A 10-Year Stroll
Written onJune 01 , 2011
With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.
It has happened every June since 2001. But today Strolling of the Heifers has catapulted beyond being just a parade to offering a weekend-long celebration at the beginning of each June that includes both the serious (summits and film festivals) and the fun (attempts to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest smoothie, made from local yogurt, maple syrup, apples, and apple cider to promote Vermont’s dairy, maple syrup, and apple industries).
Underlying the frivolity, however, is the earnest mission of the Strolling of the Heifers organization: to support local farmers by connecting people with local foods and with the farmers who produce that food; to save local farms; to take sustainability mainstream; and to build strong, local communities. The organization communicates that mission through a handful of innovative endeavors such as the young farmers’ apprenticeship program, a microloan program for farmers, and a loan program for new and small businesses in the food and farm industries.
Orly Munzing, executive director of Strolling of the Heifers, conceived the idea of the Brattleboro organization 10 years ago to bring attention to dairy farmers and “put Brattleboro on the map and capture people’s imagination,” she says. “I had no idea it was going to be where it is today.” For Munzing, saving farms has meant reaching beyond “the choir” and educating everyone about what’s at stake. Her goal is to get people involved in a way that’s enjoyable, not political—a “kinesthetic way,” she says. “Make it fun and sexy.”
The original mission, says Martin Langeveld, marketing director, was to save and sustain family farms by raising people’s awareness through the parade and through exposure to educational programs. “This was at a time when the term ‘localvore’ didn’t exist. The whole idea of connecting with where your food comes from has taken off these last 10 years. Now the mission is connecting people with healthy local foods and farmers and producers and what they do.”
A way to foster that connection is to encourage young people to consider farming as a viable career. In 2009, Strolling of the Heifers developed the Beginning Farmer Apprenticeship program, which placed at-risk youths on farms in Windham County for six weeks during the summer; they continued it the following summer. The success of that pilot program, funded through a grant, led the Windham Regional Career Center to adopt it this year and to offer it as part of its agricultural curriculum.
“It’s sustainable,” Munzing says of the program, which is her goal for all projects the organization runs. “We take on a program, do the PR, invite people in and get them involved, create partnerships, and move on.”
Focusing on issues facing today’s farmers, the organization also established several projects that have an important financial impact. Obtaining credit can be a hurdle for small farmers; traditional bank loans are not always available to them. So the folks at Strolling of the Heifers explored options and established a microloan program.
“It started with Orly asking farmers, ‘what can we do now?’ ” Langeveld says. Their answer was “we need money.” Money to fix a broken tractor, put a new roof on the barn, and to buy equipment. So the organization gathered bankers, investment brokers, and others “to talk about this need, and we came up with the microloan program,” he continues.
“I’m not a banker. I’m not an investor,” Munzing explains. “We’re a small organization.” But an organization that knows how to partner with the right people to make things happen. It turned to Dorothy Suput, founder of the Boston-based Carrot Project, which helps farmers find financing through alternative resources and provides business and management advice. The Strolling of the Heifers Microloan Fund for New England Farmers raised funds through grants and concerts—Pete Seeger, Guy Davis, John Sebastian, and the Paul Winter Consort have been headliners over the years—and in 2009 awarded its first loans to qualifying farmers. The Carrot Project now administers the fund program for Strolling of the Heifers.
More recently, Strolling of the Heifers developed the Farm Food Business Plan Competition for new and small businesses that are in the farm or food sectors. A collaboration with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., a nonprofit economic development organization, it was launched this year to provide support to farms that can’t compete for loans against big businesses. Farms, existing small businesses, and new businesses in the food industry provide executive summaries and business plans, and judges select the finalists for prizes that run from $1,000 to $10,000. Winners were scheduled to be announced during this year’s Strolling of the Heifers annual weekend celebration June 3–5.
This year’s 10th anniversary festival, while ensuring family fun with the parade, the Ultimate New England Sandwich Competition, and the Tour de Heifer bike race, will add a film festival to its events—films showcasing the importance of local farms, foods and producers—and plans to tackle critical issues with its Slow Living Summit. The summit will feature speakers such as environmental activist Bill McKibben; Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farms; Josh Viertal, president of Slow Food USA; and Chuck Ross, Vermont secretary of agriculture, among others. They plan to discuss and exchanged ideas about building healthy local economies, supporting new businesses, and engaging the public in advancing the “slow living” movement.
“People will walk away with ideas and projects and partner with other people,” Munzing said before the event. They’ll be able to discuss projects through the website developed for this conference and take action in their communities.” She continued, “We try to bring energy, education, nutrition, health, investing—the whole picture—into what a community should be. We invited people to come together to define what this new economy should look like—all under one barn.” In bringing various groups together, it gives them a bigger voice, she added.
Strolling of the Heifers hopes the conference will generate a change in how people think of their communities and promote further investment in their economies. “It’s all about sustainability and social entrepreneurship,” Langeveld says. “Eating local, buying local has become mainstream; a sustainable economy also has to come into the mainstream. The slow metaphor can be applied to all aspects.”