Grant to study changing face of Vermont farming

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The face of Vermont farming is changing and a new project by the University of Vermont aims to get out the word and break up stereotypes too.

A visit to a local farmer's markets would show the agricultural renaissance that is underway, with many younger farmers attending the stalls.

Linda Berlin, director of the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said the past decade has seen many younger people enter farming, predominantly in diversified farms and produce farms.

In the coming weeks, a panel of Vermont scholars and farmers will select eight farmers from around the state and record their oral histories to use in creating multimedia stories — including comic books.

In announcing the project, UVM says the art produced will "complicate" the stereotypical image of the Vermont farmer as a "grizzled, seventh-generation dairyman."

The stories and comic books are ultimately intended to be used in middle school classrooms, the press release says, to "spur further discussion about contemporary Vermont farming in each school's community."

The upcoming interviews are the first step in a three-year project funded by a grant the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded to UVM and three partner organizations in the state earlier this month.

Besides UVM, which is the lead partner on the project, the other partners include the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Folklife Center and the Vermont Farm to School Network.

"Grants like these help us foster and conserve the rich and cohesive communities that we want," said Sen. Patrick Leahy in a statement.

"These funds," Leahy said, "will help fund programs, art and stories that bring together Vermonters and give us a better understanding of our great state."

Berlin said the grant is structured so that the project will receive up to $15,000 from the NEH in the first year, depending on how much the grant recipients raise from other donors. In the second and third years, Berlin said, the NEH will match up to $30,000 and then $45,000 for a total of $90,000.

"We tend to use one brush to paint the picture of farming in Vermont," Berlin said. "Historically that may have worked, but today it's more complex."

In an interview, Berlin said that she and her team at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture work with many new Americans and resettled refugees on farming and gardening. These activities, she said, are very "helpful with developing their own sense of place and connectedness" to Vermont.

Berlin said these recently immigrated farmers, along with Abenaki farmers, primarily live in the Chittenden County but elsewhere as well.

Luis Vivanco, an anthropology professor and co-director of UVM's Humanities Center, which is also involved with the project, said "the goal of the grant is to tell the story of this changing dynamic in an engaging way that brings people together."

"Many (of Vermont's farmers) are female," Vivanco said. "They vary in age, ethnicity and race; and they produce a wide range of agricultural products."

Berlin said the change toward a younger, more racially and gender diverse farming community won't be huge in immediate future, but a longer-term shift is beginning.

The average age of farmers in Vermont, Berlin said, is still around 57.

"I don't think that's shifted that much," she said, "but my guess is that it will begin to shift much more in the coming years."

Berlin said it's important for policy reasons that this trend is better understood. For example, Berlin pointed to how Vermont's roughly 850 dairy farms, which are more frequently multigenerational and run by older farmers, are sometimes used as a proxy for all Vermont farms.

Dairy farms, she said, generate 70 or 75 percent of the agricultural sales in the state. However, Berlin added, dairy farms are expensive to run, profits are low and other products may generate a better return.

Using dairy farmers to represent all farmers, Berlin said, can lead officials and the public to "think about (agricultural) policies substantially in terms of how they address those (dairy) farms, even though we have over 6,000 farms of other types and with other people who are not necessarily representing those multi generational farms."

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