The following is my senior thesis completed in 2003 for my Environmental Studies degree at Middlebury. I rediscovered in on a recent trip home to Boston and dusted off the cover realizing how much I love Vermont and the place it represents. In the coming weeks I will publish each part of the the story starting with the Introduction today.
Does Vermont’s Open, Agricultural Landscape Have a Future?
Ideas, Thoughts and Solutions for a Threatened Common Vision
Vermont’s indelible character grows from its landscape and extends outward. Once jagged, rocky peaks that formed the backbone of the state, the Green Mountains now are crumpled folds of lush green satin pulled up from the valley floors demarcating east from west. Vermont has its own “kingdom” tucked away in its sleepy northeast corner and fittingly named so. Valleys running north to south through the Greens are so tightly situated, their residents can expect sunset an hour earlier each day – if the clouds aren’t out, that is. And to the western end of this landlocked state lies water, Lake Champlain, with what passes as a verdant basin leading down to it. The towns sit on top of clay and rock, as do the barns and houses. And on that land almost anywhere in the state, you’ll find men working, hands dirty, eking out a living.
Vermont farms. Since people have settled here, farming has always been a prime attraction. For many the exhaustion of farmland in southern New England meant new hope in Vermont and its northern New England neighbors. In the 1940’s, the state had over 24,000 farms. In a state that is roughly 9,500 square miles, 9,100 of which is devoted to land, that translated to between two and three farms per square mile. If we were to exclude mountainous areas that are non-arable, of which there are many, then the concentration of farms per square mile would likely skyrocket. In so many words – farms were everywhere.
Such a picturesque place also attracts people for reasons other than farming. In my youth, the monotony of suburban Boston was broken by vacations, often split between Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Each of these states brings its own distinct character, which was lost on me until my later years. Yet my father understood what made Vermont distinct, and would often tell us – or better yet, tell anyone who would listen. “What I love about Vermont,” he would say, “is the rolling hills with open fields and pastures. Ahhh, it’s so beautiful.” He would later add that uninterrupted forest covering mountains just didn’t do it for him.
Of course, that dynamic of forest to field has changed too in Vermont along with a great many other things. Just over 100 years ago, at the height of farming in Vermont, the state was 25 percent forest and 75 percent open space. That ratio has nearly reversed itself today, yet farming had persevered. The common view of a working landscape became entrenched in the Vermont psyche – and, if my father is any evidence, in the New England psyche as well. The “commons”, as it were, was a paradigm for Vermonters’ land values. Each town kept a pastoral emerald center that, in theory, was open to the townspeople’s animals for grazing. Such a need no longer exists; however, each municipality in some form or another has kept such a space, and kept it open. Just as there has been the bedrock expectation that the land in Vermont remain a working landscape, so to has there been the expectation that the center of town stay open. And so there is a marriage of concepts – “working” and “open” – which has been articulated to apply in town and country alike. “Despite the growth of the town, the field should still remain,” the saying would go. Trees and weeds are not allowed to take over the commons and neither are buildings and houses.
But with time comes pressure, as any geologist would tell you. The commons now is subjected to countless pressures, many of them sociological. What is to become of Vermont’s shared expectation that the land stay open and be worked and that farmer’s hands be “dirtied”? It seems there is a threat, a modern day one – but from whom and from where?
This April, the Vermont legislature passed a farm relief plan devised by newly elected Governor Jim Douglas, putting much needed money in farmers’ hands. In theory it allows farmers in dire financial straits, hope for another growing season along with enough money to plant their crops. Douglas, the husband of a farmer’s daughter, had little trouble gaining the support and empathy of the legislature. Senator Sara Kittell of Franklin said to the Burlington Free Press, “It wasn't hard to get people together because we know the importance of farms to the Vermont economy.”
In fact, over 70 percent of all receipts paid to farmers in Vermont are milk checks, underscoring the importance of dairying in Vermont (Mitchell, 1999). That revenue comes from “production units” – or, in simpler terms, cows. Joe Sherman points out in his book Fast Lane on a Dirt Road, that successful dairying in Vermont came to require more cows and to revolve around the axiom, “you could only have as many cows as you could feed” (20). To feed cows you need land, and so we have come full circle. Vermont’s character grows from the land and extends outward.
Since 1946 the amount of milk produced by Vermont dairy cows has more than doubled. And yet incredibly, in that same span the number of cows dotting the fields has been halved. Yes, that means more milk per cow - roughly by a factor of four. Mathematics aside for a second, there are trends galore to be found revolving around the Vermont dairy industry, which, as we have seen, is the state’s largest agricultural enterprise. Perhaps one of the most interesting trends, however, is one that has been shared with the rest of the country in general: there are fewer farmers today than there were 50 years ago, by a long shot. This falls in line with the globalization and consolidation found in all sectors of modern society. Yet Vermont’s pill of disappearing farms is a hard one to swallow, given that dairying and the Green Mountain State have gone hand in hand for so long. In 1945 roughly 11,000 dairy farms speckled the state. Now just after the turn of the century, there are only about 1,400 (Don Mitchell, personal communication, April, 18, 2003).
Even areas of the state that are best suited for farming have seen a decline. Addison County, one of the state’s most fertile due to its proximity to Lake Champlain, has lost 80 percent of its farms since the end of World War II. So, with all these numbers concerning dairy farming in Vermont, is there cause for alarm? That all depends on whom you ask.