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Strolling of the Heifers suspends programs

Local agriculture nonprofit, hurt by cancellation of parade, looks at options

BRATTLEBORO—Strolling of the Heifers, the nonprofit organization focused on strengthening the viability of local food and farms, has confronted its own survival, suspending two major projects and laying off two of its four employees due to economic issues.

The decision, which leaves the organization without its signature annual parade and the Slow Living Summit, is a consequence of the global pandemic.

In an Oct. 22 press release, Interim Board Chair Roger Allbee wrote, “With a heavy heart, this action is taken due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on the financial operations of Strolling of the Heifers that is very dependent on the annual parade and associated events for its operation.”

A press release sent to media on Oct. 22 said the organization would suspend all operations. General Manager Anne Latchis clarified in an interview that only programming has been suspended.

Over almost two decades, SOTH has weathered the 2007–08 recession and purchased the River Garden on Main Street from Building a Better Brattleboro, now the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, which had sold the building because it felt financially overwhelmed by the cost to run and maintain it. SOTH renovated it to accommodate various educational and community programs that support and sustain local agriculture.

Because it took only months for COVID-19 to dwindle the resources of a well-established nonprofit organization such as SOTH, does this portend anything for the overall financial health of the nonprofit-saturated regional economy?

The organization’s programming budget is almost $700,000, Latchis confirmed. According to the nonprofit’s most recent public filings with the Internal Revenue Service, its total income in 2019 was $603,398.

In 2019, Strolling of the Heifers reported approximately $400,000 remaining on the mortgage for the River Garden. Other expenses included $242,520 for staff wages and $116,602 paid to founder Orly Munzing as a fundraising consultant, according to Allbee.

Financial support for the organization increased more than 88 percent from 2015 to 2019 — from $300,246 to $564,519. With program revenue and other streams, its total income for 2019 was $603,398.

SOTH ended 2019 with $34,767 in cash and $282,480 in reserves.

In 2020, however, faced with the pandemic, SOTH found itself “burning through” around $35,000 a month without a significant revenue stream, said Allbee.

As with most pandemic-related speculations, time will tell.

Dealing with a pandemic

Earlier in the year, concerns about COVID-19 compelled the organization to cancel the parade and the weekend-long celebration designed to both entertain and to educate people about the importance of local agriculture.

The board also moved the Slow Living Summit online. Since 2011, the summit, usually held every other year, has gathered experts from a variety of fields with a core focus on agriculture, economy, and sustainability, for several days to a week of symposiums and workshops.

As of last week, SOTH’s board decided to suspend the organization’s programs, including Windham Grows, which offered business consultation and training to farm and food businesses, and the Farm to Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program, which trained unemployed or underemployed adults for jobs in the restaurant or food production industries.

Allbee said that, since March, the board has discussed SOTH’s financial state at least monthly and sometimes biweekly. Between the cancellation of the parade and other issues related to the pandemic, SOTH’s finances changed dramatically, he said.

According to Allbee, he and board secretary Greg Worden met with then-Executive Director Lissa Harris recently to discuss options. Allbee said Harris suggested the organization suspend programing. The board later agreed, he said.

Most of the organization’s programming relied on in-person interactions that needed to stop due to public health concerns, he noted.

Harris obtained $52,000 in federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money for the nonprofit “that helped stabilize the organization for a while,” Allbee said.

Allbee said the organization took other actions to increase fundraising or bring in new revenue — for example, rent its commercial kitchen — but those measures hadn’t produced enough income to offset the new losses.

Bringing tenants into the building is “not being explored in an active way,” he added.

In the meantime, with “$33,000 to $35,000 cash a month without a revenue offset, there’s only so long you can continue,” he said.

He added that the organization had eaten up approximately $120,000 of its cash reserves.

Prior to the pandemic, SOTH employed four core staff members. It also paid several contract workers for services such as bookkeeping, said General Manager Anne Latchis.

After last week’s announcement, two core employees remain.

Allbee said that once the board decided to suspend programming, it turned its attention to reducing costs and terminating employees “fairly.”

Harris and Windham Grows Program Director Peter Doran were both provided severance packages as part of their termination agreements, Allbee said. Harris and Doran were both hired in December 2019.

“The board didn’t do things lightly, but we do have a fiduciary responsibility,” said Allbee. “These aren’t things anyone takes glee in doing.”

The board, adjusting to the feeling of shock, is still developing its next steps, he said.

The River Garden is not currently for sale as part of the SOTH’s downsizing. “But all options are on the table at this stage,” Allbee said.

Not on the table is Munzing returning in a leadership role such as executive director, Allbee said.

Munzing retired (for the second time) in February. She still serves on the board.

Not dead yet

General manager Anne Latchis said that the River Garden is still open.

“This was all COVID,” she said. “But nothing is in the state that we’re never going to do them [programs] again.”

Latchis said while the larger grant-funded programs are suspended, other programs continue to operate.

Every Thursday, from 10:30 to 11 a.m., free produce from the Vermont Foodbank’s gleaning program is available at the River Garden, Latchis said. The free produce will continue until the end of the Foodbank’s season.

People can still access the building’s free WiFi. The building is still operating as a downtown way station with restrooms open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A few organizations are renting the River Garden for classes, such as yoga, and private events.

“Because the space is so big, it’s really perfect for meetings inside during the winter,” she said.

The Slow Living Summit could also be reinvigorated, she said.

“We want to start anew with fresh eyes,” Latchis said. “A lot of minds are going into where we go next.”

Allbee said that he still remembers the excitement of the first Strolling of the Heifers parade in 2002 from his vantage point on Main Street, watching a huge crowd of people moving toward the Town Common.

“All those people together, the sense of community spirit, and the realization that we belonged to something bigger,” said Allbee of the experience.

A cheerleader for local food systems and the former state secretary of agriculture, Allbee often refers to Vermont’s current agriculture scene as a renaissance, or “new people doing old things with new technology.”

He said the state still badly needs the excitement around local food generated by the Strolling of the Heifers parade, as well as the training the organization provided through its programming.

“I have a rhetorical question for the community,” Allbee said. “What would have happened to the community if Strolling of the Heifers hadn’t existed in 2002? What will the community lose without Strolling of the Heifers?”

Disruptions in the national supply chain that led to empty supermarket shelves early in the pandemic turned many people to seek out their local food system. Yet even with increased awareness and a spike in local support, the challenges that many in agriculture face still exist.

Along with the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 comes a call for new solutions. According to Harris, SOTH could also benefit.

In an emailed statement to The Commons, Harris wrote, “It’s a scary time for so many nonprofits that have to reimagine structures post COVID.”

“I love the Stroll’s mission, but worthwhile innovative thinking requires a rejection of current norms in favor of what might seem impossible,” she added. “I don’t think the organization can embrace that idea quite yet.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #585 (Wednesday, October 28, 2020). This story appeared on page A4.

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