The Farmer's Advocate
PHOTOS BY COREY HENDRICKSON
Chuck Ross’s struggle to protect Vermont’s food producers never ends.
The most mundane, seemingly ordinary routines sometimes redirect our lives in unimaginable ways. Just ask Chuck Ross. Like many boys in Vermont, Ross aspired to play hockey. His local rink was in Burlington, about 13 miles north of his family’s Hines-burg farm. Over the course of 15-some-odd years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Ross wore out the roads between Hinesburg and Burlington, first as a 12-year-old learning to skate and shoot, then as a high school star and finally as a scholarship player for the University of Vermont’s budding Division I hockey program.
When he first began making the trip, he’d pass through an endless sea of agriculture in the fertile Lake Champlain Valley—punctuated only by a dairy silo, a humble farmhouse or the occasional hayfield. But over the next decade and a half Ross, young as he was, began to notice changes in the landscape he loved.
“I watched farms, literally, go out of business; watched farmers sell their land and saw houses go up in the middle of fields,” Ross remembers. “That really irked me.”
Those drives to the rink put a fire in Ross’s belly to protect Vermont’s farmland and producers, and would shape his work and advocacy for the next four decades: as a Hinesburg representative at the State House in Montpelier, a longtime senior aide to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and, most recently, as the state’s agriculture secretary. And in late January, with a new administration in power in Montpelier, Ross assumed leadership of UVM Extension at the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
In each role Ross, 61, has worked to make farming in Vermont a profitable venture—safely and sustainably, of course—so that fewer farmers have to sell their land to developers. That passion has earned the respect of nearly every food and farming advocate with whom he’s worked.
“What was so consistent,” says Enid Wonnacott, executive director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, “was his respect for farmers in Vermont, the working landscape—his passion for the people that work the land and the cultural value of agriculture to Vermont.”
Chuck Ross’s agricultural roots run deep. His Vermont roots run very deep.
On his father’s side, seven generations before him have called the Green Mountain State home. Ross’s earliest ancestors helped settle the towns of Danby and Huntington in the 1760s. A century later, his great-grandfather was growing apples on a mile-long orchard along Lake Cham-plain and shipping them to England. He’d lose his land in the 1910s, however, when a national recession coincided with his installation of a pricey and rare irrigation system—one of the state’s first.
Ross’s mother’s ancestors were original sod-busting farmers in Iowa. There, Ross spent summers with his maternal grandparents, who instilled in him an appreciation for what it takes to grow and sell food.
Charles R. Ross Sr., Chuck’s father, took a different path—at first. He went to law school and earned an MBA before working with a number of energy-related state and federal agencies. As commissioner of the Federal Power Commission (FPC), Charles Ross, a Republican, was in 1965 the lone dissenting voice on the commission to oppose—largely for environmental reasons—the construction of a hydroelectric power plant at Storm King Mountain along the Hudson River. Com-missioner Ross’s stand became a cornerstone in the burgeoning environmental movement and deeply influenced the younger Ross’s view of our natural resources.
Charles Sr. resigned from the FPC in 1968 and moved his family from Washington back to their ancestral homeland: Vermont. Accord-ing to Ross, his father bought 240 acres of farmland in Hinesburg, sight unseen, where he started growing and selling hay. Charles Sr. never really picked up the pitchfork, but his son did, learning the business from the French-Canadian man who managed the farm.
All of these experiences—summers in Iowa with his grandparents; Charles Sr.’s environmental leadership in Washington, DC; hay baling in Hinesburg—served as the fertile ground from which Chuck Ross’s lifetime of public service around land and agriculture would grow.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” he says now, “but [farming] was seeping into my soul.”
So was hockey. A standout player in high school, Ross was offered a scholarship to become the first Vermonter to play for the newly designated Division I University of Vermont Catamounts. He graduated with his BA in geography in 1978 before pursuing a master’s degree in geography at the University of Washington. For his master’s thesis, he’d draw inspiration from those drives to the rink in Burlington as a teenager when he witnessed the Vermont farmland he loved—that generations before him had tilled—slipping away. Ross wanted to find out what was causing farmers in the Lake Champlain Valley to stop farming and sell their land. So he spent 1981 asking farmers in Charlotte, Shelburne and his hometown of Hinesburg about their future plans.
Master’s in hand in 1982, Ross returned to Vermont and decided to try his hand running the family hay farm. He also im-mersed himself in every organization he could find that was working on agriculture and land preservation issues. He became an agriculture representative for planning commissions in Hinesburg and Chittenden County. He joined the board of historic Shelburne Farms, which a little more than a decade earlier had become a nonprofit working on issues of land conservation.
As a landowner, Ross was “before the planning commission as an applicant on, let’s say, a Wednesday, and sitting as a commission member on Thursday. So I was seeing both sides of these questions with profound im-plications for what our communities look like and how our economy might evolve.”
But he felt he could do more. Vermont was rapidly changing. Corporations and devel-opers were beginning to circle, even as the state began its own “agricultural renaissance.” So in 1989, at the age of 33, Ross threw his hay-stained hat in the ring to be Hinesburg’s State Representative—and won. Agricultur-ally, Vermont was “rife with public policy conflicts and opportunities,” Ross says.
