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Costello Commentary: Working lands futures

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2010-07-31

Paul, VCRD Executive Director, reflects on his cross-country bike trip and the working landscape effort we are embarking on.

2010 - Early this summer I rode my bike from the west coast home to Vermont. Covering over 3,000 miles of rural America, the trip avoided all cities, doglegging the back roads through Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario and New York.

It was a wonderful adventure but it sure was great to come home at the end.

Here in Vermont we worry about the loss of youth, the decimation of downtowns, the aging population, and the hollowing out of our rural communities. As the second most rural state in the nation (next to Wyoming), Vermont is more subject than most to the trends and challenges facing rural America as a whole. But while indices of aging demographics, for example, put us at the extreme end of the continuum of states, the rural areas of many other states are in much worse shape, including western states where much of the population has concentrated in urban areas.

I rode through beautiful open lands into small communities with substantial and historic downtowns where there was absolutely no one on the street. Where cold and empty glass storefronts have replaced local commerce. Where a family of five manages a farm of 5,000 acres of beets and beans. Where hired folk come from Fargo or Minot to plant, fertilize, harvest. The farm jobs are in trucking, and few need to live in the local farm community. Without innovative economic alternatives, towns sink—many of them have just one or two anchor businesses holding on, usually including a café (thankfully!) whose regular customer base is a small group of senior citizens, retired or nearly retired farmers, and an occasional trucker.

The endless waves of grain are striking and defy the folks who anticipate the imminent demise of large scale agriculture. One hundred and fifty acres of cabbage, cherries, even asparagus, are beautiful and efficient. A planting of thousands of acres of wheat is a profound sight and under existing policies and conditions remains profitable and so ubiquitous.
But modern agriculture in the West and Midwest increasingly leaves no one in the fields and no one in the small towns. Many of us worry about the “no child left in the woods” syndrome where children no longer play freely in the great outdoors. In some states, while hunting and fishing may be strong, you never seen people running or on bikes, and rarely see children outside or families walking on rural roads. Meanwhile the obesity epidemic is easy to observe. In some places it feels like there is a cultural break from participation in nature.

Coming into Vermont there is a stark, amazing and exhilarating difference. Off the ferry from Crown Point you start to see bicyclists, lots of them. You see a scale of rural farms, forests and villages that balance each other in a way that has been lost elsewhere. The West has admirable “working landscapes,” but they are often disconnected from community life and downtown vitality.

What we have here in Vermont is something of fundamental value: something essential to our character, our brand, our sense of place, our still-authentic and autochthonous communities. Autochthonous, one of my favorite words of all time, means springing from the soil, rooted in place.

Our communities and our connection to the land—for the view, for the economy, and for the quality of life—are indispensible to us and are what make Vermont so special.
Vermont farm and forest enterprises economically perpetuate the working landscape and serve as foundations for the expansion of foods and wood products for both local use and value-added export in the regional and global economy. But dairy agriculture and the forest products economy are both in jeopardy; the Council on the Future of Vermont’s analysis of historical trend lines published last year points toward the potential loss of Vermont’s working landscape within a generation.

We can’t coast on our history. I believe that we need to rededicate ourselves to core elements of common vision for the future of Vermont, and invest, even sacrifice, to perpetuate it and strengthen it. We need to raise a flag that signals to a new generation of private sector working landscape entrepreneurs that Vermont is again the “beckoning country”—open for business—especially for innovative farm, forest, and value-added enterprises. In rural America, there is no room for complacency today—and Vermont never wants to be either “anywhere USA” or nowhere USA. We’ll need to work together to keep Vermont the place we love to come home to.
Paul Costello is the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and immediate past president of Partners for Rural America.