Rural Vermont at 30: Supporting Farmers to Sustain Farming
Written onMay 20 , 2015
In early April, on an evening that concluded with yet another “surprise” late-season snowstorm, more than 100 people gathered at the historic Capital City Grange Hall on the edge of Montpelier to celebrate the official beginning of Rural Vermont’s 30th anniversary (photos below). In addition to a sumptuous potluck supper, the evening included the debut presentation of “Farmers Tell Their Stories,” the first in a year-long series of storytelling events that will celebrate—in story, poetry, and music—the history and the future of Vermont’s oldest and only direct advocacy organization for family farms.
It all began in the 1980s, when American farmers found themselves caught between rising costs and plunging prices. For farmers it was a period of crisis, in many ways comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1985, 1,173 farms went out of business every week across the United States. In Vermont, while the rate of farm loss was not quite as swift, the landscape was noticeably changing. New golf courses, shopping malls, and subdivisions were appearing where once there were pasturelands and green hills. Vermont farmers were seeing their property taxes soar in the early 1980s.
It was during this period of crisis that Rural Vermont was born. Founded by Anthony Pollina with Chris Wood, Deb Wolf, and a group of rural community organizers, Rural Vermont was initially set up as a telephone hotline to assist struggling farmers with their legal and financial problems. However, it soon became something more powerful: a means for farmers to speak out and participate in public policy decisions that were affecting their daily lives.
When Anthony and the other early organizers started working to help farmers, they kept hearing farmers say that no one in Montpelier was listening to them. So they organized a group to go to the statehouse to meet with some senators and representatives. The farmers asked for public hearings to be held, so that legislators could hear directly about the problems they were facing. At first the legislators put them off, saying they didn’t have time. So the farmers declared that they would organize their own public hearings, and then suddenly the legislators found the time to attend those hearings.
Because Rural Vermont’s goal has always been to amplify the voices of Vermont farmers, it has also always been led by its farmer members. To this day, Rural Vermont’s board of directors is made up entirely of working farmers.
Here’s a short list of Rural Vermont’s accomplishments and campaigns on behalf of family farms:
Reformed Vermont’s “Current Use” Program, so that taxation of land is based on its productive value rather than being assessed based on the land’s value for potential development
Helped develop the Northeast Dairy Compact, which created regional control of dairy pricing and helped stem the tide of failing farms
Passed the Farmer Protection Act, which would have protected farmers from the economic devastation of cross contamination from GMO crops. (This law was vetoed by then Gov. Jim Douglas.)
Advocated for more commonsense regulations for small-scale poultry producers by passing the “Chicken Bill,” which made wholesome, local, farm-slaughtered poultry available at farmers’ markets and in restaurants
Advocated single-handedly for more than a decade for fair treatment of small-scale dairy farmers producing raw milk, enabling this safe and much-sought-after product to be an economically viable part of diversified farms
Passed commonsense laws allowing the return of agricultural hemp to Vermont. (Our federal government is still tied up in knots about legalizing this versatile and valuable product.)
Advocated for and legitimized Vermont’s longstanding tradition of on-farm slaughter, enabling farmers to humanely manage the entire lives of their animals on their farms while allowing their customers legal access to farm-fresh meat
Won required labeling of genetically engineered seeds in Vermont and, in partnership with the Vermont Right to Know Coalition, passed the first “no strings attached” GMO Food Labeling law in the United States
And the struggles go on, as Rural Vermont continues to work on the current iterations of its historic issues. We’re still advocating for our right to know what is in our food and how it has been produced. We’re still educating Vermonters about the need to support family farms and rational public policy.
Today, Rural Vermont is being led by the next generation of farmers. Many of them have chosen farming as a profession rather than inheriting it from their families. Their reasons for choosing one of the hardest ways to earn a living are as varied as the farms they run. But in many cases, they’re motivated by a desire to build a life for themselves and their families that is based on the same vision that has guided Rural Vermont for 30 years: to create a local food system that is self-reliant and based on reverence for the earth; builds living soils; nurtures plants, animals, and people; helps create thriving communities; supports future farmers; and continues our rich Vermont heritage, which celebrates our diversity and interdependence.