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Slayton commentary: Working landscape is Vermont’s signature


Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Tom Slayton, a journalist, writer, radio commentator, and retired editor of Vermont Life Magazine, who lives in Montpelier.

I believe that the working landscape of Vermont – that familiar tapestry of farm fields, forests, small cities and compact villages – is vital to the future of Vermont, and is endangered.

The working landscape is part of the signature of our state – important to our farm economy and our tourist economy, a place where Vermonters work, a producer of food and fiber, refreshing and beautiful to look at. It is part of our “brand” if you will, and part of who we as Vermonters are.

But that landscape is more than simply beautiful, more than something for Vermonters and visitors to take pleasure in. It is part of and a product of Vermont’s traditional rural culture. The working landscape didn’t just happen. It was made, acre by acre, sugarbush by woodlot, and field by field by the working Vermonters who came before us and who live here today, working the land.

It took more than two centuries of toil and intelligence to shape the stony land that God gave us into the pleasant open farms and forest land we see today. We are fortunate that the traditional Vermont culture that shaped Vermont as we know and love it is still with us.

But that culture – our traditional rural fabric – is now threatened by huge national and international economic and social forces that are eroding it and gradually but inexorably replacing it with a consumer-driven, suburban culture and economy that gobbles up productive farm and forest land and replaces it with housing developments, shopping malls, mass entertainments and mass values.

Not long ago on a writing assignment I visited a farm family up in the Northeast Kingdom. They are truly wonderful people. They do good work, and they work just about all the time.

They are also the last farm on their road. There used to be 10 farms there; now there is one. This is happening all over Vermont.

But agriculture, forestry, and other land-based work and places do not have to disappear from Vermont. Previous state leaders have taken bold imaginative action, and have passed legislation – like Act 250 and the Land Use Tax Bill – that have helped keep development under control and Vermont’s working lands open and productive.

The Working Lands bill before the Vermont Legislature today is another such bold step. It may not be the only answer or the ultimate answer, but it is a step in the right direction.

The House has passed this important piece of legislation and funded it adequately, an appropriate and bold move that should be applauded. Let us hope that the Vermont Senate, now considering the bill, will follow suit and approve the Working Lands bill, so that we can work together to vigorously conserve Vermont’s working lands and rural culture.