The Role of Soil: Carbon Sink, Water Sponge

We may see the soil under our feet as simply dirt, with all the associated folk expressions – common as dirt, say. But farmers and scientists alike have long known that a healthy soil system is not just the key to our agricultural cycles; soil is one of the major building blocks of farm viability, floodwater management, carbon sequestration, ecosystem productivity, and a clean atmosphere. All this is especially true as we move forward into an era of increased confrontation with anthropogenic climate change.

For one thing, soil is not a homogenous entity, and it is dynamic in the way that it absorbs and releases carbon. All told, the earth’s soil holds 75 percent of the planet’s land-based carbon. 

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Leaning Forward to 2017

It is with a renewed sense of urgency that High Meadows reviews our collective progress of last year and leans into new opportunities in 2017.  As the national dialogue on climate becomes more removed from science, even as the very real impacts of climate change threaten vulnerable communities, Vermont’s investment in climate resilience and the vitality of our working landscape is critical.

Over the past year High Meadows put over $1.1 million to work in service of our mission to promote more vibrant communities and a healthy natural environment, while encouraging long term economic vitality in Vermont.  A full list of our grants and investments can be found elsewhere on our website.

We believe policy and investment choices should make communities stronger, more vibrant and equitable, as well as more resilient to the changing climate. For HMF, resilience means the capacity not just to bounce back from stresses and disruptive events, but also to plan and act in the face of risks, challenges, and opportunities. This means both reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and acting in the face of already present climate risks.

We take seriously the need to understand the impact of our investments and the need to be strategic in our choices. Our reflections on 2016 and the year ahead are here. Our summary work plan for 2017 is here. We welcome your thoughts in response and we look forward to the year ahead. There’s a lot of work to do!

Acting on the Lessons of Irene

Tropical Storm Irene was a momentous event. The power of water in our mountainous state was a wake-up call that brought out the resourceful power of Vermonters to unite, be smart and prepare for our new reality of more frequent and intense storms. State government and communities have been working to be better prepared and more resilient. However, we still have more to achieve to act on the lessons of Irene.

Watershed communities must protect the river corridor and develop a strong sense of upstream/downstream relationships.

Vermont has unique challenges because of our topography and development choices. We live in the valleys along rivers and in rural, forested areas along dirt roads. This settlement pattern means it is critical to consider our upstream and downstream neighbors when we make decisions about how to interact with our rivers and other waterways.

Vermont’s vulnerability with regard to flooding is erosion, rather than inundation. Rivers are out of equilibrium and have been eroded, causing the water to move faster and more powerfully. Rivers need space to meander so they can stay in balance. Their natural “S” shape helps reduce the river’s power during a flood. Upland forests absorb precipitation and delay streams and rivers from becoming overwhelmed by runoff in a storm. Floodplains allow natural overflow during times of heavy rain or snowmelt.

Researchers estimate the Town of Middlebury avoided $1.8 million in damages during Irene because of the protective power of upstream wetlands and farms. Several towns have adopted or are preparing river corridor protection standards to restrict development along rivers and give rivers room to move, thereby helping help the entire watershed. However, we still have more to do, as only one out of four towns have limited floodplain development in this way.

Low Income Vermonters are the most at risk.

Fifteen percent of the homes damaged or destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene were mobile homes or manufactured homes, even though they make up only 7% of Vermont’s housing stock. Many mobile home parks are located in areas that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion because that land is typically less expensive. Almost half the mobile home stock in Vermont was built before 1990. Homes of this age are showing significant signs of deterioration. UVM and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity have been developing approaches to improving the resilience of Vermont’s mobile home parks.

We must leverage our strong social capital to prepare for the future.

The idea of “Vermont Strong” emerged from Vermonters working shoulder to shoulder with each other to assess the damage, care for each other and help individuals, business and communities recover after the storm. We need to apply this same resourcefulness and community awareness to becoming better prepared and resilient, not just responding to disasters after they occur.

