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Orton Commentary: Working Landscape


After 65 years of decline, Vermont's working landscape - farm and forest - is poised to reverse that trend with the help of two critical applications - and I don't mean manure and lime.

The first application is at the ready, an enthusiastic vanguard of young men and women who want to make a good living on the fields and in the woods.

That second application is money for infrastructure, the old support systems now mostly gone or technically inadequate for today's requirements. But it's the classic chicken and egg situation so all Vermonters need to chip in and help jump-start a new agricultural economy. A consortium of practical visionaries has been working quietly for several years laying the groundwork to finance the redevelopment of an agricultural infrastructure.

The Vermont Working Landscape Enterprise Board is shovel-ready to invest $15 million over the ensuing three years if the legislature will fund it. This action can set in motion a movement that is exactly what Vermont needs - retaining and attracting young educated women and men to put down roots for successful life-long careers working the land.

The revival of our working landscape must be the primary social and economic cornerstone upon which to build an enduring Vermont future.

To work our land profitably is to increase its value for further reinvestment. Currently we have a lag-time landscape, just sitting there waiting for some non-agrarian development to arrive because its value for agriculture is low. By making the land more valuable for Ag use we increase its chances of remaining in production.

We can jump start a new Back-to-the-Land ethos that this time around is supported by sound business practices and innovative market development. We've got the land, we are a welcoming citizenry, and we grasp the fundamental cultural and economic leverage points that working it provide. We must make this investment; a no-brainer if there ever was one.

Vermont's history supports such a vision. In the 1930s the state used the slogan "Unspoiled Vermont" to promote tourism and attract much-needed new residents. The era of the late 1940s - 1960s brought more slogans: "Vermont, A Way of Life" and "Vermont The Beckoning Country." These emotions emerged from our societal, cultural and constitutional ethic, built on the foundation of our plain spoken, and deeply meaningful motto, Freedom and Unity. History has elevated those slogans to cultural touchstones to can guide us if we will only listen to their still beating hearts.

Since World War II much of the rest of America has allowed public policy to emerge that created conditions for field and forest to incestuously intermingle in an untended, unproductive tangle of scrub surrounded by the very last crop, macadam. Yes, Vermont working landscape has declined but it's not gone. However, unless we act to revive our working landscape we too will be looking at our very last crop.

That crop has no future value. The post W.W.II economic model of attracting labor-intensive manufacturing lifted us for a half century but now goes wanting. We can no longer depend on that diminishing model of providing "today's jobs" that are likely fleeting but act to create an environment for entrepreneurs to create careers.

We must summon the energy, creativity, and financial capital, based on our Vermont Way of Life, and build our own future, the one that endures and works for us.

Vermont's working landscape is our opportunity, our renewable resource, our beauty, and our economic future. Go to to join your fellow Vermonters in getting behind this movement and making your views known to our legislature.

Lyman Orton is a proprietor of the Vermont Country Store.

Published in the Manchester Journal: