Kathryn Flagg is a freelance writer from Shoreham and a 2010-2011 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. Her reporting has taken her from dairy farms in Vermont to cattle ranches in Wyoming to as far afield as China, where she spent part of this winter researching weather modification and water shortages.
1. How did you get the story idea for “The Trouble With Butchers”?
KF: I first started following agricultural issues in the state closely when I was working as a reporter at the Addison County Independent in Middlebury. At the time, I was especially interested in the economics of dairy farming, but I began hearing from farmers — especially farmers with small operations interested in selling to local markets — about some of the problems surrounding meat processing in the state. I made a few phone calls, and I was hooked. Incidentally, as I was knee-deep in reporting this story, my fiance and I decided to acquire a few cows of our own. We knew that we were interested in raising some of our own meat, so these issues were especially pertinent to me when I was working on this story. I even brought my partner, Colin, along for one of my interviews; he’s the brains and brawn behind our very tiny cattle operation, and he asked some very smart questions!
2. Did you sample any of the pork from Sugar Mountain Farm, and if so, how did it compare to grocery store pork?
KF: Sadly, I can’t say that I sampled any of the Sugar Mountain Farm pork. I did try a steak from Badger Brook Meats after my interview with Vince Foy and Deb Yonkers in Danville, and it was delicious. I’m a very strong believer in the quality of local foods, and can definitely taste a difference in the fresh vegetables I pick up at my farmers market or local meat I purchase from nearby farms. Setting aside the issue of taste, though, I think there are other benefits to investing in this kind of food. It feels good to know I’m supporting farmers in my community, and that I’m playing my part in keeping Vermont’s agricultural tradition alive and well.
3. You’re studying at the University of Wyoming — in another rural state. Does Wyoming have the same focus on agriculture that Vermont has?
KF: My time in Wyoming has been eye-opening, and I’m excited I’ve had a chance to see how agricultural issues play out in another part of the country. Comparing agriculture in Vermont and Wyoming is like comparing apples and oranges. The scale here is so vast: Even the small ranches often have hundreds of head of cattle. Wyoming’s agricultural scene also tends to be much less diverse than Vermont’s; the long winters (even longer than Vermont’s) and harsh terrain mean that cattle ranching can be profitable, but it’s much more difficult to grow local fruits and vegetables. I’m very much looking forward to hitting the Vermont farmers markets this summer.
4. What was your favorite statistic in “First, We’d Like to Say,” our story on Vermont’s claim to number ones?
KF: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I loved some of the quirkier claims I dug up — like the idea perpetuated on Wikipedia that Vermont leads the nation in per capita consumption of cooked oatmeal. Who knew? More seriously, I was so inspired by the density of talent and creativity our state can boast: We have more writers and libraries, more artisan cheesemakers and more patents per capita than any other place in the country.
5. How did you find Vermont’s number ones?
KF: To be honest, I spent a lot of time on Google in the beginning! Substantiating some of those early claims I discovered turned out to be the most difficult part of the research. Then I began rooting around in slightly more obscure places. Census data gave me a few interesting leads. There were obvious connections to explore — like Vermont and maple production or Vermont and cheese — but others (like the number of tennis courts per capita, or number of Peace Corps volunteers) were more surprising.