In the mid 1800s Vermont was considered the bread basket of New England. Farmers in the Champlain Valley area were producing wheat, barley and oats. In other regions of the state farmers were growing tobacco, potatoes, hemp, hops, apples and other fruits and vegetables. We were the butter capital of the world in the late 1800s and in the 1900s Vermont’s dairy production became our leading agricultural industry.
Through this same period Vermont’s forests saw enormous changes in sugaring, logging, and wood product manufacturing. Before the Civil War, sheep ruled and grazing lands reached high up our slopes. Then competition came from the West. Today, woodlands cover those foothills, and the shaded cellar holes and stone walls I encounter lie as quiet reminders of how economics shapes our land.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot as our working landscape again faces a lingering and troubling transformation driven by the fact that it is increasingly difficult to earn a living from the land. Farm revenue is down, development pressure drives land prices up, and forest parcels are getting smaller.
If this is not reversed the working landscape in Vermont could disappear within a generation. With it will go Vermont’s defining feature and a core value that unites us as a people. More tangibly, we would lose the scenic, cultural, economic, environmental and recreational benefits that a vibrant working landscape provides.
I put myself firmly in the camp of the overwhelming majority of Vermonters who believe the working landscape is closely tied to our future prosperity. That is why I have agreed to serve as Chair of the newly formed Vermont Working Landscape Council, a group representing deep expertise in issues pertaining to farm and forest enterprises and rural development. The Council is working on a broad-based Action Plan designed to keep our farm and forest economy vital. It will be our task to develop the details that make this plan a practical reality and see that it gets adopted as state policy.
As alarming as the trends are, Vermont has tremendous opportunities to capitalize on. The state is within easy reach of millions of people and there is an increased interest today on food and energy security as well as on locally-sourced, sustainably-produced farm and forest products. Vermont is a national leader in innovative education programs based on local food, agriculture and healthy eating. It is also widely recognized for its strong network of land trusts and other nonprofits that are models for conserving farm and forest lands.
There is already an exciting mix of emerging entrepreneurs and long-time land-based businesses that are constantly evolving to stay competitive. They’re producing biofuels, artisan cheese, specialty wood products, produce, breads and other value-added items. If our ancestors were to come back for a look, they may not recognize how we do things but they would certainly be familiar with the results.
What we could be seeing is a Renaissance of the past diversity of farm and forest operations—if we work together to support a new generation of working landscape enterprises.
Vermont’s landscape is the underpinning of a brand that is highly respected in the global marketplace. It’s why the National Geographic Society ranked Vermont 5th among the unspoiled great destinations on the planet – better than anywhere else in the United States. But to maintain our distinctiveness and realize its full potential will take time and strategic investments. It will also need Vermonters to actively support an economically diverse working landscape providing food, fiber, energy and sustenance for the 21st century.
The WLP Council is leading a new Working Landscape Partnership led by the non-partisan and highly respected Vermont Council on Rural Development. Over 400 individuals and 150 organizations have already signed on to this Partnership and their input will be invaluable as we wrestle with the best approaches to put forward. I encourage you to join the Partnership to stay updated and help shape the campaign for the future of Vermont’s Working Landscape.
Roger Allbee is former Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture He lives in Townshend.