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Last Morsel—Turnip on Top

Gilfeather Turnip
Gilfeather Turnip Contest

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

May 26 , 2016

Just when you think politics has reached its lowest point of decomposition, a vegetable comes along to reaffirm your faith in responsive government.

Over the past two years, nearly a dozen students from Wardsboro Elementary School made trips to Montpelier to lobby representatives at the Statehouse. Their goal was to make the Gilfeather turnip—their “hometown, homegrown, humble turnip”—the state vegetable of Vermont, and to get a civics lesson in the process.

Without too much effort, and presumably without having to wear high heels or spend money on fancy steak dinners, the students successfully persuaded House and Senate leaders this past April to declare Vermont’s first state vegetable—an heirloom vegetable that originated in Wardsboro, a town in southeast Vermont.

John Gilfeather was a farmer in Wardsboro in the early 1900s when he reportedly developed a sweet, mild-tasting, and very large turnip from promising seed. To keep others from growing out the seed, he allegedly cut off the tops and bottoms of his turnips before selling them in Brattleboro and Northampton.

But eventually, the seeds got around, and by the early 1980s the Gilfeather had become so beloved that Dummerston residents Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt trademarked the name—not to keep people from growing the seeds (you can easily obtain them from Fedco Seed Company) but to prevent large companies from gaining control of the product.

Although there’s a debate over whether the Gilfeather is actually a turnip or a rutabaga (some say a sweet German rutabaga could be in its parentage), “turnip” is the word used at the annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival, which takes place in Wardsboro in late October and raises money for the Friends of the Wardsboro Library.

And now that it’s an official state vegetable, the turnip joins an elite group of other state vegetables, such as the New Mexico chile and the North Carolina sweet potato.

Given that John Gilfeather was briefly a state legislator in 1908 and (like the Wardsboro elementary students) must have come up to Montpelier a number of times himself, he would probably be tickled to know that his turnip provided lighthearted laughter for legislators as they debated the turnip bill in late April, toward the end of yet another brutal legislative session.

The bill didn’t quite sail through, though. Standing firm to his moral principles—and his preferred tastes—Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland was a “no”vote. “I can’t vote for a vegetable I can’t even eat,” he told WCAX.

Still, in a moment of candor, one of the Wardsboro 6th graders, Jesse Dykes, said lobbying to make the turnip the state vegetable “was nothing, really…. As soon as someone said there was a Gilfeather turnip cookbook, one of the Senators was sold!”

If only the U.S. Congress could be so easily swayed.

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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