By Joyce Marcel, as seen in the VT Business Magazine: https://vermontbiz.com/news/2020/november/26/working-landscape-roger-allbee
There aren’t many people in Vermont who have accomplished as much and been publicly recognized so little as Roger Allbee. His life has been defined by being the quiet insider, not seeking glory but working hard to preserve the agricultural heritage of his beloved Vermont.
He’s been a cranberry exporter, an agricultural banker, a congressional staffer in Washington, DC, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and CEO of the Grace Cottage Family Healthcare and Hospital in Townshend.
And that’s just for starters.
For his contributions to Vermont, in September he received the Vermont Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
It became easy to see why he loves Vermont when we — my husband, newspaperman and photographer Randy Holhut, and I — met at his spacious home in rural Townshend.
It’s a home that Roger and his wife Ann, who have been married for 51 years, built themselves on land that has been in his family for a multitude of generations.
It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and that happy golden light we Vermonters treasure was pouring over green meadows and distant rolling hills covered in colorful sugarbush. This was the land his ancestors had farmed, the land he grew up on.
“The Townshend-Brookline town line ran in a stone wall in back of the house we grew up in,” Roger said. “I jokingly tell people when they ask that it is warmer on this side of the wall!”
That day, the temperature was warm enough to sit — in a socially distant way, of course — on the Allbees’s deck, which was filled with purple petunias and chrysanthemums. A hawk circled overhead. Ann joined us with fresh coffee and a moist homemade pumpkin-and-chocolate chip bread.
For two hours, the four of us discussed Vermont, politics and, especially, Roger’s career.
We congratulated him on his Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I was humbled,” Roger said.
“He was embarrassed,” Ann said.
“There are so many people who have done so much more,” Roger continued. “And we’re only here for a nanosecond, you know.”
The Lifetime Achievement Award is reserved for Vermonters who have not only done something incredible for Vermont, but who have done it for their entire lives, said Ted Brady, Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce.
Photo: Julie Moore, Chair of the Board of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, presenting the 2020 Vermont Lifetime Achievement Award to Roger Allbee of Townshend Vermont.
“It’s for effort that has led to transformative action,” Brady told me. “It’s the highest honor that the Vermont Council on Rural Vermont can bestow. Roger has dedicated his entire professional career to making Vermont a better place to live, work and play. He’s helped to write and implement the state’s current use policy. He fought for clean water and dairy farmers as a Congressional staffer for Jim Jeffords in D.C. It’s for his work as Secretary of Agriculture in Gov. Jim Douglas’s administration. Or stepping up to lead Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend. He continually does things in Vermonters’ interest before his own.”
The current Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Anson Tebbetts, who once worked for Roger, says, “Roger is kind, calm and his heart and soul are in agriculture. We are lucky he is willing to keep contributing when he could be putting his feet up by the fire.”
According to Ann, Roger has retired five times.
Now that he’s 75, his importance mainly rests with his extensive knowledge of the history of Vermont as well as with his multitude of connections.
“There’s a reason people look to Roger when there’s a big policy question,” Brady said. “He has historical context. He has a keen sense of the political environment. And he knows the people who can get it done. Oftentimes, the greatest people in a society are the glue, the connectors, the people who can say, ‘I know the person who’s doing this.’ These people lead by being the connecting tissue between people.”
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), with whom Allbee has worked closely on agricultural issues, agrees with Brady.
Leahy found time during a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing to write, “Throughout his life Roger Allbee has contributed so much to the Vermont we cherish. His intellect and ingenuity, his deep respect for differences of opinion, and his willingness to listen have lent pragmatic, respectful leadership to our nation and our state. With this Lifetime Achievement Award, the Vermont Council on Rural Development spotlights and honors the incredible work Roger has done — and the work that he will continue to do.”
It is hard to find someone who doesn’t have kind words for Roger. The words most often used to describe him are “smart,” “respectful,” “easy to work with,” “not afraid to challenge you,” and — wait for it — “the nicest person on this earth.”
“He understands Vermont in a way that very few people do,” Brady said. “He understands the significance of Vermont’s working land. He understands the tapestry of Vermont, from the families that have lived here for generations to the families that have moved here this year. That understanding allows him to implement policy that is in the best interest of Vermonters.”
Oddly enough, there are two of him. Roger has an identical twin brother, Ronald, who was also — what are the odds? — Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture.
“Ron was Deputy Agricultural Commissioner under Governor Dick Snelling and Commissioner under Governor Madeleine Kunin,” Roger explained. “We both went to the University of Vermont and majored in Agricultural Economics. So our paths have run together in some similar ways. He also was the Vermont ag person for Senator Leahy many years ago.”
Both brothers served in the military after college and both ended up as commissioned officers — Roger in the Army through ROTC, and Ron in the Navy through Officer Candidate School (OCS). During the Vietnam War, Ron was trained in nuclear weapons and ended up on the aircraft carrier USS America.
Roger was also trained in nuclear weapons and served as a tactical nuclear weapons operations officer in Germany.
After the war, Ron went to graduate school at the University of Connecticut and took an advanced degree in Agricultural Economics.
“He was hired as a legislative draftsman by the Vermont Legislature, and then as deputy ag commissioner by Governor Snelling,” Roger said. “During the oil crisis of the ’70’s, Snelling appointed him as the state energy director to deal with the crisis. He went into private business after that. Then Kunin asked him to be her ag secretary. So our backgrounds have been similar in so many respects. Two country boys from a very small town in southern Vermont.”
Today Ron Allbee is retired and lives with his wife in Sarasota, FL. Another sibling is deceased, and an older sister is alive and living in southern Vermont.
As a blue jay landed on the railing, I asked what it was like to be an identical twin, and Roger smiled.
