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Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: Vermont Farm to Plate

This was originally published on the Collective Impact Blog by David Phillips.

Welcome to the first in a series of conversations with experienced backbone leaders! (see this blog post describing the series.) In this chat, we’ll hear from Ellen Kahler, Executive Director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) since 2005.

For the past five years, VSJF has served as the backbone for Vermont Farm to Plate (F2P), a statewide collective impact initiative to strengthen Vermont’s food system. Ellen and her team of ~4.5 full-time equivalent staff do some very interesting things to build shared ownership among network members and to support working group chairs. Furthermore, their website and strategic plan are some of the most polished “deliverables” I’ve seen from a collective impact initiative. If you have questions for Ellen, please pose them in the comment box here, and she will do her best to respond. Thanks, and enjoy!

Highlights from my conversation with Ellen

  • After 5 years, Ellen has seen real changes in a) network members’ alignment and b) the culture of shared ownership. She’s also beginning to see working groups coordinate with one another.
  • F2P invests in working group chairs as a key part of the network. Chairs are provided with stipends and training to support this critical role.
  • F2P is very intentional about their deliverables’ (e.g., strategic plan, website) having a consistent look and feel and using consistent messaging and a common language. For network members, this creates awareness that they’re exiting their own organization’s space, and entering a collaborative space.
  • Ellen believes a key to sustaining an initiative is by creating participatory, reflective convenings that people want to attend.
  • To create a culture of shared credit and collaboration, F2P’s steering committee does not seek to include representatives of every sector. Read below to learn about Ellen’s thoughts on the matter.
  • To address equity, F2P has a cross-cutting group focused on food access. 

David: What was the main need Vermont Farm to Plate aimed to solve? How did F2P come to be?

Ellen KahlerEllen: Prior to the legislative session in 2009, there was a lot of discussion about the “food system” space. There was a big dairy crisis at the time, and some legislators thought that agriculture was dead. At the same time, there was momentum around farmers markets, CSAs, young people going into farming, more people wanting to raise meat animals, local brewing, local sausage making, and farm-to-table chefs. So, there was a disconnect between the traditional dairy narrative and the new diversified, direct-to-consumer narrative. At the same time, private funders were starting to fund food hubs, farm to school efforts, and various food access initiatives and were wondering “how do we make sense of this? How can we create more coherence and avoid duplication of effort?”

So, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (my organization) was tasked with creating a 10-year strategic plan to increase jobs in the food system, increase economic activity, and provide healthy local food to Vermonters. They asked us to look at the entire system and gave us seed funding. We built a steering committee, conducted surveys, had 8 gatherings around the state, conducted focus groups and a statewide summit, all of which were geared towards obtaining input into what would become the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. At that time, we did not know about the collective impact framework, as the first collective impact article hadn’t been published yet. When I saw the article I thought “we are doing that!”

We launched the Farm to Plate Network in October 2011 in order to implement the Plan, with 6 working groups; task forces formed later out of the working groups. In the early years, we were learning about the core issues together, and about who wanted to “play” together. We then identified issues that no one organization could solve on their own.  Four years later, the Farm to Plate Network is made up of 350+ for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, government agencies, capital providers, educational institutions, and public health professionals who are aligned around achieving the 25 goals laid out in our statewide Plan. 

Five years into the initiative, what are you most excited about?

What’s most exciting is that our network members’ actions are more aligned around strengthening Vermont’s food system, and around our strategic plan goals (our common agenda). Network development is slow going, as people are building relationships, understanding how their organization’s mission fits into the larger picture, and understanding how a new initiative (F2P) is trying to connect them all.
Getting alignment is hard at first. We just had our 5th annual gathering, and each year it has felt more and more like people are getting what it means to work in the network. We have big plans over the next 5 years, and we needed this alignment in place before taking the next step.
Second, network members are feeling shared ownership for the network. It took a while, but there’s a noticeable difference in the way people are interacting.

Third, just within the last 6 months we’ve seen collaboration between a number of working groups.

Finally, I’m excited about the real results we’re seeing – 5,189 net new jobs and 665 net new establishments created, $3 billion in additional economic activity per year, and 2% more local food consumption taking place (~$89 million more being spent on local food per year) in just 6 years time! Because of the buzz we’re helping to create in the marketplace, the markets we’re working to open for producers, and the investments the private sector is making in expanding their capacity, we’re seeing an acceleration in many of the indicators of progress we had hoped to see. That’s not to say it’s all rosy and all the trends lines are headed in the right direction – they are not – but on a number of key indicators that our Governor and the Legislature care about, we’re getting results! 

How did the alignment happen?

The alignment naturally evolved as more organizations in the network built trusting relationships with one another. A lot of the trust building comes from quarterly working groups meeting and other learning we do together throughout the year.

We have been disciplined about our feedback loop cycle: we plan, implement, monitor, learn and adjust:

  • At the beginning of a cycle, each working group will plan for the next year, including what conversations should happen and what new projects to launch (if any).
  • During their quarterly meetings, working groups reflect and adjust, which is important because projects will morph as you get into it.
  • At the same time, our steering committee tracks the evolution as a whole.

Once a year, we have a gathering of the entire network, where we reflect and adjust based on what we are learning on the ground. The disciplined reflection, which is part of our culture, causes people to ask better questions and see systems more readily – they are getting at the stuff underneath the causes, leading to better, more insightful projects and more aligned activity. 

Can you give me a concrete example of how your learning led to action?

Six years ago, we went through a public engagement process to form our common agenda. We heard there were not enough slaughterhouses processing in Vermont. When we dug into the data and interviewed people, we found that the issue was not slaughter capacity, but meat processing capacity. This realization led to the creation of a task force, which took a value-chain approach to the problem and brought together stakeholders to really understand the bottlenecks. The task force went on “learning journeys” to Italy, North Carolina, and Wisconsin; they investigated the profitability and infrastructure needs of various processing facilities, promoted state funding for a meat cutters apprenticeship program, and learned that chefs wanted a certain quality and consistency to cuts of meat.

In addition to building relationships among stakeholders in the entire value chain (i.e., livestock producers, meat processing facilities, distributors, chefs, institutions and grocery store category buyers), the learning process helped everyone understand what each other needed to be profitable.  For example, livestock slaughtering has become more year-round (rather than only September – February), processing facilities are improving their capacity and have made infrastructure investments, and there have been many workshops on how to meet chefs’ desire for more consistent cuts.

Over three years, we constructed a shared narrative around what we need to do if we want the value chain to work for all involved. We established a greater awareness about the value chain, and what each part needed to do to be successful, and to support the success of others in the chain.

The meat processing task force disbanded after 3 years of very successful work together, but now we don’t have enough animals being raised! So a new task force is being formed to focus on the issue of meat animal supply, improving production quality, genetics and overall farm viability. I think this story really showcases our planning, implementing, monitoring, learning and adjusting approach.

What do you believe F2P does well?

I think we’re a really effective backbone organization! We “hold the whole” for our Network, keep track of progress, connect Network members and ensure connectivity between Network groups, and provide logistical support to all the Network groups. Each Network group focuses on a different “elevation” within the system. For instance, the Steering Committee monitors the functioning of the Network as a whole – from a developmental and connectivity standpoint – at a 30,000 ft elevation.  Whereas Working Groups operate at the 15,000 ft level and Task Forces are at the ground or maybe the 7,500 ft level. So during our various Network group meetings, we help these groups to stay at the appropriate elevation during their discussions and work plan development.

We’re also very intentional about how we design our annual gathering and quarterly working group meetings, which are geared toward high participation, reflection, shared learning, building relationships, and tracking progress. We also highlight the work of organizations in our network. In order to engage the private sector, we’ll often ask them to be on a panel so they don’t have to attend the whole meeting and we get their valuable insights and input into our work. We’ll also offer stipends for small producers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join meetings.

Third, our governance structure encourages sharing of credit and reinforces the notion that agriculture development is important to our economy, while also being important to achieving other goals such as food security, environmental quality, public health, and community vitality. Our steering committee is composed of working group chairs, the chair of the Food Access cross-cutting team, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce, and a representative from the Vermont Food Funders Network and the Sustainable Agriculture Council. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, with our steering committee it’s not about having every key organization at the table. Rather, we wanted our steering committee to reflect the structure of the Network. If you have the expectation that every interest group needs to have a seat at the table, then everyone will speak from their own organization’s perspective rather than from the larger system perspective.

We also talk a lot about not coming to the network with your organizational ego. We want you to bring your expertise and knowledge, but we don’t want you to flex your organization’s muscles. It took a little while for members to understand this approach, but I think they appreciate it now because we’ve created a neutral convening space where we can bring our “best selves” to the table for the greater good of the food system as a whole.

