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Donath Commentary ~ Working lands, our Vermont home


Editor’s note: This op-ed is by David A. Donath, president of the Woodstock Foundation, which operates the Billings Farm & Museum, an operating dairy farm dedicated to telling the story of Vermont’s rural heritage. He is co-editor of a forthcoming book of essays by well-known Vermonters entitled “The Vermont Difference.”

When you travel outside of Vermont, it doesn't take long to sense a difference in the landscape. Drive the interstates of the nation - between occasionally spectacular scenic vistas, a numbing sameness sets in. Despite its geographical variety, our nation begins to look and feel the same. Pre-packaged, it even seems to smell the same.

When I come home to Vermont, I look around and breathe deeply - and smile. Here, the countryside is different and the people seem different too. Cookie-cutter roadside culture is less prevalent. People seem more inclined to live where they work, and the fruits of their labor are often visible. Like generations before them, the livelihoods of our working neighbors intertwine with the verdant, scrabbly valleys and hills of Vermont - especially for those who live and work on the farm or in the forest.

For 250 years, Vermonters have interacted with the land. Over generations, they shaped their landscape - in turn, the harsh beauty of the narrow valleys, flinty hills, and abruptly changing seasons, shaped their culture. Vermonters and their landscapes have shaped and reshaped each other, always at the hands of farmers and foresters, trying to wrest a living from a land that is both reluctant and beautiful.

Vermonters guard their freedoms jealously, even while celebrating the unity of their communities. How we do our work and shape our lands and towns reflects this tension, which is enshrined in our motto: Freedom & Unity. It's also reflected in our distinctive countryside of farms, forests, villages, and small cities, just as it is in our distinctive culture - at once contrarian and cooperative, traditional and progressive, it is quaint, homey, and surprisingly sophisticated.

Today, most Vermonters no longer earn their livelihoods directly from the land. But the quality of their lives is shaped by the working lands around them. Their neighbors, who work these lands, enrich the fabric of their communities, keeping culture in touch with the countryside in which it thrives. These are the elements that bind Vermonters to their distinctive place in the world. This is what makes Vermont the place where we want to live, as well as the place that others want to visit. For Vermonters and visitors alike, our working lands are essential to "the profound sense of well being" that defines our home.

Last year, in the face of the enormous setbacks wrought by Tropical Storm Irene and its ensuing flood, the Legislature passed the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, which the Governor signed into law. In these fiscally challenged times, it was remarkable how Vermonters from all political persuasions saw value in investing in the economic wellbeing of their working lands, by stimulating entrepreneurship among Vermont's agriculturists and foresters. Vermonters found consensus around the idea that in order for their cherished countryside to thrive, its stewards needed pathways to economic sustainability.

It seems to me that this is a particularly Vermont-like way of doing business - fostering a commonly held value, while encouraging individual enterprise. "Freedom & Unity" at work.

But it was only a beginning. It is time to build on last year's Legislative initiative with additional capital in this year's governor's budget, ensuring that the seeds of stimulus we are now planting will thrive in the coming year, and years to come.

Then, when we gaze at the forested hills and verdant valleys of our state, peppered by tidy farms and compact villages, we can take deep breaths of satisfaction. Our children and our grandchildren will thank us too.

This Commentary was printed in various papers.