“Well, somebody asked me the other day because she has identical twin daughters,” he said. “She said, ‘What was it like?’ I said, ‘Well, the only thing that I’d recommend is to let them be individuals. And don’t dress them the same.’”
On The Land
On his father’s side, the family has lived on the same land for generations. Back then, the farm was “a couple of hundred acres,” Roger said.
“Jonathan Park was the original founder of Newfane, Vermont,” Roger said. “That was my father’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was the first settler. And my father, I don’t think he ever lived anywhere else. They went to the one-room round brick schoolhouse [a historic building in nearby Brookline]. He was probably one of the last students that went to that place.”
Roger’s father, Harlan, lost his mother in childbirth when he was in the eighth grade. So he had to leave school.
“He helped bring up the family,” Roger said. “And my mother, she only went to the second year of high school. I tell people that I may have advanced college degrees, but they were smarter than I’ll ever be. Because they could do anything, you know, in the practical sense that you learn from surviving in Vermont. My father was a farmer. And then he and his brother created a sawmill and they had a lumber business. One grandfather actually had the dairy farm.”
Things were more primitive then.
“I said to my mother when she was alive a few years back, ‘Do you remember when you got electricity?’” Roger said. “And she said, ‘Yes, it came here in 1938, when your father was farming with his father in Brookline.’”
Electricity meant one line into the house with a 15-watt light bulb attached to it.
“And she told my dad, ‘Boy, that’s awfully bright. We’ll never need anything more than that,’” Roger said. “They were afraid to put electricity into the barn because it would cause a fire. But they had oil lamps in the barn! When my mother was about two weeks from dying, she was up in Valley Cares (West River Valley Assisted Living), and Ann took an iPad up so that she could talk to her youngest granddaughter. And so my mother, who had had the crank phone on the wall when I was a kid, kept touching the screen of the iPad, because she saw her granddaughter. And she kept saying, ‘What will they do next? What will they do next?’ Then she went to the cafeteria and said, ‘I’ve just been to Ohio.’”
Imagine going from a crank phone to an iPad in the span of one generation.
“And the party line!” Roger said. “You always knew that if you wanted to get something around to people about what’s going on, you could say it on the phone.”
Jessie Allbee made sure to instill a strong work ethic in each of her children.
“I learned life skills,” Roger said. “My mother used to always say to us, ‘Why are you sitting around? There’s something to do. You can weed the garden or you can do something else. You can’t just be sitting around all day.’ And we didn’t sit around much. We were always working.”
In sugaring season they tapped 2,000 buckets, Roger said.
“They had a sugarbush,” he said. “I remember after school we’d help collect. It was all buckets. And then they had the mill, where they did lumber. So they had all the slabs from the lumber that they could use for heating the sugaring operation. That’s before reverse osmosis. But they made several gallons of syrup and pretty much sold it out of the sugar house. People came from all around. Today it’s super technology, but back then, actually, most of the dairy farms had a sugarbush.”
His mother “did everything,” he said.
“She cleaned house,” he remembered. “She was in charge of the laundry at Grace Cottage Hospital at one point. She drove the school bus. She worked at the high school in the library. We always had a big garden. She canned and we had a root cellar. We raised much of our own food, except for the staples.”
His mother was a voracious reader, Roger remembered.
“She read and she read and she read,” he said. “Anything she could find. She called herself self-educated, and education was important to her. I went to a one-room school down here in Brookline. We had five kids in our class. Two of us were identical twin brothers. A third one was a first cousin. And the other two were neighbors. And I remember when we went to high school, the principal said to my mother, ‘I think your boys should take shop.’ My mother said, ‘I don’t think you understand, my sons are going to college.’ Probably shop would have been good for us.”
The children were also encouraged to find jobs off the farm.
“We mowed lawns,” Roger said. “We washed dishes up at Stratton in the winter. We worked for different people. My mother had a rule that half the money had to go into the bank for college, and the other half we could use for whatever we needed to do.”
Some of that money went into a car.
“So when we got to be 16, my father found the vehicle that an older gentleman in Brookline had,” Roger said. “That was a 1942 Chevy pickup that he was junking out to Brattleboro Wrecking. And my father convinced him to sell it to us for $18. The motor smoked and the tie rods had to be wired together. We bought it and my father started showing us how to fix the motor. Anyhow, the guy came back in a couple days and said, ‘I can’t sell it to you, boys.’ And we were devastated. You know, imagine your first vehicle that you bought for $18. He said, ‘No, I’d been down to the junkyard and they’re only giving me $12 for it. So here’s six dollars back.’ So that’s what we drove to high school.”
Leaving The Farm
The twins went to the University of Vermont, where both majored in agricultural economics. Roger said he took ROTC because the Army paid $40 a month.
Roger and Ann were college sweethearts.
“It was a very blind date,” Ann said. “I got him. My best friend got his brother. Roger was a half an inch shorter than Ron, and my friend was taller than me. Just recently, Ron said that it might have been the other way around. And I said, ‘Yeah, if I gotten you, I’d still be with him.’”
At UVM, Roger and Ron were both members of the Acacia fraternity. Roger was the house steward, which helped pay his college bills.
At UVM, Roger met Robert Foster, who was later a director of the Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative for 37 years before retiring to run the Foster Brothers Dairy Farm and be president of Moo Doo, the composted cow manure manufacturers.
The men became lifelong friends and worked together on many agriculture issues. Back then, Roger was his ROTC company commander.
“He got to tell me whether my brass was shined or my shoes,” Foster said. “He was involved in the Cakewalk, UVM’s winter main event, when different fraternities compete.”
The notorious Cakewalk, now discontinued, was an attempt to create a Southern-style dance around the harvest festival. It was based on minstrel shows, and fraternity members wore blackface.