Over the last 30 years both annual precipitation and the frequency of one-day heavy precipitation events have increased. As the climate continues to change, these trends will continue and worsen. Vermont communities recognize that to be resilient they need to be aware of these risks and base their planning on future trends, rather than on how things have been in the past. Towns are beginning to use new tools and explore ways to improve communications among planning and conservation commissions, disaster preparedness experts, first responders and elected leaders so they can both prepare for what’s ahead and respond appropriately when the power of water surges again.

Gaye Symington, August 31, 2016

Michels: Farmland Access and Affordability

The Vermont Food Funders Network is a learning network of funders who provide grants or loans to strengthen the Vermont food system. The Vermont Food Funders Network focused its April meeting on farmland access and affordability. Many of Vermont’s older farmers are retiring, and new farmers are running farm enterprises which require different land configurations. And, even if appropriate land is available, can a farmer afford to lease or own it? We were joined by guests from the Intervale Center, the Vermont Housing and Conservation BoardLand for GoodDirt Capital Partners, and the Vermont Land Trust to discuss the role of philanthropy in helping farmers find suitable land and afford to lease or purchase it for their operations.

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Creating a Culture of Kindness, Human Dignity and Caring

Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, was awarded the inaugural Con Hogan Award for Creative, Entrepreneurial, Community Leadership in October, 2015. Here is an excerpt from her acceptance speech, words that seem especially meaningful in light of recent and upcoming events in Europe.

...Con’s passion has been about the quality of the human condition from a social service perspective. My passion has also been about the quality of the human condition, although from an economic perspective.

We’ve both come at our respective work by trying to change systems and structures.  The longer I do this work, the more convinced I am that we need to change the very foundation of our society and culture.  Fundamentally, we need to build a culture of care, kindness, abundance and connection, rather than perpetuating a culture of indifference, fear, scarcity and disconnection.

Cultivating a culture of kindness requires us to understand a fundamental truth – that we are interdependent. My life and leadership has been dependent upon many causes and conditions and people who have informed and influenced me, loved me and opened doors for me over the years. 

Let’s face it, we ultimately all want the same simple thing out of life – to be happy.

What enables real happiness in our lives?  Loving others and feeling loved by others, feeling a connection to others and to place, feeling worthy to be a human being, having the confidence that you can live your life with dignity and make a contribution to your family and community.  In short – happiness is generated when we get off “the me plan” and get on with “the we plan” as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche likes to say. ...

Sometimes the “we plan” is hard to focus on because we are facing a lot of uncertainty. Climate change, shrinking state budgets and rising health care and social safety net costs, increasing opiate addiction, physical – mental – sexual abuse, random mass shootings, the largest income inequality we’ve ever faced as a nation. There are so many other issues I could name and it’s easy to feel despair.

I invite you to consider how our culture of fear and greed has been built and what this has led to.  And then think about the desire we all have to be happy and to live from a place of hope and optimism for the future.  What will most enable that?  Will a culture of fear and greed lead us to be happy or to solve the incredibly complex challenges we face as a species today?  Or do we need a culture of kindness to help us get to happiness and a feeling of all-rightness.

I think we need to have a conversation about re-defining wealth in this country.  We need to shift the definition of wealth from a level of accumulated money to a feeling of well-being. A feeling that you have “enough.”  What would that take?  What would the metrics be to gauge kindness, care and enough-ness in our society?

Just think about it, if a person has a sense of well-being and “enough-ness” and lives in a culture that reinforces this, then that person will want that same feeling of “enough-ness” for others. It just works that way. How might that affect our societal structures? Our human services system, our economic system, and how we treat and interact with the planet and other beings who call earth home?

... As Vermonters, we are well on our way towards creating this culture of kindness, human dignity, and caring for others and our planet. The question is, how do we expand this so that there are more of us living and acting this way?

Whether your view is from a social service, economic, environmental or other perspective, remember the power you possess to affect real change.  Within each moment contains the possibility that our actions can be sufficient to shift the scales towards kindness, equity, inclusion, and happiness.

