by Tara Kelly
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the communities I’ve lived in and their relationships with local food and agriculture.
Growing up in the Boston area during the 70’s and 80’s, agriculture and local food was not on my radar screen. The big thing in my town was the transformation of “the arsenal” (yup, weapons arsenal) into a shopping mall bringing big stores to our little town. My relationship to farming of any kind was limited. My father would frequently refer to the dairy that had been in town when he was a child – pointing at the 12 story high apartment complex for the elderly that stood in its place. I really had a hard time picturing that cows had lived there.
And growing things was never my strength. The closest I came to “working the land” was scouring our 20×20 foot yard for rocks one day with my best friend Billy and then selling them, along with part of our bottle cap collection, to another kid during our “yard sale”. We made $2.15 that day! But, there was the Joyce’s house. It was the only house in our neighborhood with a vegetable garden. We kids discovered that we actually liked vegetables – when they didn’t come from a can. Our garden activities were limited to regularly raiding Mr. Joyce’s garden to eat the fresh green beans, peas and carrots until he finally called our parents and asked them to put a halt to it. Our parents then lectured us about picking the neighbor’s veggies and bemoaned that we refused to eat the canned green beans served with dinner in our homes. Hmmm.
Later in life, I began paying attention to the importance of local economies and small businesses while living in Oakland, CA. There, buy local awareness was strong. This was especially true in the neighborhoods where buying locally was an act of pride and investment in a part of the community where people had been traditionally excluded from “the ladder of progress” in the mainstream economy.
While living in Oakland I spent a few years embedded in community development work in San Jose, CA. In that city there was a fresh wound. This wound carried with it a tremendous amount of sadness and regret. I only had to speak to a person over the age of 50 for a few moments about what they valued in their community to find that across the board they were not happy with the way their community had developed. They had lost what they valued – the farms.
The folks I’m referring to had witnessed the radical transformation of their community from being the “valley of the heart’s delight” full of fruit orchards, nut trees, and vegetable production and processing, to the era of rapid and aggressive economic development aimed to make the city the capital of Silicon Valley during the high-tech boom. These folks wished there had been some balance, some place at the table, for agriculture to be part of the consideration when plans were made to turn rich, productive soils into endless tracts of housing and glass towers.
When I moved to the Rutland area ten years ago, I was struck by the strong attachments to agriculture and the rural landscape, here and throughout our state, which represent our values of self-reliance, local control, and productivity. It is something that runs deep. This is not a throwback or something to be remembered with fondness — it is a part of the local culture that has never completely disappeared. It is part of the current economy and it is evolving and shifting to stake out its role into the future.
There are two major statewide initiatives investing time, talent and resources to supporting the longevity of farming and forestry in our state: The Vermont Working Landscape Partnership and Vermont’s Farm to Plate Network.
The Vermont Working Landscape Partnership has made tremendous progress in bringing the farm and forest sectors together and framing the Working Landscape effort as a priority for state policy and investment. As a result, Vermont is beginning to put the working landscape on par with other types of economic development, giving agriculture a place at the table. In 2012, the legislature created the Working Lands Enterprise Board along with state investment of close to $1M that they are distributing through grants to farm and forest enterprises this spring. This type of investment is supporting the action and goals contained in the Farm to Plate strategic plan.
Both of these efforts are taking the commitment Vermonters have to the working landscape and translating that into investments and action. With their work, perhaps Vermont will not become yet another place where strong communities rooted in productive farms are remembered with a mix of sadness and regret.
Tara Kelly is Executive Director of Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL). Her parents are still a bit confounded about how her career in public service and community development led to work focused on the local farm economy. But, sometimes you never know where life will take you.