“Roger and his brother wore greenface,” Foster said. “Even then, they recognized some of the problems society is dealing with now.”
I asked Roger about the event and he denied that wearing greenface was his idea.
“During the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement [in the 1960s], it was clear that more sensitivity was needed, and they decided they needed to do greenface,” Roger said. “It was not my idea, but we all applauded. We certainly didn’t endorse blackface.”
Ann was a year behind Roger in school, so she stayed behind, working in Connecticut after graduation, while he entered the military.
Roger was stationed in Germany during the Cold War.
“He came home to get married and took me back,” Ann said. “We spent a year and a half there. Our oldest daughter was born over there.”
“Being in Germany was a wonderful experience,” Roger said. “I was a captain. We were stationed in a small town outside of Munster, a large university town in the Rhine region. We were working with the British, the Belgians, a Dutchman and some Germans. We had a listening tower so we could listen to what was going on in East Germany. And we had nuclear warheads. We stored them and maintained them and we’d ship them around. We had convoys. We’d send them to other places for maintenance.”
If there was a need to launch the missiles, code messages would be sent down.
“You had a two-man system so that you’d have two safes,” Roger said. “And if you’re an officer, you’d go to one safe, and then you’d go to another safe unit, open the safes and take out these cards with codes on them. And you’d get a message coming down through the system. You’d crack the cards and verify the message. And if it was a war, it would be a message to release the weapons.”
That was Roger’s job — to release the weapons. Luckily, he never had to do it, but it was still a tense time.
“When we were there, the British did the outside security and we did the inside,” Roger said. “And one day we looked out, and there was a Russian officer in full uniform walking down the fence where we stored these weapons. The British went out and got him. They put them in a car, put a blanket over the car, and kept him there for about eight hours. And we said, ‘How come you kept them there for eight hours?’ They said, ‘Well, the last time they detained somebody on the Eastern side, they kept them for six hours.’ The Russians just wanted to let us know that they knew where we were and what we had.”
On a trip a few years ago, Roger and Ann returned to the base.
Almost all of the town as they knew it had been absorbed into the city. The barracks had been turned into an Icelandic horse riding facility. And of course, the nukes were long gone.
“The site where we stored them, we drove out where it was,” Roger said. “And I think it’s used for vegetable storage now.”
After The Service
When he left the Army, Roger got a Master’s in environmental and marine economics from the University of Massachusetts, then took a job at Cornell University as one of their first Sea Grant Specialists.
“Sea Grant was a program that was created back in the 1970s to emulate the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Extension Service,” Roger said. “Sea Grant was meant to do the same thing for the marine fishermen and coastal users. It still exists. And so Cornell, with the State University System in New York, created this system with funding from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. We first went down to Long Island to work with commercial fishermen on coastal issues. We developed a lot of new nets and other ways for catching fish in sustainable harvests. We created better fishing methods.”
Then the Allbees moved up to Lake Ontario, where Roger did the same thing.
“And then we decided to come back to Vermont the first time,” Roger said.
At the time, however, Roger was thinking of becoming a lawyer; he had been accepted into the University of Miami’s Marine Law Dept.
“But I had two kids, and Ann’s father had just died,” he said. “So we said, ‘Let’s come back to Vermont.’ And you know, when you’re young you don’t think about much except where you want to live. And we really wanted to be back in Vermont. So we came back.”
Looking back, the Allbees decided they made the right decision.
“But at the time you go, ‘Oh, my God, this is what we planned on doing,’” Ann said. “Now we’re past that. It was the right decision. But when you look at Roger’s history, it does sound like he couldn’t keep a job. And that isn’t true.”
Back To Vermont
The Allbees returned to Vermont without jobs. Ann quickly found a teaching job, while Roger took care of the children.
“Then I was hired to be the first director of the 208 Water Quality Management Program,” he said.
Some explanation might be needed here: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1972, after Lake Erie caught on fire.
“So Congress created the federal Water Pollution Control Act, really the first major act that addressed non-point source pollution in the country,” Roger said. “Section 208 really was the first provision of federal law that said that states needed to find a way to address non-point source pollution. The State of Vermont created a program that was supposed to be a collaborative between the state agencies and the regional economic development agencies to try to work with farmers and rural owners on how to address this non-point source pollution.”
I remarked that in my image of old Vermont, the water was pristine. Ann set me right straight.
“When my parents built our house up in South Barre, the sewage went right into the stream behind the house,” Ann said. “All of the houses did. You could hear somebody flush their toilet and see it come right out onto the stream. Today, this same river, behind my parents’ old house, is beautiful.”
“I remember when I went through ROTC summer camp at Fort Devens,” Roger said. “We did exercises near the Nashua River. They said that we weren’t to go near it because it was just black and brown with gunk.”
“Rodents could walk across it,” he said. “It was terrible. Those were the days when they called the Connecticut River ‘the most beautifully landscaped sewer in America.’”
Roger directed the first program in Vermont to clean up non-point source phosphorous pollution from farms.
“I was hired by a group that consisted of the Secretary of Environmental Conservation and the state planning officer,” Roger said. “The governor was Dick Snelling.”
Roger worked on cleaning up Vermont’s water for three years, then moved to the newly created Current Use Program.
“They decided after a while that was better to allow the Environment agency to take over the water effort, which was the right thing to do, actually,” he said. “The Snelling administration and the Legislature had just passed the Current Use Program for taxing agricultural and forest land. They had an advisory committee. The committee was looking for consultants to help establish parameters for the program and figure out how it would work. And they hired me.”
The program, still working well today, offers towns a way of taxing large swathes of property at their current use — as forests, say — instead of their “best and highest use,” which might be a Walmart shopping plaza.
It’s a brilliant plan to preserve open space and protect open land from development while still allowing towns and cities to collect some kind of tax on the properties.
