The Future of South Burlington Voter Survey Results: Food and Agriculture

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Thursday February 07, 2013

About the series:  As described in previous issues of The Other Paper, the hottest issue of the past year has been “Interim Zoning” and the work of the Task Forces appointed to study the central issues surrounding future directions for city growth. On Election Day, November 6th, Saint Michael’s College Sociologist Vince Bolduc oversaw a survey of 404 voters as they responded to 30 planning-related questions asked by 20 interviewers. The accompanying article is the fourth in a series of five.

Part Four:
Voter Views on Food and Agriculture

In this fourth article in the series, we look at how voters view some of the core issues that have been under discussion by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Task Force. According to the mandate of the City Council (August 20, 2012), this group was charged with the task of identifying ways that South Burlington can be “…transformed into a City that can provide all its residents with affordable, locally grown, healthy, organic food.”

Careful readers of the last report in this series may recall that when voters were asked to choose from lists of six possible priorities that might enhance various aspects of life in South Burlington, “completing the City Center project” and “building and expanding businesses” emerged as the highest priorities.  “Expanding agriculture” was ranked near the bottom of the list with about 6% of voters feeling that such changes would contribute “the most” to either the “quality of life” or the “economic strength” of the community.

On another list of 10 options, support for “growing our own food” garnered substantial minority support, but relative to the other nine items proposed, it ranked 7th.  Thirty-eight percent of voters said that “growing more of our own food” was “very important,” but 25% said that it was “not an important priority at all.”

A related question was asked about the importance of “encouraging farming and agriculturally based businesses” and it ranked 9th of 10 options. The only option that was lower was “slowing the rate of housing developments”, which only one in four voters said was “very important.”

Our interviewers also asked if six of these items were “important enough to be willing to spend an extra $100 in taxes to support.”  As can be seen in the chart below, slightly more than two of every five voters said that they would be willing to pay extra taxes for the two agricultural issues highlighted. (See graph)

If the majority of voters are not yet prepared to transform South Burlington into a self-sustaining agricultural community, they are not insensitive to the value of locally grown food. When asked “how important is it to you to buy locally grown food?” 52% said that it was “very important” and another 39% said it was “somewhat important.”  A substantial majority (71%) even said that they had bought food at one of the Farmers’ Markets in the area in the last month (October).

Not surprisingly, gardening appears to be a fairly popular seasonal activity among voters. Fifty-one percent told our interviewers that they “had grown some of their own food” the prior summer, a larger proportion than the 33% that we see nationally. Additionally, 35% said that they would use “a shared common plot for gardening if it were available.” Finally, 19% of voters reported that last year they belonged to “local food cooperatives.”

Given the potential importance of farming for future land use, the survey employed yet another question to gauge the pulse of voters on the priority of agriculture for the City. “What might be done,” respondents were asked hypothetically, “should the City receive a gift of 100 acres of undeveloped land?”  Two out of five voters said they would like to see the land “left open for walking trails and wildlife”; one of five wanted to see it used for “more active recreational purposes, like ball fields and playgrounds” and one out of five hoped that the City could “find people who could use it for gardens and farming.”

What do we know about the most enthusiastic proponents for enhancing agriculture in South Burlington? Depending on the measure, these voters constitute between one-fifth and two-fifths of our 404 respondents.

We found that attitudes about food and agriculture had no relationship to homeownership, state of birth, or presence of children. We did find, however, a significant overlap between the agricultural enthusiasts and the respondents who wished to make zoning more restrictive. These voters were also the most willing to increase property taxes to support a list of different issues—from building affordable housing to supporting the City Center and maintaining the quality of the schools. This group included disproportionate numbers of residents in the higher educational categories, more women than men, and more younger voters.

But, as we have found on a number of other interim zoning issues discussed in earlier columns, those who are most committed to supporting the various agricultural issues are also the most likely to describe themselves as politically “liberal” or “independent.” In fact, perhaps because of the perceived potential for new restrictions on privately held land, or the possibility of increased taxes, fewer than 10% of the supporters of the agricultural issues labeled themselves as “conservative.”

If readers wish to share their opinions on agriculture in South Burlington, the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Task Force is holding a public forum on March 6th at 6:30 p.m. to discuss related ideas with residents.

Next week’s article will conclude this series by summarizing the main themes that have emerged over the past four weeks of analysis.

SOURCE: Vince Bolduc