Q & A with Lt. Governor David Zuckerman
By Suzanne Podhaizer
David Zuckerman is the 81st Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, and is the first member of the Vermont Progressive Party to hold a statewide office. He is also a farmer. Zuckerman and his spouse, Rachel Nevitt, operate the 150-acre Full Moon Farm in Hinesburgh. We got in touch to ask him a few questions about farming, politics, and how consumers can help improve the food system.
Local Banquet: Tell me a little bit about your farm, and the choices that you make for your own crops and animals.
David Zuckerman: [Full Moon Farm] is a diversified organic vegetable, pork, and chicken farm. It’s one of five certified organic pork farms in the state—we have 20 to 40 hogs for slaughter, and between 70 and 90 piglets for sale each year. We have 20 acres of certified organic vegetables, and just under 1,000 certified organic chickens. Seventy-five percent of our product is sold directly to consumers.
LB: Why do you choose to be certified organic?
DZ: We feel certification is important because a lot of folks believe they are growing with sound practices, but they’re not actually organic practices…it’s not just what you do in the field; it’s also inputs. For instance, you have to make attempts to buy as much organic seed as possible.
Sometimes, people think pastured meat is “organic,” but unless it’s 100-percent grass-fed, [animals are] typically getting supplemental feed. Even GMO-free grain is grown with lots of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers.
LB: How has your life as a farmer influenced you as a politician? Or vice versa.
DZ: I would say that the farming has affected me in the political arena more than the opposite. Farming requires persistence, diligence, and patience. Those are helpful attributes in the political arena, because it’s rare that things happen quickly, or overnight. And, it’s appropriate that things don’t happen quickly, or overnight! Farmers work in the present while planning ahead.
And, in farming, you have to be prepared for sudden adverse conditions: shifts in weather, animal illness, changing conditions, and that happens metaphorically in politics as well.
Also, I would argue that farming grounds you in reality and in what’s important, which gives some perspective when you get too wrapped up in political speak, with wordsmithing and details that sometimes go beyond practicality.
LB: In your role as lieutenant governor, what are the agricultural initiatives you’re hoping to help move forward?
DZ: Well, I’m trying to gather a group to really work on the future of dairy in our state, both how to keep it thriving as part of our agricultural economy and move toward a more sustainable environmental impact. To bring those two lines together is not easy, but I think for the future of that industry in Vermont, we need to find a way to do that.
Historically, I’ve been very involved with policy to support diversified agriculture. I’m pleased with the growth and enthusiasm in that sector, especially with a lot of younger people [getting into agriculture], which isn’t happening in many parts of the country.
LB: Why diversified ag?
DZ: The old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is a farming metaphor, but it’s also an appropriate agriculture policy metaphor: It’s so that we’re not left vulnerable to market or environmental forces.
I would add that Vermont is the most commodity dependent state in the country. No state has more than any single commodity at more than 50 percent of their agricultural output. In Vermont, more than 70 percent [of that output] is dairy.
LB: What about maple?
DZ: Historically, dairy farmers were the ones who did much of the sugaring, so maple is actually part of the dairy number. That’s probably something that should change over time.
LB: Water quality is a huge issue. How can we support dairy farms, while also taking care of the lakes and other waterways?
DZ: With respect to water quality, conventional versus organic is not the only criterion to being good stewards. There are organic operations that are still working on improving their animal and waterway interactions. There are conventional farms that have significant buffers to protect waterways.
I think it’s important to talk to the farmers you’re buying from, if you have that access, and ask them questions. Try to support those who are trying to reduce impact.
LB: As a consumer, what kinds of things should I be listening for when I ask those questions?
DZ: Animals used to have access to small streams for water. Isolating them from streams is critical. It matters when and where manure is spread, and how close to rivers and streams, and under what weather conditions. What fertilizers are used? What kind of soil testing is done to reduce over fertilization?
Unfortunately, many of the water-quality challenges we face come from 50 years of practices…it will take a long time to reduce the abundance of certain chemicals in our soils.
LB: Anything new on the horizon with respect to on-farm slaughter or raw milk?
DZ: With raw milk, over the last 15 years or so, I’ve worked and the legislature has worked to afford farmers a greater opportunity to sell their milk to interested consumers without pasteurization, and we’ve seen quite an extension in that market.
We have also expanded the on-farm slaughter laws with respect to poultry as well as beef, hogs, sheep, and goats to allow more direct marketing from small farms to their neighbors. This year there’s a bill to greatly expand the number of [poultry] that a farm is allowed to slaughter [without inspection].
LB: Is there movement from Trump’s administration that may harm our farmers or our food system? Are there particular freedoms that farmers have that you’re worried we might lose?
DZ: With respect to regulations, I don’t see there being a negative direction with respect to more onerous regulations. But I also don’t see a lot of progress, nor promotion of research into more sustainable practices.
LB: What is your position on migrant workers?
DZ: Well, for one, I think they’re a critical piece of our agricultural society, in part because the pay is not great, the hours are difficult, farming is hard, and fewer people are willing to do it.
At the same time, if we want to improve the working conditions and treatment of farm workers, migrant or not, we need to figure out a way to have an economy that affords people to pay the full price of food, and that’s a larger shift that needs to happen.
LB: Tick-borne illnesses are impacting more farmers, and I know they’ve impacted your family. Is there anything that can be done on the legislative level to help protect agricultural workers or to support those who have these illnesses?
DZ: Vermont now has the highest per capita rate of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases in the country, and it’s a particularly devastating illness for farmers whose work so greatly demands both physical and mental acuity. But it certainly impacts people well beyond ag.
It’s a devastating illness if not treated properly, and the medical society and the larger establishment of the University [of Vermont] Medical Center are still very reticent to adjust the standards for care.
We did pass a law a couple of years ago to allow more flexibility for those doctors who are interested, so they do not get reprimanded or sanctioned by the medical society. However, there’s still a stigma against doctors who are willing to aggressively treat chronic Lyme.
LB: Any other messages to Vermont consumers about how they can help improve the state of our food system?
DZ: It’s daily, individual choices. I’m an opportunivore, and I understand that we don’t always have the choices we want, or the ability to make the choices we want due to financial circumstances. Therefore, it’s important not to attempt to be perfect—and to therefore always fail, which can be demoralizing—but to make those choices when we can.
And, [we could examine] other choices we make in our day-to-day lives that make it harder to make those choices about food. Do we need that fourth pair of new shoes or a phone upgrade? Or, could we use the same phone for another year?
I would also say that the more raw ingredients purchased, the farther one’s dollar will go, and the more time one can spend with family or friends preparing food. Cooking together used to be a big part of human culture and community, but we’re all running around so fast, and working so hard, that we’ve lost that.