Roger helped the first Current Use Advisory Committee set the original procedures for current use. To begin, he visited the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., which had done a lot of work on different techniques for taxing agricultural and forest land.
“The capitalization technique came out of that, in terms of agricultural and forestry,” Roger said.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development says, “This work may be as important as Act 250 or any other one single action for preserving and protecting Vermont lands.”
About a year and a half into the job, while looking for current use information in DC, Roger stopped in to say hello to a friend who was working for then-Congressman Jim Jeffords.
“He said, ‘I’m going back to Vermont, and Jim is looking for somebody to replace me. And he’d like to talk to you,’” Roger said. “So I chatted with Jeffords. He knew my background. And he said, ‘I’d like you to come to work for me on the Agricultural Committee in D.C. And I’d like you to do it for at least three years.’ And I said, ‘I’ll only guarantee two. But I did three and a half, actually.”
The new job meant the Allbees had to leave Vermont again.
“It was a hard life in DC,” Ann said. “You can’t live in the city because you can’t afford it. We had three children and we couldn’t afford private schools. We didn’t want private schools. So we ended up in Monrovia, which is out near Damascus, across the county line where the prices went down. But we only had one car, and Roger had to take it and drive half an hour to the train station. And then he had a 40 minute ride in. I had been working full time, and we had a brand new baby. But it was a great experience, it really was. The kids were in good schools and we had a wonderful church there that took us under their wing and made us part of their families. But at the time it was a little tough. He left at 5:30 in the morning to catch the train, and the last train at night was at 8:30 or something like that. So if he needed to stay longer, he had to stay the night.”
“When you work on the Hill, you’re at their beck and call 24 hours a day,” Roger said. “That’s why most of the people who work there are young and single. Then it’s fun. But it was a fabulous experience.”
Roger was professional staff to the House Committee on Agriculture, with responsibility for dairy policy as well as soil and water conservation.
“I remember my first day, going into Jeffords’s office in the Longworth Building,” Roger said. “Jim said to me, ‘We’re having breakfast this morning in the Capitol.’ And here I am, a country boy, a small, 33-year-old country bumpkin. You know, I remember coming out of the subway that day and looking at the Capitol and saying, ‘Boy, I have all the information in the world at my fingertips.’ Well, I was wrong.”
The person they were meeting for breakfast turned out to be Congressman Tom Foley (D-Washington.)
“Well, Tom was chair of the Ag committee and he went on to be Speaker of the House and then to be ambassador to Japan under President Clinton,” Roger said. “He was a wonderful guy. Jim said he was willing to help us get the first Agricultural Land Protection Act passed. ‘And that will be your job,’ Jim told me. ‘But we’re having breakfast this morning to talk to him about how we can do that.’ And you’re saying to yourself, ‘Now here’s Tom Foley from Washington State, you know, a Democrat, and here’s Jim Jeffords, a progressive liberal Republican.’ And that’s what happened when I was down there. It wasn’t party. People worked together.”
Roger began to focus on the dairy industry. In the 1960s, dairy co-ops had pushed for federal price support laws. The price support was 85 percent of parity. Parity was a system established in 1949 to say that dairy farmers should get the same price or equal to the same price as when milk was at its highest price, after World War II.
“And so it called a parity concept, and it was complicated,” Roger said. “They pushed the price too high. So the government was buying butter, cheese and powder and storing it in battleships in New York Harbor and in caves in Missouri, and everywhere else. Then Jimmy Carter put in an embargo on the Soviet Union — remember the  Olympics? Things were piling up. And then Ronald Reagan was elected. And Reagan came in and said, ‘You know, I want to focus on guns instead of butter.’ He wanted to put more into defense and cut domestic programs. And so they were pushing to cut the dairy price support significantly. And we were running around trying to figure out what we could do to help save dairy farmers like the ones in Vermont. We talked to the Canadians about their program. We talked to the Europeans. Actually, we drafted a Canadian-type program.”
The new program was ready to go. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was a Congressman then, and he was chair of the dairy subcommittee.
“But Jim was really the force,” Roger said. “And we drafted a bill and got it ready. And Jim and Harkin agreed that it was the only thing we could do to save the industry. They got the committee together, and the committee agreed. And then they said, ‘Well, we ought to talk to the guy who’s in charge of national milk, lobbyist Pat Healy, and let him know what we’re doing.’ And this is how politics work. They brought Healy into the room, and he said, ‘If you do that, none of you are ever going to get any political money anymore.’ Now Jim wasn’t buckling to that. And a few others weren’t, but the rest of them did. They said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it.’”
So when the 1982 Farm Bill came up, Jeffords was forced to negotiate a compromise.
At this point in telling the story, Roger became visibly disturbed. I could imagine how difficult this must have been for him to swallow, so many years ago.
“There wasn’t any other option,” Roger said. “They didn’t care a bit about the industry. So the 1982 Farm Bill was a bill that — because of Reagan’s approach on guns versus butter — really slashed federal programs. Not just dairy, but food stamps and other provisions that serve rural America. But we did get our Agricultural Land Protection Provision. That basically said that the federal government, when federal funding will take agricultural land, there needs to be a process to make sure that the agricultural land is not jeopardized and remains productive. It basically led to many of the ag protection programs that exist in the country today.”
Roger said that in his view, the dairy business needs a complete rethinking.
“That’s why today we have these mega dairies of 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 cows,” he said. “And that’s why we’re losing dairy farms in Vermont. The program that was put in for the dairy industry in 1937, as part of the Agriculture Adjustment Act, was meaningful back then and had purpose. The law offered farmers subsidies in exchange for limiting their production of certain crops. The subsidies were meant to limit overproduction so that crop prices could increase. But it isn’t meaningful today. It works against the Northeast. I can get into the weeds here, and I shouldn’t, but the price of milk today is based upon a pricing system that is outdated. And it’s dependent upon international demand for dairy products. And when you’re in the international market, you have to be the lowest cost producer in the world. And we could never be that in Vermont.”
