ESSEX — There’s nothing like a farm show to bring everyone together.
Students, farmers, lawmakers, businesses, organizations, some mascots and state officials – including Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and, sporting a cow-print hat, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross – were in Essex Wednesday for the fourth annual Vermont Farm Show.
Franklin County was well represented at the Champlain Valley Expo event, which ran between Tuesday and Thursday. The Messenger visited and got a little taste of everything.
On Wednesday morning, busloads of technical center students from all over the state rolled into the expo center, about 40 Cold Hollow Career Center (CHCC) pupils from Enosburgh among them.
“They’ve always come down,” said CHCC director Nathan Demar of the center’s annual visit.
All 200 or so budding foresters, maple sugarers, dairy farmers and agricultural scientists attended the morning Future Farmers of America (FFA) event, which included a meeting and a variety of competitions.
Lots of camouflage, barn boots, hats and neon orange clothing dotted the room.
\According to Vermont FFA executive director Suzanne Buck, the Vermont FFA – which is 88 years old and has been at the Vermont Farm Show for 84 years – is the main organization for developing students interested in agriculture.
“It works on teaching them work skills, business management skills,” she said. “People actively look for students with “FFA” on their resumes.”
Buck added that the FFA, which operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps astudents in a number of ways. These include $2.1 million in scholarships, help with job applications, a national internship program, and connections between current and up-and-coming farmers.
“There’s a huge networking piece,” said Buck.
In addition, there’s the philosophical importance of letting students know that their generation will be charged with feeding people far into the future.
“Without these kids, the nation and the world as a whole is going to find themselves without food,” said Buck.
Before they get to that point, however, the students need to flesh out their skills and knowledge. On Wednesday, forestry students identified trees, insects, soils and maple syrup samples, agricultural science students had to taste-test milk and cheese to determine their fat content, flavor and – far less savory – their viability for the market.
“Some of these aren’t the best tasting stuff,” said Pat Cleary, formerly a quality assurance director at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and currently an intern in coordinating the FFA contests. “That’s what the apples are for,” he added, pointing students in the direction of small, cut up pieces on a plate.
Students prep for the competition so they don’t go in blind. While the agricultural science students tasted different combinations of milk and cheese, the forestry students looked at slide shows, and – most likely the tastiest form practice – they tested maple syrup.
“A lot of different syrup testing,” said CHCC forestry student Shawn Lambert.
When asked why he enrolled at CHCC and went to the FFA events, Lambert answered that it’s already what he likes to do.
“I work on a farm and do a lot of this kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of what I’m interested in.”
In addition to Franklin County’s younger farmer generation, several displays represented agricultural leaders in the region. The St. Albans Co-op had a booth at the expo showing off products, current employees, and later in the day, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
“We do get a lot of visitors,” said Gene Archambault, a milk quality specialist at the co-op. “It gives us a lot of exposure to members outside of Franklin County.”
Franklin-6 Rep. Dan Connor was also in attendance at the farm show in several capacities. By day, he ran the Vermont Beef Council booth, of which he is executive director.
“For most of the year, it marries well with the legislature,” he said. “The mission is really to promote beef.”
In addition to promoting his organization’s meat-y mission, Connor took put his culinary skills to the test during the Vermont Farm Show Consumer Night’s fourth annual Capital Cook Off.
Connor was part of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products team, made up of himself, Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham-3), Alyson Eastman (I-Addison-Rutland) and Tristan Todelo (D-Windham 2-3).
The House team had two competitors: the Senate team and the Agency of Agriculture team.
“We’re going to witness good local food with our chefs up here,” said Ross, who kicked off the competition Wednesday evening and has done so each of the last four years. He wore his cow hat for the occasion, as did emcee and Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld, a former St. Albans Co-op official.
“I am guessing that the team with the greatest expertise and experience will be the winner,” Ross said jokingly.
Among the judges was Lt. Gov. Scott, who has judged at each competition. “I’m experienced at this,” he said. When asked what he looks for in each team, Scott replied, “Really just the way they work together.”
He added, “I look for things like safety – nobody catching fire, you know.”
Scott, Ross, a number of other judges, Champ and “Clover” the cow, and for a brief period, Gov. Shumlin, wandered around the three tables during the hour the teams had to make a meal. Working with the same ingredients, each team prepared a dish featuring Lake Champlain yellow perch.
In addition to various politicians, mascots, officials and judges, there were a healthy number of audience members watching the event. Former Richford dairy farmers Stephen and Betsy Fleury were among them.
The Fleurys just sold their 35 dairy cattle two months ago, and, without evening chores to do, this was the first year they could stay to watch the Capitol Cook Off.
“This is kind of interesting,” said Stephen Fleury.
“Hopefully they all know how to work together,” said Betsy Fleury.
Rep. Eastman seemed to be thinking along the same lines when asked how she thought the competition was going half an hour in. “I like to think it doesn’t matter – we Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and progressives can work together,” she said.
In addition to watching their elected officials cook, the Fleurys looked around, impressed, at all the local food and beverages being offered at Consumer Night. There were 51 vendors offering samples of their various goods.
“I just think this is a fabulous opportunity to showcase the local produce,” said Betsy.
Stephen added, “The variety is amazing. I’m just so impressed with how many people are here.”
At the end of the competition, the cooking contest dishes – which were also made with all local ingredients – were presented. Connor’s team made a colorful kale salad, fried fish and a warm bean salad, which, in the end, garnered second place.
The Agency of Agriculture won the whole contest.
Ross announced the winners with glee. “This wonderful award will be housed in the Agency of Agriculture this year,” he said.
He also commented on the process in general. “It’s been a great success and it’s been a lot of fun with the legislative branches,” Ross said.
“They’re good sports,” he added, “and sometimes good cooks.”