Vermont’s post-European identity and cultural history are inextricably linked to the working landscape. However, the relevance of work land to the future economic and social fabric of the state is at a critical point. As fewer Vermonters work the land, more Vermonters lose appreciation and empathy for the people, businesses, and communities whose life force is tied to the land.
The very definition of “The Working Landscape” depends on your relationship with it. It could be the wooded trails that hikers and skiers traverse, the responsibility inherited from generations of hard work and herding, a farm stand or a logging track. At best, the working landscape is lush and attractive, but if the work stops, the landscape reflects abandonment.
Vermont has been and continues to be an attractive place for the immigration of people because of the working landscape and all that it represents. New residents of Vermont love the scenic beauty and recreational activities made possible by our “natural capital” (land, air and water) and our ability to sustain it. The early migrants were driven in large part by the promise of living off the land and essentially created today’s working landscapes. Instead of nurturing natural capital, however, many newcomers treated what they found as if it were a resource to be tapped. In a few generations, the landscape was strewn with failed dreams and environmental degradation. This is in stark contrast to the early inhabitants of the area now called Vermont, who lived within the limits of the earth’s capacity to supply.
The challenge that lies ahead is to create an environment where people – whether native born or new to the land – who want to make a reasonable living off the land and contribute to the overall economy and quality of life in Vermont have the power. possibility of doing so. We need to employ bold and creative actions that support the things we want and resist the things we don’t want. Our recent track record suggests that we have the ability to be up to the task:
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Farm to Plate 2010 initiative is one example. The initiative collected, for the first time, data on the Vermont food system. The resulting snapshot of food production, distribution, spending, and consumption patterns led to the creation of a 10-year strategic plan designed to improve components of Vermont’s food business. The plan included a number of strategic objectives and formed working groups to achieve them. Many of the targets were met or exceeded well on schedule. The initiative was so successful that last year the legislature authorized VSJF to undertake Farm to Plate 2.0, which will last until 2030.
The Working Lands Enterprise Fund was established by the legislature in 2012. This was a direct consequence of the Vermont Future Council finding that 98% of Vermonters surveyed supported Vermont’s work landscape. . The fund concretely demonstrates the state’s commitment to a prosperous work landscape. Businesses and support services in the agriculture and forest products sectors can apply for funds designed to stimulate business growth and employment opportunities, help traditional businesses to modernize so that they can better compete on the market. market and explore potential new market ideas for Vermont products.
The Vermont Land Trust is committed to ensuring access to land for future generations of people who want to work the land productively. To date, he has conserved approximately 590,000 acres of land in Vermont for forestry and farming businesses, recreational opportunities, and ecological health.
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s Agricultural and Forest Products Sustainability Program provides personal, financial, and professional resources designed to help individuals develop the skills necessary to earn a living from the land.
The key to the success of these and other initiatives is their focus on price: the work landscape and all that it represents – economic opportunity for individuals and businesses; prosperous and well-functioning communities; clean air and water; and a diverse, productive and resilient land base. By using Vermont’s working lands as a framework for the development of sustainable economic and environmental policies, future generations will continue to be drawn to what Vermont has to offer, whether as landworkers or their allies. .
For many Vermonters, the Great Recession of 2008 and last year’s COVID pandemic brought out the idea that we need to take back control and reinvest in the things we value and maybe let go: regional food security, the importance of relationships, and local governance. Work land plays a role in all of this.
“Relational” or relationship-based agriculture is one way forward. Made up of full-time and part-time growers, and by far the largest percentage of Vermont’s roughly 6,000 farmers (as defined by the USDA), these operations are returns to pre-World War II Vermont. Most of the output of relational farms is consumed several kilometers from the farm itself, through CSAs, farmers’ markets, etc. This offers producers and consumers the opportunity to get acquainted personally through meaningful transactional relationships. These personal interactions can lead to a sense of community, which provides a fertile ground for understanding, care and empathy in all areas. The relatively small scale of relational work land businesses also offers affordable gateways to opportunities for next generation producers.
Policies and programs relating to working land must include both long-term and first-generation residents. It is not enough to have successive iterations of first generation people who rely on the earth for their livelihood. Local knowledge, which only comes after years of interactive experience with the land, is vital for land operations. It is also an undervalued resource. Simple things such as frost pockets, rain shadows or fox dens are critically important to management decisions and best learned from real world personal experience and intergenerational knowledge transfer.
A working land community shares a common understanding of how and why things are made the way they are. Families who depend on the land for their livelihood see their relationship with the land differently from those who do not. With basic agriculture in particular – where much of the production is exported and / or consumed away from the farm – non-farming neighbors have little reason to know or care about farm life. This presents a challenge for our rural communities at a time when Vermont faces a potential increase in so-called COVID and climate refugees. Many of our recent immigrants move to Vermont because of our working lands, but few intend to make a living from our agriculture or forestry sectors. All Vermonters should know that genuine work-land companies bring value to the state at a relatively low cost if mutual interests are clearly identified.
We must be prepared to commit all available resources to maintain, support and promote our work environment. We have done a lot of good work in the area of land conservation, business planning and market development, as well as intergenerational succession planning for agriculture and forestry operations. Our next steps should include: using our brand (or image) to add value to our products, creating and demonstrating profitability pathways for working land-based businesses, developing a niche regional for our agricultural and forest-based products, and the visualization of our land base more in terms of “capital” to conserve and develop and less in terms of “resource” to exploit and degrade. We need to take a systems approach when considering the future of our work environment, as its importance is one of the few things we all seem to agree on.
Will Stevens is a first generation farmer and part owner of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. He served in the Vermont Legislature from 2007 to 2014 and was a distinguished member of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee for four years. He has served as president of Vermont Organic Farmers, served on several city and nonprofit councils, and is currently a member of the board of directors of the Vermont Community Foundation, chairman of the board of directors of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and host of Shoreham’s Town. This commentary is taken from a 10-part series in which the authors respond to pressing topics identified in a draft “Proposal for the Future of Vermont” developed by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, a non-partisan organization. The opinions expressed by the columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.