Working for Jeffords was the highlight of Roger’s professional career.
“Because it wasn’t about politics,” he said. “It’s about dealing with issues. It’s about doing the right thing. And we never went into any discussion on dairy, or water quality, or all the other things, and said, ‘What’s the politics of this?’ It was always, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ I remember once going to the floor with Jeffords, on an issue. And he said, ‘How should I vote?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not the congressman. You vote. I can just tell you the issues.’ He said, ‘That’s the best answer you can ever get.’ He was very well respected because for him, it was always about what was right.”
Roger adored Jeffords.
“I think Jim probably was one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “He had a photographic memory. He knew this stuff backwards and forwards, right in his mind. He knew everything. He knew the market order system, the pricing system, how it would affect farmers, how if you change one thing it will affect everything else. This dairy stuff is very complicated. I liked to say, ‘Three people know dairy. Two are dead and the third has Alzheimer’s.’”
That being said, Roger is credited with being one of the few people left who understands dairy pricing.
Being A Banker
Roger left Washington because he and Ann wanted to bring their family closer to home.
He had heard that the Farm Credit Bank in Springfield, MA, was looking for someone with experience in public policy, economics and agriculture. He took a job with them as a vice-president, and the family spent the next 13 years living in Wilbraham, MA.
“The Farm Credit Bank system was originally charted in 1917,” Roger explained to us. “It’s a national system, supported by the government, funded by selling bonds on Wall Street, but owned by farmers in order to finance farmers. It’s probably one of the biggest ag lenders in the United States, maybe in the world. It originally established 12 banks in different parts of the country to fund farmers and farmer cooperatives like Ocean Spray. Cabot/Agri-Mark. The Springfield bank was liable for Massachusetts, but it also represented New York, New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island, It was about a $2 billion operation.”
But in 1985, because of an embargo on wheat, land values in the West had dropped significantly. Banks in the Farm Credit System did not have sufficient cash reserves; they began to go bankrupt.
The banks in Baltimore and Springfield were healthy, but the rest of the system “went into the tank,” Roger said.
“Reagan wanted to pull all the capital from the healthy banks to support the bankrupt ones,” Roger said.
Roger decided there were other options.
“One of the options is that we could work with our delegation to provide a baseline for keeping a certain level of capital to make sure we stay viable,” Roger said. “And so our delegation worked with the delegation from Texas and got a provision in federal law to protect capital. The treasury tried to challenge it and the case was argued in the federal district court in Springfield, Mass. The court found in favor of our bank. So in 1987, there was an attempt to rewrite the federal law on the farm credit system. And we were fortunate then, because Pat Leahy was chairman of the Senate’s ag committee. So we in Springfield, basically, were very fortunate to have a great deal of influence on writing the reform to the 1987 Farm Credit Bank law, which still exists today.”
Jim Putnam recently retired from the Springfield Farm Credit Bank as chief business officer. He worked closely with Roger at the bank for many years. He calls him “a mentor and a friend.”
“He came to help us deal with public affairs issues of all types,” Putnam said. “I was a young employee working in agriculture. I found his knowledge of the political process incredible and insightful. He loved New England agriculture and family farms, which is something we share in common. He was always interested in how we can improve the playing field for family farmers. I’ve always been amazed at how forward thinking he was. He’d be thinking about how things would be five or ten years down the road. We collaborated and I learned so much from him. He was always willing to share his knowledge. He was so patient. One of the things I love about him — and it’s a Vermont thing — is how irreverent he is. He taught me everything I needed to know about civics, and everything they forgot to teach me in school.”
Roger left the bank when it merged with one of its sister banks in Colorado.
“We were given the option of staying with them or taking the package and doing something else,” Roger said. “I decided to do something else.”
“We didn’t want to go to Colorado,” Ann said. “That was his first retirement.”
The retirement didn’t last long. Along with another person from the bank, Roger formed AGTEC, a trade and export company designed to developed markets for specialty foods in Europe and Asia.
“My partner was very detail-oriented, and I was good at the big vision stuff,” Roger said.
They primarily worked with cranberries.
“There was a great deal of interest because cranberries help with bladder infections,” Roger said. “They have lingonberries over there, but they don’t have cranberries. So there was a great interest in the juice. And there are other great products.”
They mainly worked with the Decas Cranberry Company on Cape Cod in Wareham.
“We developed their international markets,” Roger said. “We developed the first market in the Czech Republic and then in Hungary. In fact, we worked with the Hungary Baker’s Association.”
They also introduced cranberries to Walker’s Shortbread in Scotland, and tried to establish a market for Maine lobsters in England; that one didn’t work out.
The business was never profitable.
“But it was good experience,” Roger said. “We participated in a lot of trade missions and dealt with some of the ambassadors and their staff in different countries.”
Eventually Roger signed the business over to his partner. That was his second retirement.
He and Ann returned to Townshend and the land on which he was born. By then they had built their house, but they weren’t destined to stay in it very long.
“When we moved back, that was me saying, ‘Finally! Okay! We can move back to the land,’” Ann said. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to promise one thing.’ This was after I spent a year where he was in DC from Monday to Friday and I was working in Wilbraham as a teacher, with the three kids. And he had a heart attack when he was 40. His heart stopped for 11 minutes! It was lucky he was in an ambulance when it stopped. And so I said, ‘You know, I’m fine with us moving back to Vermont, as long as you promise you’re not going to get me up on this hill and leave.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, no!’ I think we were here for three weeks. And he said, ‘Ah, George and I are going to Europe for three weeks.’”
