Publishers' Note Fall 2008
Written onSeptember 01 , 2008
It’s hard not to notice the growth of Vermont farmers’ markets. Seems you turn around and there’s another one starting up. Or how about winter farmers’ markets? They number 14 to date, up from just a handful a year ago. And then there are CSAs of every sort, in which people pay in advance for shares of vegetables, fruit, and meat. Some shares even include canned and baked goods.
Behind this amazing agricultural growth is a new crop of sustainable farmers. What may not be evident at first glance, however, is that they come from many diverse backgrounds. Some grew up farming, but most of today’s new farmers arrive on the scene “green,” hoping to engage in meaningful work, produce something wholesome, and contribute to their community. They often had other careers before farming. Some were raised in big cities far from Vermont, while others were products of suburbia. And still others, like Don Heleba, who we profile in this issue, are older farmers returning to the sustainable practices their parents knew. Communities all over Vermont are welcoming these farmers of different stripes—the growing number of outlets for local farm products is evidence of this support.
To give you an idea of how diverse Vermont’s sustainable farmers are, here’s a sampling from our local farmers’ market in Bellows Falls. Bruce has been farming for 23 years; prior to that he worked in a paper mill and bartended. After grad school, Jon farmed and then dedicated 15 years to being a therapist before returning to farming, which he’s been doing for the past five years. Dan has been homesteading and farming for 12 years, but before that he put 10 years of dishwashing under his belt. Lisa studied to be a veterinarian and has been running her own dairy farm for 10 years; her focus is on food animal quality of life. Cory and Ana farm together; Ana grew up farming in Hollister, California, while Cory began farming eight years ago after high school and a stint at an agricultural school.
Today, unlike the 1970s when the “back to the land” movement brought a fresh crop of agricultural newcomers to the Vermont landscape, sustainable farmers are selling to consumers who value local food and who are interested in connecting with those who grow it. And support groups have sprouted up around the state to aid those coming to farming for the first time. There’s the Vermont New Farmer Network, a coalition of agricultural organizations committed to serving the needs of new and aspiring farmers. Growing New Farmers is a regional network of support, offering a website full of tools and resources for and about people venturing onto the land for the first time, or returning to it. The Intervale in Burlington also offers technical assistance.
The challenges faced by today’s new farmers are often the same ones faced by their predecessors: uncertainty over what will sell, competition from products created on an industrial scale, fluctuating prices, challenging regulations. But through cooperation and perseverance, aided by an increasingly informed public, Vermont’s sustainable farmers are thriving, no matter what their background. It is exciting and inspiring for all of us at Vermont’s Local Banquet to witness and chronicle their successes.