producers now,” she said. “Food has a different meaning in our life.”
Vermont farmers are leading the nation in their creative ways of making ends meet and feeding their communities, she said.
“Our whole Vermont population is creative,” she said. “I’m so proud to be part of Vermont.”