Roger was then a consultant for a law firm in DC, helping a Japanese rice cooperative and again working on dairy issues.
For Vermont, In Vermont
In the early 2000s, the Allbees returned to Vermont so Roger could head the state’s Farm Service Agency.
“Jim Douglas had been just elected governor,” Roger said. “Douglas appointed Steve Kerr as ag secretary. And because of my finance background, I guess they thought I’d be good in the FSA. Technically, Douglas didn’t hire me, because it was a federal job for the Bush Administration. But you know, what happens in those federal jobs is that the senior official in the party in the state usually gets to select that person. So Douglas recommended me.”
The FSA, which still exists, is a major government lender to the farm sector in the state as well as a guarantor of loans by other lenders, including the Farm Credit Bank system, commercial banks and others. It was a perfect way for Roger to combine his agricultural experience with his banking and governmental experience.
Then Kerr resigned and Douglas’s chief of staff called Roger.
“And he said, ‘Do you know of anyone who we should approach about taking the position?’” Roger said. “And I said, ‘Well, I can give you some names.’ And he said, ‘How about yourself?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not interested.’”
“And that’s what he told me,” Ann said. “He wasn’t interested.”
“So the guy came back a few days later and said, ‘Aren’t you interested?’” Roger said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ Then he came back. He said, ‘But we really would like you to do the job.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”
At the time Roger was living in Burlington, but the family was still in Townshend. That made for a lot of driving.
“He came home every weekend,” Ann said. “My mother was in her 90s and in a nursing home in Barre. So Saturday morning, we would head back up to Barre and come back Saturday night. And then Monday morning, he would have head back up. We did that for four years.”
Douglas said he was surprised by Roger’s interest in the job, because his federal job paid considerably more.
“But Roger is not motivated by pecuniary concerns,” Douglas told me. “He’s dedicated to serving the rural communities. It was something he wanted to do. It didn’t take me long to extend the offer. He was such the perfect fit there. His upbringing on a farm in southern Vermont, his work in Washington with Sen. Jeffords, his work in ag lending at the Farm Credit Bank and FSA, and his love for Vermont and its working landscape. He was and is dedicated to this state and we’re very lucky that he still is, even in his so-called retirement.”
Eventually the Allbees bought a condo in Montpelier.
I asked Douglas to give me an idea of some of the things Roger did as secretary of agriculture and he mentioned their trip to France.
“We led a delegation to France in 2009,” Douglas said. “There was a new concept called terroir – or taste of place. Roger was focused on the Vermont Seal of Quality and the Vermont brand, and he said there was a lot of interest in using place names as a brand.”
Roger talked with his counterparts in Quebec about terroir, as well.
“He was also focused on the farm-to-school program,” Douglas continued. “He got our local ag products into the schools, which makes a lot of sense.”
Roger had a number of other interesting initiatives, Douglas said.
“He wanted to make sure we had processing capabilities,” Douglas said. “He got a mobile poultry unit that went around to farms to process chickens and turkeys on the spot. It was more cost-effective than farmers taking their animals to slaughterhouses, which might be out of state. He also got a freeze- packing mobile unit that helped harvest blueberries and strawberries and freeze them on the spot. Those are some of the innovations he came up with.”
Another initiative was working with a farm in southern Vermont that grew canola.
“Canola seed produces an oil that can run equipment,” Douglas said. “Roger was focused on using ag land for energy production. Obviously, that includes maple. During my tenure, production more than doubled and Roger was part of that. He had a ‘Buy Local’ campaign going with supermarkets to encourage more placement of local products.”
One of the things Roger is noted for during his time in office is coining the phrase “working landscape.”
When I asked him about it, he shrugged and said many people working together came up with the phrase.
“What it basically means is that we need to have people working with the land on the land, dairy and others, specialty crops, maple,” Roger said. “That is part of our tourism. It’s part of our economy. It’s part of what makes us unique — to have the landscape used for productive purposes, for making food and ag products. Otherwise you just have big developments like Williston. I created programs to try to help people stay on the land, to develop enterprises on the land, to be using it for agricultural purposes.”
The Vermont exhibition hall at the Eastern States Exposition, also called the Big E, in western Massachusetts, came under the auspices of the Ag Agency. Roger maximized the state’s exposure, Douglas said.
“I think the Vermont building is the best, and the traffic there is tremendous,” Douglas said. “It’s been sustained over time. One year I was down there and thought I’d do undercover reconnaissance. The maple booths in New Hampshire and Maine were sparsely patronized and ours was packed. Roger was very focused on our brand — he certainly played a key role in sustaining and strengthening Vermont’s brand.”
One of Roger’s most interesting hires was Anson Tebbetts. From 2007-2009, Tebbetts stepped away from his journalism role at WCAX to serve as Roger’s deputy secretary.
“I am always surprised when someone offers me a job,” Tebbetts told me. “Roger and I come from similar backgrounds. We both come from farm families that grew up in the hills with roots in agriculture. It was a time when the nation and Vermont were really beginning to look at what where their food was coming from. Locavores were the talk of the ag world. Roger is great a looking at the big picture. He traveled to DC frequently to make sure Vermont’s farmers were supported during the farm bill. The farm bill is a big deal and runs five years so getting it right is so important. He used his experience in Washington to help Vermonters.”
Roger also went overseas to help Vermont farmers, Tebbetts said.
“One trip was to China, when China was beginning to embrace dairy,” he said. “They treated Roger like he was the president.”
Roger stayed in the job until the end of the Douglas administration. When the incoming governor, Peter Shumlin, asked if he wanted to stay on, however, he declined.
The Allbees wanted to go back home.
