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Vermont Law School Aims to Lead on Food Policy

John Echeverria is the head of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont 
Law School. He oversaw the school’s new Center for Agriculture and Food 
Systems during the search for a director.
(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

John Echeverria is the head of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School. He oversaw the school’s new Center for Agriculture and Food Systems during the search for a director. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

— For decades, Vermont has been at the forefront of evolving national debates on such issues as health care, gay rights and global warming, and the state has been particularly prominent in its promotion of sustainable farming practices and the local food movement.

Now, Vermont Law School will be helping the state’s farming efforts move forward by developing curriculum and outreach programs that will further understanding and broaden national food policy, said the recently selected head of the nascent Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

Laurie Ristino, who has been practicing agriculture law in Washington, D.C., for 20 years and is a senior counsel with the Department of Agriculture, was named earlier this month to the post after more than a yearlong national search.

She will start her job at the law school in January. Her first task will to get to know the state’s leaders and officials involved with farming and environmental communities, she said, during a recent telephone interview.

“I’m excited about developing new partnerships and relationships, getting to know Vermont and doing a lot research into what the farming community finds useful and sustainable,” she said.

“I have a national background, but I need to learn the local community.

There are a lot of smart, creative people in Vermont, and it’s incredibly exciting for me to have this opportunity.” Ristino, 46, was born in Massachusetts and has spent time in Maine and Vermont. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, a law degree from University of Iowa and a master’s degree from George Mason University. She is considered a national expert in the conservation and preservation of American working lands. She also advised the USDA on the 2002 and 2008 farm bills and has been advising on the 2012 farm bill. In addition to practicing law, she also teaches at the George Washington University Law School.

“Vermont Law School is unique among law schools — it’s the best environmental law school in the country (in a small progressive agriculture state) — and it’s my dream job, a rare opportunity to start a new Center” that combines new emerging field of agriculture and the law, she said.

“This is the right time to be engaging in food and agriculture issues, given the unprecedented public interest in this area and the undeniable need for safe and sustainable food,” she said in an earlier statement.

The Center was created in 2011 with a $1 million anonymous donation, which will provide three years of funding, said John Echeverria, the head of the Environmental Law Center, who has been overseeing the new agriculture Center while the search for a director was under way.

“Our inspiration for starting the Center was multi-fold: The public has shown an increased interest food and agriculture, especially food; there’s a growing legislative and academic interest in the field and there’s been an increase in the number of our students coming from a farm background and having an interest in farming and food,” he said.

Few law schools in the country are “paying attention to agriculture and food issues” and there are only a few established centers — Drake University Law School in Iowa started its in 1983 and the law schools at University of Arkansas and Penn State also have noted centers — and most are focused on large-scale farming operations and the regulations governing them, Echeverria said.

“There was an empty space in the East. There are no national law schools like Vermont Law School that are studying local food systems, improving the environment and agriculture activities. So we saw an interest, a need and an opportunity,” he said.

“Vermont is really fertile ground to study. Vermonters have been out front on the genetically modified food and the labeling debate,” Echeverria said. “They have been leading on the farm-to-plate strategic plan, on organic farming and farmers markets, and Vermont is way ahead in developing systems to market local food. Vermont residents, per capita, consume more locally produced food than any state in the nation.” In addition to providing curriculum for students and working with food and agriculture businesses to establish law and policy, the new Center also will provide free legal services for those with interests in the food and agriculture, Echeverria said.

“The University of Vermont extension service has an excellent program for agriculture and food business planning, but Vermont is empty of a place where people, who can’t afford a private attorney, can go for help getting over legal hurdles. (The legal services) also will provide a training vehicle for our students.” Vermont law school has an increasing number of students who have an interest in climate change, and many of them are specializing in agriculture and how it’s affected by climate change, he said, adding that these are issues that have a long-term consequences and affect how the world will feed itself and be sustainable.

“Laurie Ristino has been working in agriculture for 20 years. She is a very experienced lawyer, dealing with agriculture and food systems.

She’s a national expert, and once she gets up to speed on the local community, she’ll decide the direction that the Center will go,” Echeverria said.

Broadly, the Center will have a focus on national policies affecting how agriculture relates to the environment and how community-based agriculture affects the environment, Ristino said.

In her initial months, Ristino said her intention is to get to know the people in the environmental and agriculture communities in the state, the leaders and the people actively involved in food and agriculture.

“I’m not going to set a timetable for the types of research, educational and convening services that the Center will provide. But, I can tell you I will move assertively forward to get the Center up and moving, doing good work for food and ag. Of course, the work that VLS has already been doing will continue — its work in scholarship, research, and education — while the Center grows and begins to complement that work.

“I am hoping to add staff, (but) fund development will be one of my focus areas, and I will be developing further relationships with foundations and others interested in sustainable agriculture,” she said.

“Vermont Law School has students from around the world,” Echeverria said. “And we study global issues, but being in Vermont gives our efforts a foundation and credibility because this state is far out front on environmental issues.”