As we round the bend into a new year, I am thinking back to last month’s dedication ceremony for the new statue of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, at the top of the State House. Hundreds of people gathered around the State House that day, taking selfies with Ceres, and singing, “These green hills and silver waters are my home. They belong to me,” as the crane prepared to lift the goddess into place at the top of the golden dome. Several thousand more had watched sculptor Chris Miller carve the fifteen foot goddess, based on a design and clay model by artist Larry Williams, over the past four months at the Vermont Granite Museum.
Why were so many of us there? Certainly, Vermonters jump at a chance to congregate outside, especially at this time of year. But, more than that, this statue, and the size of the crowd at her dedication ceremony, represents who we think we are. By celebrating Ceres Vermonters were celebrating our state’s agricultural heritage and culture.
But, Vermont’s farm economy is at risk, and that puts our agricultural identity at risk. An October 2018 white paper by several agricultural leaders in Vermont states, “Nearly all farming sectors are confronted with downward price pressure on producers, increasing production expenses a need for increased marketing and sales savvy in order to sell products in an increasingly competitive and complex marketplace, challenges in transitioning assets to a new generation of owners, and an ongoing shift in our economy and cultural traditions away from land based agriculture and towards processed convenience foods.”
There are many elements to this challenge. Farmers, food business entrepreneurs, distributors, and cafeterias of large employers, hospitals and colleges are working to diversify production, build an appreciation of the many benefits of eating locally produced food, and identify opportunities to connect consumers with the farms that feed them. Public agencies and nonprofits offer coaching and technical assistance to lower costs, transfer farms between generations, improve environmental stewardship practices, and reimburse farmers for clean water, stormwater storage and carbon sequestration.
But while production, marketing and technical innovation is important, Vermonters need to carry the spirit with which they celebrate Ceres towards actually addressing the future of agriculture. Otherwise, our agricultural identity could become just a myth that we wear and share superficially, rather than existing in the landscape, in rural livelihoods, and in how people connect to and support each other. We all need to be part of the solution – not just the farmers or those working in food related businesses.
I’m concerned that, instead, Vermonters are dividing themselves up by where we live (rural vs metropolitan), whether we live on or near farms, and even how we farm (dairy/nondairy, big/small, conventional/organic/regenerative), These divisions make it even harder to identify solutions because they contribute to a sense that, for example, cleaning up polluted water is “not my problem” – it’s “their problem”.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “How would Ceres guide us?”
I suggest Ceres would remind us that farming is integral to Vermont’s rural well-being and civic life, and our tourism and recreation industries. It’s not an economic sector all to itself.
She would caution us against categorizing farms as good or bad. Often these judgments are based on inflexible ideals, outdated pastoral notions of what farming should look like, or half-baked understandings of the complex science of water pollution and soil health.
Ceres would emphasize that a vibrant farm economy benefits cities, not just rural areas. Farms feed us, store water during storms, and are able to sequester carbon and more.
Ceres would also explain that the profession of farming evolves over time, that farmers rely on changes in agronomic knowledge, and that farmers care deeply about the wise stewardship of natural resources.
During the State House dedication ceremony Speaker Mitzi Johnson spoke, “The fact that we have our history, and … agriculture dominating our dome, and the goddess looking over us as we do our work in the Legislature, is an incredibly important testament to what our values are in Vermont.”
The celebration of Ceres is a chance to reflect on those values and come together to address the challenges of our farm economy.
Celebrating Ceres should remind us the only way Vermont can make headway to reduce soil and nutrient runoff from farms is for everyone to own the problem and make investments that help repair what’s not working.
Celebrating Ceres should help us find a way to pay farmers for storing floodwater, and for filtering water and sequestering carbon through deep, healthy topsoil.
Celebrating Ceres should challenge us, as consumers, to consider what portion of our food dollar is getting back to farmers, and seek out the entrepreneurs, cafeterias, stores, restaurants, and cooks working to connect us directly to healthy, locally produced food.
Celebrating Ceres is a chance to celebrate our shared commitment to community – the responsibility we each have to listen carefully to each other, to assume good faith, to understand the conditions and circumstances of our changing world, and to give preference to working together to solve problems over judging or accusing.
In that way, the celebration of the goddess of agriculture can help us focus on the real and important part agriculture plays in the green hills and silver waters that belong to all of us.