BRATTLEBORO—Strolling of the Heifers has a new executive director.
Erin O’Connor comes to the Brattleboro-based nonprofit with a deep and diverse resumé, with more than 20 years in secondary and higher education. But she said she felt it was time for a change in her life.
“I realized that I loved farms and that I loved agriculture,” O’Connor said. “I realized I wanted to do something that combined what I do well with what I had an inherent interest in doing. When anyone gets to a certain point of their career, they think, ‘What do I do well?’ and ‘What do I really want to do?’”
She formally began her new job in early April and will be assuming many of the day-to-day chores of Orly Munzing, who founded Strolling of the Heifers in 2002 and will now assume the formal title of founder.
O’Connor’s last position was as special assistant to the president at Simmons University in Boston, where she worked on behalf of the university with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now the Boston Planning and Development Agency) and the mayor’s office, the U.S. Department of State, multiple colleges and hotels, event venues, charities, and corporations.
Before that, she worked as dean of students at a prep school in Washington, D.C. She also has international experience, with some time as an educator in Kyoto, Japan.
O’Connor graduated with a B.A. in English from Smith College in 1995 and earned a master’s in English literature in 2000 from the University of Virginia.
Event planning was one of her big jobs at Simmons, which made her a natural to be the one to take over the planning and logistics for all the activities associated with the Strolling of the Heifers parade and Slow Living Summit each year.
As an educator, O’Connor said she loves being with a nonprofit that does so much to teach people not just about agricultural issues but also about entrepreneurship and growing small businesses.
“At a nonprofit like this one, there is an opportunity for innovation and creativity,” O’Connor said. “Because I was interested in advocacy work as well as food and agriculture, I thought, ‘My gosh, this place has it all.’”
At the same time, she said “it’s still like drinking from a fire hose” when it comes to all the things she needs to learn to do her job.
What makes this new job special for O’Connor was the chance to live and work in western New England.
Even though she was born in Chicago and raised in Houston, O’Connor said her family has deep roots in New England.
Her family has roots in the rural towns of Barre and Hardwick, Mass., on the eastern edge of the Quabbin Reservoir watershed, and an uncle had a dairy farm in nearby Petersham, Mass. Her years in Northampton at Smith also gave her an appreciation for the farming towns in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts.
“I’ve spent almost every single weekend going to farms,” O’Connor said.
But it wasn’t just of love of farms that fed her rural wanderlust. She said a diagnosis in her 20s of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system and is triggered by eating foods that contain gluten, “changed my whole relationship with the food system.”
Having to be aware of what she was eating meant that O’Connor “had to look at how things were grown,” she said.
“What an animal ate changed what I put in my mouth,” she added. “I had never thought of those things before.”
And that led her to the Brattleboro and Putney food co-ops, which O’Connor said have been well-known in celiac circles in the Northeast for years for their many gluten-free products.
“This area is famous for its co-ops and people who choose what they want to eat and know how food affects us,” she said. “It’s unbelievable for me to be here, unbelievable in ways I never would have imagined 20 years ago.”
While the Stroll is a supporter of all types of local agriculture, the dairy farm remains an important, and endangered, part of New England agriculture.
O’Connor cited a 2016 documentary, Forgotten Farms by Dave Simonds and Sarah Gardner, that looks at the cultural divide between the “localvore” movement and the traditional farmers who are struggling to stay alive.
According to the filmmakers, over the last 50 years, more than 10,000 dairy farms in New England have disappeared. Fewer than 2,000 are left, about half of them in Vermont.
These surviving farms collectively produce most of the milk consumed in the region and keep about 1.2 million acres of farmland in active agricultural production.
“That film, for me, really started me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and [if I wanted] to do something involved with agricultural advocacy,” O’Connor said. “I think all farms are important, but this wasn’t an accident that I came to Strolling of the Heifers. I sought this.”
She added that the issue of preserving small farms in New England was important enough to her that she was willing to change careers to do it.
Not going anywhere
Munzing grew Strolling of the Heifers from its first whimsical parade in 2002 into an organization with year-round programs to showcase local agriculture and local food producers, as well as local economic sustainability.
In 2013, Strolling of the Heifers purchased the River Garden at 157 Main St. from Building a Better Brattleboro, the designated downtown organization now known as the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.
In her role as founder, Munzing said her job is now to do “whatever I can to support the Stroll,” now that it is a mature organization.
She plans to spend the next few months with O’Connor to guide her through her first Strolling weekend — this year, on June 7–9 — and then step back and take a wider look at the organization and what it needs.
“Not only are we looking at longevity, we’re looking at how Erin’s new perspective will help it grow,” said Munzing.
“We work well together,” she said, adding that O’Connor’s “enthusiasm for agriculture” and her “incredible writing skills” will be a big help to the organization.
Lauding her kindness and her generosity of spirit, Munzing called O’Connor “a breath of fresh air, not only for Strolling of the Heifers, but for Brattleboro.”