Admit it. When you first heard in 2001 about the idea of marching cows down Brattleboro’s Main Street, what was your first reaction? Laughter? Disbelief?
It all seemed ridiculous at first, but the genesis of the Strolling of the Heifers was anything but silly.
As Stroll director Orly Munzing tells the story, she was walking through the Dummerston apple orchard of her neighbor, the late Dwight Miller.
Miller, an icon of Windham County agriculture who died in a truck accident in 2008, fretted that people were getting more and more disconnected from their food.
“Farmers are slowly going out of business,” Miller said. “People don’t know where their food comes from. If they knew how hard farming is, they’d support their local farmers.”
From that conversation, Munzing got the inspiration to honor and support local farmers with a slower, friendlier, female version of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. For the Strolling of the Heifers, farmers would bring their heifer calves and lead them up Main Street; afterward, there would be a festival where people could meet the farmers and learn about local foods.
The first parade and festival took place in June 2002. It’s said that Brattleboro is a town that loves a good parade, and the novelty of seeing youngsters guide flower-wreathed calves through the downtown made for an entertaining spectacle.
But Munzing didn’t just want to create a fun Saturday morning in Brattleboro. She wanted the Stroll to accomplish what Dwight Miller had hoped for — to connect people with local food, and with the farmers and producers who bring it to them.
Peel away the layers of silliness associated with the idea of parading 100 cows up Main Street, and you’ll find that the Strolling of the Heifers has become a lot more than a salute to all things bovine. It has become a year-round presence in area agriculture, raising awareness of the value of small farms, and of locally grown and produced food.
In 2002, the localvore movement was in its infancy. The idea of buying local food to support family farms had yet to become a movement. Today, local food production is on the upswing, with Vermont-grown foods on sale at local supermarkets and cooperatives, at farmers’ markets, at farm stands, and at CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms.
And, according to the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), there are now more than 85 farmers’ markets in Vermont, the most per capita of any state in the nation, and gross sales from Vermont farmers’ markets totaled nearly $8 million in 2010.
You can’t give all the credit to the Stroll, but it certainly rode the wave of sustainable local agriculture, and did its part to encourage that wave.
The Strolling of the Heifers has provided $140,000 for educational programs to more than 80 schools and other organizations. Through hands-on farmer-teacher workshops, it has fostered greater ties between the farm and the classroom. And it has showed how visits to area farms could give students real-life learning experiences that not only teach them basic math and science skills, but also enrich their knowledge of food production, work, society, and history.
The Strolling of the Heifers has provided grants for farmers to attend workshops so that they can continually learn to add value to what they produce on their farms.
It has organized a “Buy Local Challenge” to encourage local residents to buy food grown and produced in the region, and it has created a cookbook, Celebrating Our Roots, with recipes that feature local foods and local chefs.
It launched the Microloan Fund for New England Farmers, which makes loans in amounts from $1,000 to $10,000 to address the problems that farmers face in obtaining financing for farm projects.
It’s quite a record of accomplishment for something that started with a cow parade. But Munzing and the Stroll’s volunteers aren’t resting on their laurels. This year, they are addressing how to build not only a sustainable system of local agriculture, but also a sustainable local economy.
The inaugural edition of this week’s Slow Living Summit is an example of this expanded focus. As Phillip Snyder, the organizer of the summit, recently put it, “‘Slow’ encodes the transformative change from faster and cheaper, to slower and better — where quality, community, and the future matter. It’s about slowing down and becoming more mindful of our basic connection with land, place, and people, taking the long view that builds a healthy, fulfilling way of life for the generations to come. It is about common good taking precedence over private gain.”
The organizers have assembled a formidable roster of presenters, including author and environmental activist Bill McKibben, entrepreneurship guru Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel, Sustainable South Bronx founder Majora Carter, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, and Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap. The hope is that the three-day event will provide attendees with a chance to swap ideas, make new connections, identify new opportunities, and build new collaborations, partnerships, and networks. In a way, it’s taking the ideals that inspired the Stroll, and spreading them beyond Windham County.
“Strolling of the Heifers has always been a festival celebrating a slower life in which people value local connections to farmers and food producers,” Munzing said. “Slow living grows from the strengths, people, resources, and history of the region. It’s about basing life on the well-being of nature and community, where wealth and money can recirculate locally, combining with innovation and entrepreneurship to create jobs.”
As the Stroll moves into its second decade of existence, that’s a great blueprint for the future of the organization and our region.