By Anna Flinchbaugh
In the past few years, local food seems to have leapt into public consciousness in a big way. Restaurants in and around Rutland have their menus studded with the names and foods of area farms. Schools are getting in on the action too, with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture allocating another $75,000 last fall to the state’s growing farm-to-school program. And with the opening of the Winter Famers Market in 2011, Rutland area residents and visitors have gained better access to farm fresh goods all year round.
Wrapped up in all of this activity, local food seems hip, exciting, and dynamic. However, while there is undoubtedly a lot of truth to this picture, it sometimes belies the fact that local eating has been around in Vermont for a very long time. For generations, Vermonters have taken to woods and streams, mountains and lakes to engage with what former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry refers to as, “the most environmentally, socially, and ethically responsible way to put meat on your table,” – hunting and fishing.
As Berry suggests, hunting and fishing allow Vermonters to procure meat in ways that fit many of the ideals of local food. There’s nary a factory farm in sight and its antithetical to antibiotics. Food miles are limited to whatever it takes to get to your blind. GMOs are MIA. Game meat also tends to be leaner and, some would argue, healthier. Further, hunting and fishing provide economical means for people to feed their families. Even more than this, though, hunting and fishing help to build the strong communities that the local food movement champions.
For example, Terry Cain, a Ludlow resident, recalled the connections that he and his neighbors formed around hunting. Speaking with us at the Vermont Outdoor Show in March, he explained, “Our next-door neighbor’s got a garden. We give him some venison, and he gives us some squash out of his garden, and it works.”
This sense of shared abundance was echoed in the words of Katrina Porch who noted, “There’s always somebody that wants a fish. If you’re trout fishing, there’s definitely someone around.”
In addition to building bonds between neighbors, hunting and fishing also help to build bonds to the land. Speaking of his reasons for staying in Rutland, Green Mountain DockDogs board member Jeff Leonard explained, “It’s a vast resource of beauty. It’s a great place to take your dogs, hike, mountain bike. You can go forever up there.”
These connections are further solidified through making use of the landscape. As retired Rutland High School teacher Tim Gilbert describes, “If you’re going to preserve nature, the more you know about it, the more you love it, then the more apt you are to vote that way, with your dollars.” This knowledge and love is, by Gilbert’s estimation, formed not through abstract appreciation, but by making use of the land, “whether it be hunting, hiking, biking, snowmobiling, whatever.”
Unfortunately, despite all of these good things, hunting and fishing have been on the decline in recent decades, both in Vermont and around the United States. As a 2006 report from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife department records, hunting license sales have decreased 23% since 1983, despite the fact that 88% of Vermonters professed support for hunting. The anecdotal explanations that we received for this shift ranged from changing lifestyles to lack of education to the increased presence of technology in kids’ lives.
Rutland has done a better job than most of Vermont at addressing most of those challenges. Noted Berry, “it’s hard to describe the value of having a strong local fish and game club, and Rutland has one of the strongest, in my opinion, in the state.” The Mendon Fish and Game Club to which Berry refers does a crucial job in bringing people together and preserving traditions.
However, as important as this work is, it comes to naught if the land needed for hunting is not left open. As Berry explained, “The increasing amount of posted land down there is going to begin to be a bigger challenge for a lot of people. You ask any hunter and they will tell you that pretty much every year they will go back to one of their favorite spots and there’s either yellow posted signs telling you to stay the heck off or there’s a subdivision right in the middle of their favorite spot.”
Vermonters have done an impressive job in recent years of overcoming the cultural divides that often separate hunters and anglers from environmentalists. Recounted Berry, “huge credit to some folks who brought the hunting and fishing community together with the conservation and environmental advocacy community over funding support for the Fish & Wildlife department.” However, these divides still threaten the viability of both the hunting and fishing and the local foods movement. For folks involved with local foods, the most important step to bringing hunters and anglers to the table may be recognizing that they were there first.
Large game hunting in Vermont is pretty much on hiatus until the fall. However, aspiring anglers can get in on the action on June 14, Vermont’s open-water Free Fishing Day. On this one day, both residents and nonresidents can go fishing without a license. For more information, please contact Ann Shangraw (email@example.com).
Having worked with RAFFL last spring through an Environmental Studies senior seminar, Anna Flinchbaugh is very excited to continue her involvement with the organization this summer through Middlebury College’s Foodworks Fellowship program.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.