Vermont’s post-European settlement identity and cultural history is inextricably linked to the working landscape. However, the relevance of working lands to the state’s future economic and social fabric is at a tipping point. As fewer Vermonters work the land, more Vermonters lose appreciation and empathy for the people, businesses, and communities whose lifeblood is linked to the land.

The very definition of “The Working Landscape” depends on the relationship one has with it. It might be the wooded trails that hikers and skiers pass through, the inherited responsibility of generations of hard labor and husbandry, a farmstand, or a skid road. At its best the working landscape is verdant and beckoning, but if the working stops the landscape reflects abandonment.

Vermont has been, and continues to be, an attractive place for the in-migration of people because of the working landscape and all it represents. New Vermonters like the beauty of the varied scenery and recreational activities made possible by our “Natural Capital” (the land, air, and water), and our ability to sustain it. Earlier migrants were motivated in large part by the promise of making a living from the land, and essentially created today’s working landscapes. Instead of nurturing the natural capital however, many newcomers treated what they found as if it was a resource to be exploited. Within several generations the landscape was dotted with failed dreams and environmental degradation. This is in stark contrast with the earliest inhabitants of the area now called Vermont who lived within the limits of the land’s ability to provide.

The challenge before us is to create an environment where folks – whether native-born or newly arrived – who want to make a reasonable living from the land and contribute to Vermont’s overall economy and quality of life have the opportunity do so. We must employ bold, creative actions that support the things we want and resist the things we don’t. Our recent track record suggests that we have the ability to rise to the task:

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s 2010 Farm to Plate initiative is one example. The initiative collected, for the first time ever, data on Vermont’s food system. The resulting snapshot of food production, distribution, spending, and consumption patterns led to the creation of a ten-year strategic plan that was designed to enhance the components of Vermont’s food sector. The Plan included a number of strategic goals, and formed working groups to achieve them. Many of the goals were met or exceeded well within the Plan’s timeframe. The initiative was so successful that last year the legislature authorized VSJF to undertake Farm to Plate 2.0, which will run until 2030.

The Working Lands Enterprise Fund was created by the legislature in 2012. This was a direct outgrowth of the Council on the Future of Vermont’s finding that 98% of Vermonters surveyed supported Vermont’s Working Landscape. The Fund tangibly shows the state’s commitment to a prosperous working landscape. Businesses and support services in the agriculture and forest products sectors can apply for funds that are designed to stimulate business growth and employment opportunities, help legacy businesses modernize so they can better compete in the marketplace, and explore potential new market ideas for Vermont products.

The Vermont Land Trust is dedicated to ensuring land access to future generations of people willing to productively work the land. To date it has conserved about 590,000 acres of land in Vermont for forest and farm-based businesses, recreational opportunities, and ecological health.

The Farm and Forest Products Viability Program within the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board provides personal, financial, and professional resources designed to help individuals develop the skills needed to profitably make a living from the land.

The key to success in these and other initiatives is their focus on the prize: the working landscape and everything it represents – economic opportunity for individuals and businesses; prosperous and well-functioning communities; clean air and water; and a diverse, productive, and resilient land base. By using Vermont’s working lands as the framework for the development of sustainable economic and environmental policies, future generations will continue to be drawn to what Vermont has to offer, either as workers of the land or their allies.

For many Vermonters, the 2008 Great Recession and the past year’s COVID pandemic have brought home the idea that we need to regain control over and reinvest in the things we value and may have let slip away: regional food security, the importance of relationships, and local governance. Working lands play a role in all of these.

“Relational,” or relationship-based agriculture represents one path forward. Made up of full-and part-time producers, and by far the largest percentage of Vermont’s roughly 6,000 farmers (as defined by the USDA), these operations are throwbacks to the Vermont of pre-WWII. Most of the output from relational farms is consumed within several miles of the farm itself, through CSAs, Farmers’ Markets, etc. This provides opportunities for producers and consumers to become personally acquainted through meaningful transactional relationships. These personal interactions can lead to a sense of community, which provides fertile ground for understanding, caring, and empathy across sectors. The relatively small scale of relational working lands businesses also provides affordable gateways to opportunity for next-generation producers.

Working lands policies and programs must include both long-time and first-generation residents. It is not enough to have successive iterations of first-generation people who count on the land for their livelihood. Place-based knowledge, which comes only after years of interactive experience with the land, is vital to land-based operations. It is also an undervalued resource. Simple things such as frost pockets, rain shadows, or fox dens are critically important to management decisions and best learned from personal real-world experience and the inter-generational transfer of knowledge.

A working lands community shares a common understanding of how and why things are done the way they are. Families who rely on the land for their livelihood view their relationship with the land differently than those who don’t. With commodity agriculture in particular--where much of the production is exported and/or consumed far from the farm — non-farming neighbors have little reason to know or care about farm life. This represents a challenge for our rural communities at a time when Vermont is facing a potential surge in so-called COVID and climate refugees. Many of our recent in-migrants are moving to Vermont because of our working lands, but few of them intend to make their living from our agriculture or forest sectors. All Vermonters need to know that authentic working lands enterprises bring value to the state at a relatively low cost if mutual interests are clearly identified.

We need to be willing to commit any and all available resources to maintain, support, and promote our working landscape. We’ve done a lot of good work around land conservation, business planning and market development, and intergenerational succession planning for ag and forest operations. Our next steps should include: using our brand (or image) to add value to our products, creating and demonstrating pathways to profitability for working lands-based enterprises, developing a regional niche for our ag and forest-derived products, and viewing our land base more in terms of “capital” to be conserved and enhanced and less in terms of a “resource” to be exploited and degraded. We need to take a systems approach as we consider the future of our working landscape, because its importance is one of the few things that we all seem to agree on.

Will Stevens is a first-generation farmer and co-owner of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, which is now transitioning to the next generation. He served in the Vermont Legislature from 2007-14 and was ranking member of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee for four years. He’s been president of Vermont Organic Farmers, on several Town and non-profit boards, and is currently a member of the Vermont Community Foundation’s board, chair of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund board, and Shoreham’s Town Moderator.

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