Fram: Resilience: Sustainability's Multidimensional Complement

Is "resilience" just "sustainability" rebranded? A sexier version of the environmental movement's decades-old aspiration? Or, is it a useful word that asks us to address new and important questions? Although many have grown cynical of the word in light of its increasingly prevalent usage, I think it constitutes more than a superficial injection into the environmental lexicon.

At the High Meadows Fund, as a rural, place-based environmental funder in Vermont, we have come to think of resilience in a two-pronged way: as a matter of both climate change mitigation and adaptation. To explain, extreme weather events like Tropical Storm Irene, which ravaged Vermont’s communities and environment, will become more frequent if we don’t take steps to mitigate factors contributing to the changing climate. At the same time, however, if we don’t adapt to the risks and vulnerabilities brought about by more extreme weather events and other impacts of a changing climate, we’ll find ourselves rebuilding systems destined to crumble in our hands. “Resilience,” then, often described as “A system’s ability to bounce back,” might be better defined as “A system’s ability to bounce better.”

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Symington: What Have We Learned Since Tropical Storm Irene?

When I first heard other climate funders speak about adaptation, it was mostly in the context of the impact of rising sea levels on coastal cities like Boston and New York or droughts impacting the west. We have plenty of rainfall and Vermont is a land-locked state, so I figured we should stick with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But then,

  • Tropical Storm Irene arrived in the fall of 2011, after a year with record spring flooding
  • Since Irene there have been 5 major federally declared disasters in Vermont caused by severe storms (rain, snow, tornadoes and/or flooding)
  • The ski industry, the maple sugar industry, foresters and farmers, people who make their living outside, all know that the forests and farms are facing weird weather, pests, and diseases that require that they change their practices. 
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Fram: Embracing the Complexities of the Food System

Fram: Embracing the Complexities of the Food System

My undergraduate experience was, for the most part, predictably conventional. In four years of college, I, like so many, learned a lot about myself, made a few bad decisions, experienced the woeful pangs of unrequited love, and had sobering revelations about the world’s injustices and the naïveté to think I could singlehandedly sow the seeds of change.

My ideological charge as a sophomore became food issues after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. This young author’s exposé of the environmental, social, and public health-related problems caused by the industrialized meat industry forced animal flesh from my diet. It also thrust a heightened critical consciousness onto my worldview.

You can imagine my surprise, and consequent dismay, when I learned the school I attended – one that extols the virtues of progressivism, environmental leadership, and global thinking – purchases virtually all of the meat it serves in its dining halls from factory farms, the corporate machines that in so many ways contradict the institution’s values. 

The result was two years of attempted reform – not less meat, but better, more “sustainable” meat – and personal philosophical grappling with such issues as food waste, worker equity, food security, and localvorism. As with any systemically ingrained issue – be it fossil fuel addiction, loss of biodiversity, or climate change – there are incalculable and multifaceted complexities, inescapable hypocrisy, and seemingly intractable obstacles to progress. And so I began to appreciate in regards to food.

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Fram: Net Metering is an Important Ingredient for Vermont's Clean Energy Future

Fram: Net Metering is an Important Ingredient for Vermont's Clean Energy Future

Note: This piece was originally published in VT Digger on 12/9/13.

Two years ago, Vermont set an ambitious goal: By 2050, 90% of the state’s energy will come from renewable sources such as solar, hydro, and wind. At present, renewables comprise just 11% of the state’s energy portfolio, which means a lot will have to change in the next 37 years – how we travel, power our buildings, and heat/cool our homes, for example – if we expect to realize this clean energy future.

In 2011, the state legislature updated its existing net metering policy to allow Vermonters with renewable energy systems to sell their power back to utilities in exchange for a 20-cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) credit. Upon subtracting the retail rate of power from this credit, customers “net” the difference.

As a policy, net metering is meant to incentivize the installation of renewable energy systems by reducing the amount of time it takes customers to make up for the up-front cost of installation. Earlier this fall, however, Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) submitted a proposal to the state’s Public Service Department (PSD) to reduce the net metering credit from 20 cents per kWh to 12.5 cents per kWh. If accepted, this proposal would eliminate an important incentive for Vermonters to install renewable energy systems.

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