In the past 12 weeks, Vermont has transitioned gracefully from a lush landscape of pastoral bounty to a quiet, snowy world that is saying goodbye to its crop fields for the winter. The farmers I talked to who were busy bringing in the harvest in September are now slaughtering their Thanksgiving birds and getting out their calculators to add up the wins and losses for the year. Before I leave to go back to warmer climates I want to reflect, just as any good farmer would.
I am a newcomer to Vermont, and my preconceived notions about the state were, for the most part, pretty well-informed. I thought of this state as a place that cherishes equality and favors quality of life above monetary gain. One thing I learned in my internship with the New Farmer Project is that supporting these ideals with a small farm makes it difficult to become profitable. Even so, there are some very creative and resourceful people who have and fulfilled their values by using collaboration to their advantage. Here is how I have seen these ideals employed in Vermont farms:
Equality. I have come into contact with many women who have proved that females can be just as good at farming as males. At the Draft Animal Power Field Days in Barton, VT, I listened to a forum of Women Teamsters talk about the gifts that women can bring to farming with horses and oxen, and how empowering it can feel to move earth with a trustworthy animal by your side. Through the Women’s Ag Network (WaGN), hundreds of women farmers over the past couple of decades have received education, training, and monetary support through the Vermont Farm Women’s Fund. Opportunities for collaboration and sharing at the 17th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference, hosted by Senator Patrick and Marcelle Leahy, presented the opportunity for businesswomen to network and learn together.
Not only do these opportunities exist, but they are being fully embraced by the strong, healthy, smart women who are getting their hands dirty and practicing skills that have traditionally been left to men. Perhaps the most amazing thing about these women is that they are raising families, too. They are heroes of housewifery, which Wendell Berry calls, “a complex discipline acknowledged to be one of the bases of civilization,” and they are raising children with skills and knowledge to continue the beautiful practice of agrarian sweat and the art of manual labor.
Quality of Life. One theme that is apparent from my exposure to farms in Vermont is that almost no one is farming simply to make a profit; there is inherently a passion and a desire for a certain quality of life that really drives the business. Some people can connect better with cows than they can to other people. Some people want to supply ethically raised meats to their communities or to give people in urban areas access to fresh, organic produce that is more local than that from California. Some want to raise their children to understand the importance of hard work or to have compassion for the earth. Many people just want to be their own bosses and not have to answer the phone.
Because everyone’s idea of “quality,” is different, each and every farm ends up taking on its own characteristics that reflect the personality of the owner. Unlike large industrial farms where the monoculture crops are grown for maximum efficiency and profitability, small family farms just aren’t so easily forced into a model of productivity. This often limits the farmers’ ability to compete with the highly mechanized and large-scale farms, but for one certain differentiation: the food tastes better and is more nutritious.
There are many other examples where I have seen redeeming family, environmental, community, and ethical values trump the drive for profit on farms around the state, and I have seen that the people who put these values first have to work extra hard and be creative to figure out how to make the farm viable. That Vermont supports its farms makes a huge difference to the success of these small farmers.
Thanks for the fall, Vermont! I can’t wait to return.