We’re big on data and analysis to inform the solutions we choose to work on. If you take a look at our Getting to 2020 pages of the Farm to Plate website you’ll see how we are tracking population-level indicators of progress. We have created well over 125 data visualizations and a brief “story” to explain what the data appears to be indicating. Showing legislators and funders these data visualizations has continued to build support because they can see that we are quantitatively and qualitatively tracking progress and making adjustments to our strategies as needed. This helps to build their confidence in our competence!

Also, the fact that the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce are on the steering committee is huge, because it sends a clear message that the state of Vermont takes this seriously, and that agriculture development is economic development. It helps people see the “bigness” of what we are talking about. 

Working group chairs are a key part of your network. What are their responsibilities, and how do you support them?

Chairs get elected annually by their working group members, and can serve three consecutive terms. Every year, they facilitate four meetings, attend the annual gathering, attend an annual leadership retreat, attend five to six steering committee meetings, and submit two reports on how they’re doing.

In recognition of this responsibility, we provide a stipend to the chairs. The four working groups with co-chairs receive $5,000 each, the working group with one chair receives $7,500, and chairs of cross-cutting teams may receive stipends if needed.

We also provide chairs with leadership development opportunities, such as project management and facilitation training. This not only helps the working groups, but also the chairs’ own organizations. Investing in working group chairs allows us to have a lean backbone of 4.5 full-time equivalent staff.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced when sustaining the initiative?

We were challenged to maintain enthusiasm in the early years when the process is the product. It’s foundational work that can set you up to do more later.

Second, sharing credit was a challenge to many organizations. Some organizations are used to being the “go-to organization” for a particular issue, especially those that pre-date the Farm to Plate Initiative. But now the media often come to the backbone, although we do direct media inquiries back to network members as well. It took time for people to understand that they can show what their organization is doing while being part of a larger effort to strengthen Vermont’s food system.

To reinforce this message, my Communications Director has built a community of practice with communications specialists in network members’ organizations. They coordinate with each other so that when individual organizations create a press release, they include two sentences that situates their organization within the larger Farm to Plate context.

We say over and over again that the food system is way bigger than any one organization, and that we have to work together to expand the pie of available funding, the markets for producers, and product options for consumers. We help people realize that we should be referencing what each other is doing. 

What advice do you have for other collective impact initiatives regarding sustainability?

Getting consistent, multi-year funding is key. From a financial sustainability perspective, it’s hard to get funders to see the value of the backbone.

Aside from backbone funding, raising funds for Network projects such as our new independent grocers project or our soon to be launched local food consumer campaign, can be challenging. Network members cover their costs of meeting attendance, although we do offer stipends for small producers, entrepreneurs and consultants who are important to the work but would otherwise not be able to attend meetings. We are continually challenged to think differently about what resources are needed to participate in this work.

What are a couple system-level changes have you seen?

Two years after F2P started, the legislature passed the Working Lands Enterprise Fund (WLEF), which created a funding stream for food and forest products businesses. In the last three years, over $1.6 million has gone into strengthening food system businesses. The WLEF uses the F2P strategic plan as a guide for their investments, so the funding gets deployed in an aligned way.

Overall, awareness of the capital continuum has increased. You want to have the right type of capital that meets the needs of the farm or food business, no matter their stage, scale, or market. We’ve made sure there is sufficient capital across the spectrum, and that’s changed the landscape.

How does F2P think about equity?

Vermont’s demographics make the racial side of equity challenging to keep in the fore (according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2014, Vermont is 94% white/not Hispanic or Latino, whereas the rest of the U.S. is 62%). The main theme for our 2014 annual gathering was around racial equity and food justice. We invited InterAction Institute for Social Change to teach us about deconstructing social biases. That theme has not carried through as fully as we’d like because class issues are more dominant for Vermonters.

Before F2P was formed, many food access groups had been working for years. We tried to add value by helping them come to a mini-common agenda, and our goal is for the food access work to be integrated into all other working groups.

At this year’s annual gathering, we ran a fishbowl panel with workers in the food system (e.g., migrant farm worker, production baker, sous chef, food coop front end worker, and a former dairy herd manager). The intention was to talk about good and bad working conditions as a way for people to learn about issues facing workers in the food system.

We’re also examining the food system job market. We have created 5,189 new jobs, but many are in lower-paying parts of the food system. We need to shift awareness to the quality of the jobs created. And at the same time, employers say they can’t find good workers for the job openings they have. So some of our next work involves addressing employment issues from both the worker and the employer perspective.

What do you think? Share your questions and comments here.