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Silenced Voices In Vermont’s Farm Communities
Many who live in Vermont have unique perspectives on food. These voices are the catalyst that can bring a new narrative of prevention, empowerment, and solidarity to the food justice movement. In my work to educate people about the crucial link between local, whole food and the health of communities and land, I learn so much about the experiences of those who keep Vermont’s food system alive.
By hearing these stories, I have learned a great deal about food access in Vermont. My conversations with migrant workers, Abenaki elders, high school students, food justice activists, small scale farmers, and a subsidized housing unit residents reveal the need for a new conversation that is more radical and inclusive.
Vermont’s migrant farm workers are crucial to the success of this state’s agricultural economy. Yet, their voices may go unheard because of their invisible non-resident status. They endure treacherous travels from Mexico to find work on dairy farms. Often, they leave their homes because their land has been taken and there is not any work available for them any longer. Ironically, displaced farmers who are forced to migrate to support their families are working to maintain many of Vermont’s rural farms, which are also barely able to survive.
Farm workers appreciate the volunteers who bring them groceries and clothing. This support allows them to plant gardens, grow food, and cook some of their traditional dishes. In an attempt to engender solidarity and empower migrant workers, Migrant Justice encourages Vermont residents to gain a Driver’s Privilege ID card, which is the identification granted to Vermont residents without a social security number. Click this link for ways to serve as a farm worker ally.
Migrant workers are not the only ones who need allies in the food system. Smallholder Vermont farmers are struggling to stay alive in the face of corporate food. Joey Klein and Betsy Ziegler of Littlewood Farm in Plainfield have recently slowed down operations and placed their land in the hands of Vermont Land Trust’s Affordable Farmland Program. In this way, young farmers may access it in the future. Klein explains with humility that they were focused on movement-building “right from the get go. We weren't in it for ourselves. We wanted to change the economy and change how food was grown. And I think we've succeeded beyond our expectations.”
However, to cultivate a society where everyone can eat nutritious food grown nearby and know those who grow and process it, all must participate. “The support from the community has been marvelous,” Klein says. “We're so grateful.” Community connection and education are essential to small farm viability. Throughout the years, Littlewood has hosted farm interns who have continued to work in the agricultural field. This same kind of education is the focus of the Abenaki Heritage Gardens at the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont.
Members of the Abenaki tribe have researched and found the traditional seeds that are native to the watersheds of the Vermont and New Hampshire regions. They are now growing these seeds, both for educational purposes and eventually for nourishment. Through the Haven project, the people can taste their own foods eventually share them.
The Haven project began a program in 2011 to track down and reintroduce ancient original crop plants and cultivation methods to Indigenous Vermont gardeners and farmers. Crops such as the rare and endangered Gaspe and Abenaki rose corn, skunk beans, and Algonquin squash have a long history of being grown by Indigenous people of the region, but are locally extinct. Professor Fred Wiseman has created the “Seeds of Renewal” project, which includes the full spectrum of food – from seed-saving and growing to the development of a cookbook and cooking with indigenous cuisine. The Heritage Gardens at the Intervale are part of bringing this project to fruition.
“It is essential to educate others about the traditional seeds and honor the native people who have grown and saved them,” one elder explains. This is food sovereignty, which respects the right for all people to define their own food systems from the ground up. Originally elucidated by La Via Campesina in 1996, food sovereignty is rooted in the ongoing global struggles over control of food, land, water, and livelihoods. This peasant movement focuses on people re-gaining and maintaining access to their land, enjoying the food they produce, and valuing all members of the food system, from farmers to eaters.
Food sovereignty is at the core of the radical approach necessary to re-define food access as food equity solidarity, self-reliance, and inter-dependence. The Farm to Plate Network continues to bolster momentum within Vermont’s food system by collaborating on initiatives that leverage food-related successes as stepping stones towards the goal of all Vermonters consuming 10% of their food produced in-state by 2020.
We need a new conversation: one that is radical – rooted in prevention and empowerment – and more inclusive – acting on the needs of all people who live here. To re-define the food justice narrative, we must return the power to those who grow, process, and serve the food. In this way, both Vermont and New England can make significant strides in addressing the root causes of food insecurity and engender system-wide behavior change.
Lisa Masé is a food as medicine educator, food justice activist, writer and folk herbalist who is blessed to live and homestead in Central Vermont. For recipes and food musings, visit www.harmonizedcookery.com.