Strolling 2016: A whole lot more than a parade

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BRATTLEBORO — The Strolling of the Heifers is expected to attract thousands of visitors to Brattleboro for its 15th annual parade and a weekend packed with festivities, however the full impact of the organization extends year-round.

From its beginning, the mission of the non-profit organization the Strolling of the Heifers has been to bring awareness of sustainable agriculture and the industry around it, according to co-founder and Executive Director Orly Munzing. The Strolling of the Heifers' other programs have inevitably grown from that vision.

"The Stroll is a first hand opportunity for people to better understand and experience the food they eat," said Thomas Moffitt, CEO of Commonwealth Dairy. "Not only does the Stroll directly impact the Vermont dairy economy by bringing exposure to dairy and the wonderful products produced with dairy in Vermont, but there are a number of ancillary activities like the Business Plan Competition, which directly support small business, agriculture, and the Vermont economy."

The Strolling of the Heifer's programs currently also include the Farm-to-Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program, a micro-loan program for farmers, and Windham Grows, a new business "hatchery," to supporting farm and food enterprises. There are also daily brown bag lunch events, which feature speakers and musicians in the River Garden from noon to 1 p.m.

Even in 2002 the public response to the heifer parade surpassed expectations. Although the first parade was expected to be a one-time event, between 10,000 and 15,000 people attended. Munzing realized the event resonated with people and would need to become sustainable for future years, so she turned her focus to gathering the support of local businesses and corporate sponsors.

The Strolling of the Heifers began its programs by holding several meetings with local farmers. Farmers reported that procuring loans was a real difficulty, Munzing recalls, as "40 percent of young farmers and 25 percent of older ones couldn't borrow money." In response, a micro-loan program for farmers was devised through Strolling of the Heifers.

In 2008 musician Pete Seeger and others held a charity concert and raised $84,000 to seed the program. Since then the program was taken up in full by The Carrot Project of Somerville, Mass., which grew the program to cover all of New England.

Munzing is quite happy with that.

"That's what we do, we start things, we make them sustainable, and we move on to other things."

From 2002 to 2007, the Strolling of the Heifers started a grant for teachers to educate about farms. This enabled agricultural appreciation to be added to school curriculums, and provided farmers with compensation for teaching children about their trade. The Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship Program was another program the Strolling ran for teenage youth for two years. The program was so successful that the Windham Regional Career Center adopted the program and brought back a modern-day agriculture program to the school in response to the interest that area youth have in agriculture.

Inspired by the Windham Regional Business Plan Competition run by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, but seeing that it was dominated by tech start-ups, Strolling of the Heifers pitched the idea of a competition aimed at farmers. A second farm-related business planning contest was devised, with the help of Jeff Lewis, who pioneered the BDCC's competition. This new contest was for farm-supporting businesses that had the potential and likelihood of creating jobs. For two years the two contests ran side-by-side, and eventually Vermont Technical college oversaw the general business planning competition for several years, expanding it into a state-wide competition, before it returned to the BDCC.

Against the Grain, Side Hill Farm, Big Picture Farm are among the past winners of the contest that have brought jobs to the Brattleboro area during the program's eight-year run. The competitions are both on hold this year as the two organizations are piloting new programs, but they hope to re-instate the competitions soon.

Emerging from the Windham Regional Business Plan Competition is a new business hatchery program called Windham Grows, which "scales up small businesses that support farms." Small businesses that support farms, who get accepted into the Windham Grows hatchery will receive all the necessary services to scale them up to create more jobs in the Brattleboro area. Munzing describes the hatchery as aiming to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship to create jobs.

"If you are a farmer who sells cabbage at the farmer's market, that's good, but we're interested in job growth. But on the other hand if you want to use that cabbage to make kimchi, and sell it nationally, and you have a story — it's supposed to be good for you — then we can work with you, since that plan will generate jobs."

Businesses don't have to be working in the soil to be eligible, but they must support farms in some way. Funds can go towards a variety of things such as marketing, accounting, or web design. Business plans are evaluated by experts in entrepreneurship, such as founder of FreshTracks Capital, Cairn Cross, and expert consultant Jim Verzino.

So far, the Strolling of the Heifers has secured a $90,000 grant from the Windham County Economic Development fund, was approved for $40,000 from Working Lands Enterprise Grants, and is waiting to hear from the USDA for a $30,000 grant. Additionally, this amount could nearly matched by the Vermont Economic Development Authority with a federal grant of $150,000. Provided this funding is approved, the plan is to fully launch the Windham Grows program in September 2016.

Another job-focused program in the farm and food sector is the Farm-to-Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program, which trains people with limited resources in culinary skills, nutrition and healthy life choices. Last year the three-month training program, led by Tristan Toleno, graduated 11 people, who are all now fully employed in local restaurants and food processing businesses. The newly renovated kitchen in the River Garden is put to good use through the apprenticeship program, part of many new renovations which revitalized the building.

The Strolling of the Heifer's varied programs share one goal: to make agriculture more attractive in the public eye and support. Munzing says that every year farmers feel celebrated, and for many that makes the hard work worthwhile.

"Our mission is to connect people with food they eat and support farms. Every year we work on different causes and economic situations, but, it always takes a life of its own."

Anthony Burdo is a Brattleboro native and will be studying medicine at the University of Kentucky this fall.


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