“The tourist industry is grounded in the character and the culture of this place—a place that is a working landscape,” he con-tinues. “You lose the working landscape, and you start to become Anywhere, USA, as compared to a place called Vermont.”
In 1994, then-junior Senator Patrick Leahy asked Ross to serve as his state director and senior adviser—a position he’d hold for 16 years. Then, in 2010, Governor-Elect Peter Shumlin, with whom Ross had served as a representative in the early ’90s, asked his friend to serve as his Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Ross was surprised, figuring he’d be a better fit in the Department of Energy. As a legislative aide, he’d helped establish a statewide smart grid that garnered a $66 million federal Department of Energy grant.
But Shumlin was adamant. So in 2011, Charles R. Ross Jr. became Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets for the state of Vermont. A local boy from Hinesburg, a hockey legend and farmer, would now be shepherding an agriculture and forestry sector worth more than $700 million to Vermont family farmers every year. The magnitude of this responsibility was not lost on Ross, and neither was the opportunity.
“I came in with a very strong belief that agriculture and forestry, which occupy about 95% of the land in Vermont, and the people who do the work on that landscape, really capture the essence, the soul of Vermont,” Ross says. “We are who we are because of our agricultural and forestry history.”
Vermonters heckle each other about their socks.
Laurie Ristino, director of Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, was sitting in a café in Montpelier a few years ago when Secretary Ross strode by in Vermonters’ preferred warm-weather footwear: wool socks and clogs. She yelled out to Ross, asking what brand of socks he wore. “Darn Tough!” he yelled back, referring to the sock brand manufactured in Northfield, Vermont.
The anecdote illustrates two main traits Ross exemplified as agriculture secretary: his loyalty to Vermont-owned businesses and his accessibility.
Maybe it’s the farmer in him, but Ross has never settled for merely sending a staff member out to do something he could do himself. After the Vermont legislature implemented the 2011 Farm to Plate In-vestment Program, which set benchmarks for increasing economic development in the state’s farm and food sector, the state hosted a series of roundtables between government agencies to set out strategies for implementing the law. According to Rachel Carter, communications director with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which administers and tracks the Farm to Plate Program, Ross himself was frequently there, sleeves rolled up, “to get to work—not do a speech.”
This is just who Chuck Ross is, Ristino adds. “Only in Vermont would I have access to the Secretary of Agriculture on so many issues in such a collaborative way,” she says.
Ross faced at least two significant challenges that would come to define his tenure as agriculture secretary. The first came less than a year into the post, unexpectedly: Hurricane Irene. At the height of harvest season, the August 2011 storm absolutely walloped Vermont, wiping out more than 26,000 acres of farmland and costing farmers more than $20 million in crop losses. Within days of the storm, Ross had cobbled together a rapid response team that rushed to the aid of farmers with monies from a farm disaster relief fund. Ross went to bat on behalf of farmers like himself, securing public grants to reimburse farmers for losses and negotiating with the Food and Drug Administration to allow for crops to be quickly replanted once the soil was deemed safe. In the end, to anyone’s knowledge, the seventh costliest hurricane to hit the United States didn’t directly cause the shutdown of a single farm in the Green Mountain State.
The other issue that defined Ross’s time overseeing the agricultural sector was water. In 2008, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the unsafe amounts of phosphorous seeping into Lake Champlain from roads, developed lands, wastewater treatment plants and farms. The EPA settled, forcing the agency to demand that Vermont do its part to reduce the amount of phosphorous runoff. Ross seemed to take it upon himself to meet with farmers along the lake, many of whom worried that the cost of integrating the new regulations would threaten their livelihoods.
The result of the process was Act 64, a bill passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Shumlin putting in place a comprehensive, multi-year initiative to clean up all of Vermont’s bodies of water. Drawing from his conversations with farmers, Ross—with echoes of his father decades earlier—ensured that the bill’s provisions would be both stringent and workable for farms of all sizes.
“It’s hard to bridge the divide between protecting the environment and protecting agriculture,” says Ristino of Vermont Law School. “I’ve seen few political leaders in agriculture attempt it, and fewer still with Chuck’s success.”
When Governor Phil Scott’s administration took over on January 5, Chuck Ross left state politics for the first time since he ran to be Hinesburg’s state representative in 1989. A few weeks later, he joined his alma mater, the University of Vermont—in a role that will be more education than legislation—directing its extension school in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The school will focus on educating producers and consumers on issues close to Ross’s heart: food safety, water quality, farm viability, the rights of migrant workers.
Ross, who has two adult children and a son in high school, still lives on the 240 acres in Hinesburg his dad bought in the 1960s and that he now owns with his brother and sister. He doesn’t grow hay himself anymore, but has turned his land into an incubator for five largely agricultural startups. He drives into Burlington daily for work, almost the same, pastoral route he took to play hockey decades ago. And though Vermont’s struggle to retain its pre-cious and prosperous farmland continues, in many ways its agricultural economy, and not coincidentally its tourism sector, are stronger than ever—thanks in no small part to hockey-star-turned-farmer-turned-public-servant Chuck Ross. TM