“It’s Roger’s commitment to community,” Douglas said. “That’s where he grew up, and he saw a concern. It’s not only agriculture. It’s the importance of rural communities that really motivates him. He’s always been willing to serve, and I hope his enthusiasm and dedication continues for a long time.”
Dairy pricing is a mess, and Vermont is hemorrhaging dairy farms. What should be done, I asked Roger?
“Several things need to be done,” he said. “The 1937 pricing system’s out of date. It works against Vermont dairy farmers. It’s a federal system that needs to be totally revamped.”
Also, Vermont has always benefited by value-added products, he said.
“If you look at our history, we were the sheep capital of the world at one time with Merino sheep,” he said. “In the 1880s, St. Albans was the butter capital of the world. Vermont’s place in the market is always developing those value-added products that the consumers in the growing markets in the Northeast want. That’s as true today as it was yesterday. We need research on value-added products. We need new marketing strategies. We need to help people enter those markets. It used to be that UVM did some development on new products. UVM is out of it now. We used to have a Northeast Research Center that worked on new products. We don’t have that anymore. We have individuals doing it. It broke my heart when I saw Thomas Dairy [in Rutland] going out of business.”
Could it have been saved?
“I think it could have been saved with capital and people coming in with the ability to do some new products,” Roger said. “They were doing some things, but they were stressed, stretched on markets, and COVID-19 put them into a tizzy financially. So they needed a lot of help. But when you see that kind of wonderful, hundred-year-old business, which makes the best products, going out of business, something’s wrong.”
Vermont’s current governor is not interested in dairy, Roger said.
“I think Phil Scott is a wonderful guy,” Roger said. “I think he’s done a great job on COVID-19. But the dairy system really requires bringing the best minds to the table to think of some new approaches, and we’re not doing that. About two weeks ago I was called by two dairy farmers up in Franklin County. These are dairy farmers who are leaders. They’re very good at what they do. They really know their costs. They’re committed. They both said to me, ‘We’re not going to survive in the future.’ And I asked why. ‘Our pricing system isn’t going to work for us,’ they said. ‘We need to find a way that we can produce product and get higher prices for it. And we’re not alone. There’s at least 30 other dairy farmers up here their same situation.’ Many of them ship to Ben & Jerry’s, which is now owned by Unilever. And Unilever is not interested in the survival of dairy farmers in Vermont. That’s not their gig. They want the lowest price they get. Phil is a wonderful guy, but dairy isn’t on his mind. I don’t think that a lot of policymakers know about dairy.”
So another Allbee retirement went into the books — maybe the third or the fourth, because I’ve lost count. Anyway, he and Ann came home. But he wasn’t through yet.
While his time as secretary was winding down, Roger had been getting involved with elder care as part of the group that helped launch a senior housing development next to Grace Cottage Hospital. And that led to him ultimately becoming the CEO of Grace Cottage.
Grace Cottage is a revered small independent hospital in Townshend notable for its personalized care and its dedicated fan base. It was founded in 1949 by the late Dr Carlos Otis, who actually delivered Roger and his brother in Brattleboro, before Grace Cottage became a reality.
“My mother, who was in her 80s at the time, said, ‘Why don’t we have senior housing in the Valley?’” Roger said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s a good question.’ So we put together a citizens group of individuals, including my brother and sister, and we used Town Meeting to do a survey of what people were interested in, in terms of when they got older, and did they want senior housing? And were they interested in senior housing located near a hospital? Because Grace Cottage Hospital had just closed its nursing home because the government said it didn’t meet requirements.”
At the time, the state wasn’t interested in senior housing; it was promoting the idea that senior citizens should remain in their own homes.
Roger and some others joined the Grace Cottage board of directors, and after a great deal of fundraising by many prominent West River Valley people, West River Valley Senior Housing — universally knowns as Valley Cares — was born.
“When I came back, I was still on the board of Grace Cottage,” Roger said. “And the CEO at the time had left. We went through a process of trying to hire a new CEO. We had a candidate, but the guy who we thought had accepted it decided to stay where he was. So they said to me, ‘Are you willing to do it on a temporary basis, say three days a week?’ In the end, it turned out to be about seven days a week.”
Roger accepted the position on a temporary basis that lasted four years. At the time, Grace Cottage had just completed a study with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center which recommended a merger with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
“A lot of us on the board said that while there may be synergies, you just don’t do a merger like that with a shotgun to your head,” Roger said. “You have different cultures. Different people are involved. It needs to be developed.”
Some board members suggested creating a service agency for shared billing, planning and maybe hiring, but eventually a merger never came through. That turned out to be a good thing, Roger said.
“The board decided to continue Grace Cottage and we did a lot of work to stabilize the finances and everything else,” Roger said. “And I think we achieved that. Grace Cottage is very important to the valley. It gives people access to primary care, and getting primary care today is very difficult. A second reason is because of its rehabilitation services. They do rehabilitation 24/7, around the clock. Another aspect it offers is preventable care. And it’s important to have an emergency room. Because if you have a stroke, you only have so much time to get help. Grace Cottage stabilizes and ships to Dartmouth or Brattleboro. Basically it’s an institution that can treat a patient immediately.”
Ann said she agreed with him.
“You have personal touch at Grace Cottage that I don’t think you get in other places,” she added. “And I think you would find the doctors here would say, ‘We could probably make more money somewhere else. But we like this life.’”
Grace Cottage adheres to an old-fashioned philosophy of medicine.
“Medicine used to be about not only knowing the patient, but knowing the patient’s family, knowing all the kids, knowing everyone all the way through,” Roger said. “The family’s health is as important as the patient’s.”
Ann remembered when Roger’s father died at Grace Cottage.
“Dr Backus came at about four in the morning to tell the family,” Ann said. “He didn’t call. He came.”
