Vermonters' Connections to the Land

Over the next few months, we’re writing a series of blog posts about challenges and opportunities in Vermont’s agricultural sector. We’re exploring the role of agriculture in Vermont’s rural communities and how farming could contribute to clean water and climate resilience for all of us. We approach this topic with a beginner’s mind— we’re always learning from the work High Meadows supports and other important initiatives. We welcome your thoughts in return.

Last month, we discussed how the farming and environmental communities must lead together to address the interconnected challenges of farm viability and environmental sustainability.

Bluffside Farm in Newport, on the shores of lake memphremagog. Photo by Caleb Kenna, Courtesy of Vermont Land Trust.

Bluffside Farm in Newport, on the shores of lake memphremagog. Photo by Caleb Kenna, Courtesy of Vermont Land Trust.

Ten years ago this summer, the Vermont Council on Rural Development published the findings of the Council on the Future of Vermont, a process launched in 2007 to locate the common priorities of Vermonters and evaluate the opportunities and challenges facing the state.  Thousands of Vermonters weighed in through public forums, focus groups, interviews, artwork, writing, and scholarly research and polling.

On those common priorities, the report concluded, “The connection to the land is an identifying element for Vermonters. Overwhelmingly, Vermonters are united in support of the state’s agriculture and working landscape.” From the polls conducted by the council, this value statement ranked highest: “I value the working landscape and its heritage.”

It still rings true that Vermonters feel a meaningful connection with the landscape, but we recognize that each Vermonter feels this connection differently. Our ties to the landscape depend on how we make our livelihoods, when we grew up, where we now call home, and so many other factors.

Ten years on from VCRD’s report, we’re considering the future of Vermont agriculture facing even greater challenges and opportunities than before. If we are to find common ground in making investments towards a more viable agricultural economy, Vermonters with different connections to the land need to appreciate each other’s perspectives.

For some of us, this means getting out into the field and learning. Especially in the summer, Vermont is full of opportunities to meet with farmers and learn how they think about the future of agriculture. Buying produce direct from a farm stand, at farmers’ markets or Community Supported Agriculture, all offer chances to connect with farmworkers. Public events and tours such as the early June “Strolling of the Heifers” in Brattleboro, or the Vermont Fresh Network’s upcoming Open Farm Week in August, also provide opportunities to interact with farmers beyond enjoying the food they grow and landscapes they steward.

While we celebrate the varied ways in which Vermonters connect with the landscape, we can’t take it for granted that all Vermonters have the access to form meaningful connections to the landscape. This needs to be actively nurtured in all communities around the state.

We’re heartened by the commitment being made by the Vermont Land Trust, one of our grant partners, to give more Vermonters the opportunity to connect deeply with the land around them. VLT is focusing time and resources towards building the power of communities to make the most of their local land and natural resources.

One of VLT’s community-based investments is Bluffside Farm, a former dairy located on the shores of Lake Memphremagog outside Newport. VLT bought the farm in December 2015 and launched a community-visioning process for the people of Newport to identify what they valued and wanted the place to become. Bluffside Farm energized Newport to think anew about Lake Memphremagog and spurred investment and promotion of the city’s recreation infrastructure.

Pine Island Community Farm, on the banks of the Lower Winooski River in Colchester, is another VLT project. Pine Island is a collaborative farm and communal space for New Americans to manage their own farming enterprises and grow their own crops in a large community gardens. Chuda Dhaurali, Pine Island’s goat farmer who resettled in Burlington from Bhutan in 2009, provides a needed supply of local, fresh goat meat to the Burlington area’s New American communities— families come to buy and slaughter goats according to their cultural preferences at the farm’s own facility.

Chuda and his family raise about 300 goats, while Theogene Mahoro—Pine Island’s resident poultry farmer—and his family sell about 1,000 chickens a year. 60 families from nearly a dozen countries use the community gardens. They’re all part of the long story about how Vermonters connect to the land.

With Pine Island Community Farm and Bluffside Farm, the Vermont Land Trust follows the lead of the communities involved; it’s the communities that define how to use the land. Pine Island has become a place of belonging and comfort for New Americans. The farm creates opportunities for them to grow their own food, operate their own businesses, and strengthen their cultural ties to each other. Bluffside Farm is giving the people of Newport a chance and place to re-envision their city and realize the ways in which a vibrant connection with Lake Memphremagog enriches their lives.

We’re excited to think about other communities elsewhere in Vermont, where renewed ties to farm or forest lands will enable community members to spark new and vital relationships with each other and with the landscape. That renewed sense of our connection to land will be critically important if Vermont is to make renewed investment in its agricultural economy.