The promoters from other states who call for tips don't get much help from George Dunsmore or Jerome Kelley, but there's no secret to what they are doing with farming in Vermont.
Under former agriculture commissioner Dunsmore and agriculture development chief Kelley, the state has mounted an unusual effort to stimulate farming by developing new markets and finding new ways to use Vermont products.
Some other states -- notably Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina -- are trying to get their states' farmers to diversify and broaden their outlook, but nothing is quite so dramatic as Vermont's program.
In recent years, Vermont has been known basically for milk, cheese and maple syrup. But today, its 6,300 farms crank out an increasing variety of foods, and its plants are turning them into dozens of new specialty foods, aimed mostly at the growing gourmet market.
Maple syrup and crystal production are up. Apple production will double in five years. New milk products are coming along. Beef, veal and lamb production are on the upswing. The moribund Vermont turkey industry has bounced back. The vegetable industry is growing.
"We're trying to bring Vermont agriculture back to where it was 50 years ago," said Kelley, a former journalist and advertising man who came home a few years ago to head the promotion effort Vermont began in 1979.
What he means is that the state is trying to break away from its milk-and-maple stereotype by urging farmers into other products and helping find processors and markets for them. Product-promotion boards, which include farmers, are a key part of the program.
Assume someone wants to make cucumber jelly. The state helps them get set up and might even persuade a farmer to specialize in growing the cukes. Somebody else wants to make blueberry preserves; the state lines up a grower who can provide a premium fruit. The department will help the smallest processor find financing, provide help in designing catchy labels and then promote the product outside the state if it gets established as a seller.
Through its advertising and promotion, the state gives these firms entree to markets they might never reach on their own. Kelley's office also helps firms in cooperative packaging ventures and is moving to coordinate shipping resources so Vermont products won't leave the state in half-empty trucks.
A typical new processor is John Altman, who a year ago started a specialty pasta-and-sauce firm at Putney. He won't discuss sales figures, but his frozen, filled pastas go to major eastern markets and are sold as far away as the Caribbean. He is anticipating new markets in Europe.
Altman talks about a "Vermontness" that helps sell his products: "There is an essence of Vermont that connotes product integrity -- a real product made by real people, not something with artificial ingredients turned out by a remote multinational company . . . . We're all generally very excited by what is going on here and by the help being given us by the state."
One of the tricks to Altman's success is his use of local farm products. His special cheddar and walnut-filled pasta, for example, takes advantage of Vermont milk and nuts. His pesto sauce is widely praised, he said, because it is so pungent -- the basil leaf is picked at a nearby farm and processed the same day.
This sort of entrepreneurship puts a glint in Kelley's eye. "Twenty months ago we had virtually nothing," he said. "But today there are 65 food manufacturers using Vermont food products . . . . One firm went from zero to $12 million sales in a year, another from zero to $5 million. One of them uses a ton of honey and 12,000 gallons of cream every month that otherwise would not have been used."
Kelley continued, "This is almost the textbook case of what can be done if you go carefully from A to B to C. Any state could do this by examining its products and their market potential . . . . But here in Vermont there was a void and we were in the right place at the right time."
The Vermont promotions seem endless. The state is selling tons of maple crystals, which can be converted back to syrup, in the Far East. Its McIntosh apples are a hit in Europe. Its brown eggs are coveted in the East, although there hardly are enough to go around at home. Vermont pork and veal are going to new markets under contracts engineered by the state.
Dunsmore, for his part, thinks this is just the beginning of getting Vermont agriculture back to where it was 50 years ago -- that is, diversified and vigorous. He's asking the state to double his department's agricultural promotion budget to $300,000 this year. And, he added, he thinks the chances of getting it are good.