Grace Cottage is so important that many people donate time and money to keep it going.
“We needed to put in a new heating system in the primary care center,” Roger remembered. “This was just before I was leaving. And the guy who does maintenance there, Scott Hitchcock, a wonderful guy, recommended a particular system. And we said to Scott, ‘How much is it going to cost?’ He said, ‘Oh, probably about half a million dollars.’ They raised the money in three months. There’s that much support.”
Roger learned a lot about health care at Grace Cottage.
“I personally feel that we need a single payer system in this country,” he said. “Right now, preventable care isn’t paid for. When I was at Grace Cottage, we had people putting off getting health care because they couldn’t afford it. Their deductibles were too high. Then they ended up going to the emergency room because they could get services there.”
The United States has the highest-cost health care system in the world, Roger pointed out.
“We have wonderful doctors,” he said. “We can get wonderful things done with technology. But we have the poorest results of the industrialized nations in the world. All our indicators are backwards. When we were in France, Jim Douglas and I had lunch one day with the president of the French Senate. He said, ‘I don’t understand you Americans anymore. You spend all this money on your wars in Afghanistan and everywhere else, but you’re not willing to have a good health care system like we have in France.’ And he was right.”
Medicare for All makes good sense, Roger said.
“It’s a good start,” he said. “But can you survive on just Medicare? No. Some countries have a single payer system and then they have a supplemental. We need to look at those programs.”
Drug pricing is another system that needs change, Roger said.
“It’s out of kilter,” he said. “We have a pharmacy at Grace Cottage, and we had a joint buying contract with Dartmouth. And they came to us and said, ‘We’re not big enough to get discounts from the drug companies.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, you’re not big enough?’ And they said, ‘Well, our buying power is about $200 million. And we need to be at least a billion to get discounts from the drug companies today.’ And you say to yourself, ‘All you have to do is go to the Federal Elections Commission, and look at what the drug companies do in terms of lobbying in Washington, DC today. I mean, it’s criminal.’”
More Or Less Retired
Roger ran for public office twice, first for the House of Representatives as a Republican and then for the Senate as a Democrat. He lost both times.
“In 2002 I ran for the Vermont House as a moderate independent Republican endorsed by Jim Jeffords,” Roger said. “I thought I could do some things in agriculture and land use. Ann said, ‘You’re fortunate you didn’t win.’ I found I can do as much by not winning as I can by winning. Then I decided the Republican Party was not the Republican Party I knew from the past. Peter Galbraith said, ‘You need to run.’ My wife said, ‘No, you don’t.’ But I did. Everyone found that my views weren’t too different from Becca Balint’s. I won the hill towns and she won Brattleboro. Now she’s Senate Majority Leader and a good friend. I tell people the national Republican Party I knew is a Trump cult party.”
Roger also had a hand in creating one of southern Vermont’s most important tourist events, the summertime festival that once, before COVID-19, was the Strolling of the Heifers. Stroll founder Orly Munzing of Dummerston had the idea for the festival about 22 years ago.
“I met Roger because of Ann,” Munzing told me. “Ann was teaching at the Wardsboro Elementary School, and I already had the idea for the Stroll. I walked into her class and it had all handmade wall decorations, and was such an inviting and soothing class. I was a district learning specialist back then. I told her about my idea, and she said, ‘Oh my God, you have got to talk to my husband!’ I think he was commuting from D.C. back and forth to Vermont. She went home and told Roger. The next thing I know, a get a phone call. He thought this was an excellent idea. While he was ag secretary I would consult with him. Then I asked him to be a board member. Now he is the interim director of Strolling of the Heifers executive board.”
Sadly, in October the Stroll suspended all operations. Roger, as interim director, had to issue this statement on behalf of the board of directors:
“The Board of Directors of Strolling of the Heifers, Inc. has taken action to suspend all operations. With a heavy heart, this action is taken due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on the financial operations of Strolling of the Heifers that is very dependent on the annual parade and associated events for its operation. Over the last twenty years, since its inception, beginning with the annual parade, Strolling of the Heifers has brought so much to the town, area, region… The annual event has attracted tens upon tens of thousands of people and has been rated as one of America’s top 10 Summer Events in 2014 and Top Ten Time-Honored event for the past 19 years by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. The Stroll bolstered the rural agricultural economy with such programs as “Windham Grows” that supported many emerging agribusinesses, improving their profitability, and creating many new jobs. SOTH’s Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship program trained unemployed and underemployed people in foodservice careers, placing them with local restaurants. The annual Slow Living Summit gathered leaders from around the USA to Brattleboro to discuss challenges and successes in sustainable local food, further enhancing Vermont’s leadership in creating sustainable and healthy food systems to address economic and social challenges faced by rural America.”
Roger sits on several other boards.
“I’m on the Thompson House Rehabilitation & Nursing Center board in Brattleboro,” he said. “When they asked me, I said I’d be willing to be on as long as they don’t make me treasurer or president or anything else. I’m still on Valley Cares board. And I’m still doing work on dairy. Some of us are still trying to change the dairy program. We’ve done a study for the past six years. We did a dairy and water quality collaborative work a couple years ago with a group of 22 people that came out with some bold recommendations. But nobody wants to make a change. I’m about ready to give it up.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” Ann said. “See that big maple tree down there? So, kidding around with the kids, we said, ‘You know, when it’s our time, we’re just going to go down under that tree with a bottle of wine in the winter.’ And I said to the kids, ‘Okay, if you find I’m down there and Dad’s not, it’s because he said, ‘You go on, I’ve got one more phone call to make.’”
After two hours of wonderful storytelling, Randy got his pictures and we reluctantly said goodbye. As we left, Ann pressed into my hand a fresh pumpkin-and-chocolate chip bread.
“I always bake two,” she said.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.