Skip to main content
ARS Home » Northeast Area » Burlington, Vermont » Food Systems Research Unit » Research » Research Project #440137

Research Project: Increasing Small-Farm Viability, Sustainable Production and Human Nutrition in Plant-Based Food Systems of the New England States

Location: Food Systems Research Unit

2022 Annual Report

Objective 1. Improving Production Systems: Develop data-informed small-farm strategies to improve the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of crop production systems based on research that considers feedback from value-added processors, informed consumers, and potential impact on nutritional/health outcomes. [NP 216 components 1c, 2a, 3b, 3c] Objective 2. Enhancing Value Added Processing: Develop innovative solutions for specialty value-added processes and products to improve consumer health outcomes as well as economic, environmental, and social sustainability of the food system, while informing consumer choice and diversified production system management. [NP 216 components 2b, 2c] Objective 3. Optimizing Consumer Outcomes: Production systems and value-added processing will be tied to consumer preferences, product nutrition, food safety and potential impacts on public health, thus enabling consumers to make safe, healthy, and informed food choices and facilitating targeted research for the improvement of production systems, food processing, and development and delivery of new products. [NP 216 component 3c] Objective 4. Data Integration: Develop appropriate linkages and cooperation within and between the USDA-ARS and the University of Vermont, for the purpose of forming an integrated Food Systems program, including integrated data systems, comprehensive models, and submitting a proposal for becoming part of the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network. [NP 216 components 1d, 2b, 3b, 3c]

Food systems are interconnected sets of elements that work together to produce, process, distribute, store, sell, and prepare food. They include the upstream activities that support production, such as the creation of farm inputs. They also include downstream activities, such as the disposal or recycling of food waste. This project will contribute towards improving human nutrition, ecological sustainability and economic viability of plant-based food systems in the New England States. To this end, the project scientists will work together with the University of Vermont, and other collaborators, to explore how the region can simultaneously improve diets through delivery of satisfying, culturally-appropriate, plant-based foods that are simultaneously affordable, sustainable, and support viable farms and food businesses. Research activities will focus at a range of scales, from individual actors, such as farmers and consumers, to larger geographic areas, such as watersheds or foodsheds. In addition, the unit will explore how systems change over time. Three overarching questions will guide the Unit’s research on plant-based food systems. First, how can different components across sectors of the food system encourage intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables, while also improving the overall quality of the diet and associated health outcomes? Second, how can plant-based food systems increase biological productivity and economic viability while also leveraging opportunities for reduced environmental impact, such as exploiting ecological synergies from integrated crop-livestock systems? And third, how can plant based farming systems interact with animal-production based systems, to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impacts? To create effective collaborations with the University of Vermont and stakeholder partners, the Research Unit will identify on-going efforts to understand and improve the ecological, economic, and social sustainability of New England food systems. This process will help ARS staff to design strategic research that answers key questions or integrates data in new ways that lead to transformative improvements. In addition, the Unit will develop a state-of-the-art facility for computational modeling and data visualization with the ability to link to other data sources and computing resources.

Progress Report
3a. Staffing The Food Systems Research Unit (FSRU) hired a new Research Social Scientist supporting this project. In addition, a position description for a Research Agronomist/Research Horticulturalist was approved by the Office of National Programs (ONP) and has been announced on USAJobs. The Lead Scientist (Research Leader) hired a summer intern to assist him with research, and he is in the process of recruiting a postdoc. The Unit’s Administrative Officer resigned the position, and a detail is being sought to fill this position temporarily until a permanent person can be found. Recruitments have been launched for two other administrative positions: a Program Support Assistant, and a Financial and Budget Technician. 3b. Facilities At the end of FY 2021, the FSRU has established a lease agreement to pay for renovation of an existing space in Hills Hall on the University of Vermont (UVM) campus. A portion of Hills Hall will eventually serve as the unit’s primary office and lab space. The university developed plans for renovation of the building in consultation with the Research Leader and other ARS staff. The university solicited bids and hired a contractor to perform the work. The project is underway. In the interim, the FSRU, the Northeast Area (NEA) Office, and UVM are working together to identify temporary facilities around campus to support scientists, technicians, and administrative staff hired before the permanent location is ready. All permanent and temporary staff currently have office spaces on campus. 3c. Research In pursuit of Obj. 1, Obj. 2, and Obj. 3, the Lead Scientist and Research Social Scientist have written a draft outline of possible research activities to be included in the unit’s first project plan. They are working together on the concept note for the project plan and have participated in NP 216 activities related to the project plan. In pursuit of Obj. 1, Obj. 2, and Obj. 3, the Lead Scientist established a Non-Funded Cooperative Agreement [8090-44000-001-002N] with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) to conduct collaborative research on New England’s capacity to rely on regionally sourced foods. The VSJF has brought together a team of researchers from across the six-state region. Through this agreement, the Lead Scientist is collaborating with researchers from six institutions (American Farmland Trust, Brandeis University, Clark University, University of Maine, University of Massachusetts, and University of Vermont) on analyses of current and potential regional self-reliance based on a net-balance of food production and consumption in New England. The following progress has been made: • The Lead Scientist advised colleagues at University of Vermont and University of Maine on the methodology for conducting regional self-reliance analyses of New England for terrestrial foods and for seafood. • The Lead Scientist developed a spreadsheet model to estimate potential regional self-reliance under scenarios of alternative regional food production. The model is being used to estimate pathways for achieving 30 percent self-reliance on regional food given changes in land use, crop yields, and crop and livestock production. • The Lead Scientist co-coordinated ten focus groups with stakeholders to explore barriers to and opportunities for expanding regional food production in New England. Focus groups were held with stakeholders on the following topics: annual crops, fruit crops, dairy, ruminant meat, small-scale poultry and eggs, food processing and manufacturing, aquaculture, culturally appropriate foods, fisheries management, and fisheries harvest. The Lead Scientist facilitated eight focus group sessions and observed two. • The Lead Scientist is working on final report to summarize the findings from the analyses of current and potential self-reliance. • Initial results suggest that current regional self-reliance is 18 percent, meaning that regional production could theoretically supply 18 percent of current food consumption. However, this estimate does not account for food produced in New England that gets shipped to meet food needs in other regions. Thus, the actual self-supply of food is likely lower. Regional-self-reliance varies widely across food groups and within food groups. For plant-based foods, self-reliance is highest for vegetables (32 percent) and much lower for fruits, grains, and sweeteners (respectively, 6%, 2%, and >1%). Within these food groups, just six food commodities stand out as having a high RSR (greater than 50 percent): barley, blueberries, cranberries, maple syrup, potatoes, and pumpkins. Scenario analysis of potential pathways to increasing regional self-reliance suggest that reaching a goal of 30 percent self-reliance for the major food groups would require increased yields and land use intensity, particularly for fruit and vegetable crops. In pursuit of Obj. 4, The Lead Scientist and the Associate Director of the UVM Food Systems Research Center at University of Vermont (UVM) collaborated to write the research plans for the first Non-Assistance Cooperative Agreement connected to the Food Systems Research Unit. The research plans for the NACA includes a project that will be closely related to the unit’s research and likely directly involve ARS scientists. The food systems metrics project will estimate the performance of Northeast food systems across five domains: economic environmental, human health, productivity, and social.


Review Publications
Peters, C.J. and Thilmany, D.D. 2022. Towards a holistic understanding of food systems. In: Peters, C.J., Thilmany, D.D., editors. Food Systems Modeling: Tools for Assessing Sustainability in Food and Agriculture. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press. p. 349-358.