‘His heart and soul is in agriculture’
Roger Allbee stands in his driveway of his home in Townshend.

‘His heart and soul is in agriculture’

Roger Allbee of Townshend was honored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development with a lifetime achievement award for his work on dairy, agriculture, and land-use conservation in Vermont — and a relentless drive to serve his communities

TOWNSHEND — Not many people in Vermont have accomplished so much yet have been publicly recognized so little as Roger Allbee. His life has been defined by being the quiet insider - not seeking glory but working hard to preserve the agricultural heritage of his beloved state.

For being such a deep part of Vermont history, in September, Allbee received the Vermont Lifetime Leadership Award from the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

The Townshend resident has worked as a cranberry exporter, as an agricultural banker, as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., as secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, and as CEO of Grace Cottage Family Health and Hospital in Townshend. And that's just for starters.

The Lifetime Leadership Award is reserved for Vermonters who have not only done something incredible for Vermont, but who have done it for their entire lives.

“Roger understands Vermont in a way that very few people do,” said Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “He understands the significance of Vermont's working land. He understands the tapestry of Vermont, from the families that have lived here for generations to the families that have moved here this year. That understanding allows him to implement policy that is in the best interest of Vermonters.”

The current secretary of agriculture, food and markets, Anson Tebbetts, who once worked for Allbee, described his former boss as “kind” and “calm” and says “his heart and soul are in agriculture.”

“We are lucky he is willing to keep contributing when he could be putting his feet up by the fire,” Tebbetts said.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with whom Allbee has worked closely on agricultural issues for decades, praised his “intellect and ingenuity, his deep respect for differences of opinion, and his willingness to listen all have lent pragmatic, respectful leadership to our nation and our state.”

The award, Leahy said, honors “the incredible work Allbee has done - and the work that he will continue to do.”

On the land

Allbee, 75, and his wife, Ann, who have been married for 51 years, built their own home on land that has been in his family for a multitude of generations. This was the land his ancestors had farmed, the land he grew up on.

“Jonathan Park was the original founder of Newfane,” Allbee said. “That was my father's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was the first settler. And my father, I don't think he ever lived anywhere else. They went to the one-room round brick schoolhouse [in nearby Brookline]. He was probably one of the last students that went to that place.”

Allbee's father, Harlan, lost his mother, when she died during childbirth when he was in the eighth grade. He had to leave school.

“He helped bring up the family,” Allbee said. “And my mother, she only went to the second year of high school.”

Allbee has deep respect for his parents' knowledge despite their own truncated formal schooling.

“I tell people that I may have advanced college degrees, but they were smarter than I'll ever be,” he said. “Because they could do anything, you know, in the practical sense that you learn from surviving in Vermont.”

His mother, Jessie, made sure to instill a strong work ethic in her children.

“I learned life skills,” Allbee said. “My mother used to always say to us, 'Why are you sitting around? There's something to do. You can weed the garden, or you can do something else. You can't just be sitting around all day.' And we didn't sit around much. We were always working.”

His mother “did everything,” he said.

“She cleaned house,” he remembered. “She was in charge of the laundry at Grace Cottage Hospital at one point. She drove the school bus. She worked at the high school in the library. We always had a big garden. She canned, and we had a root cellar. We raised much of our own food, except for the staples.”

His mother was a voracious reader, Allbee remembered.

“She read and she read and she read,” he said. “Anything she could find. She called herself self-educated, and education was important to her.

“I remember when we went to high school, the principal said to my mother, 'I think your boys should take shop,'” Allbee recalled. “My mother said, 'I don't think you understand - my sons are going to college.'”

“Probably shop would have been good for us,” he said.

Leaving the farm

Roger and his twin brother, Ronald, both went to the University of Vermont, where both majored in agricultural economics. Allbee said he took ROTC because the Army paid $40 a month.

He and Ann were college sweethearts.

“It was a very blind date,” Ann said. “I got him. My best friend got his brother. Roger was a half an inch shorter than Ron, and my friend was taller than me. Just recently, Ron said that it might have been the other way around. And I said, 'Yeah, if I gotten you, I'd still be with him.'”

Allbee was stationed in Germany during the Cold War.

“We were working with the British, the Belgians, a Dutchman, and some Germans,” he said. “We had a listening tower so we could listen to what was going on in East Germany. And we had nuclear warheads. We stored them and maintained them, and we'd ship them around. We had convoys. We'd send them to other places for maintenance.”

If the codes came down from headquarters, Allbee's job would have been to launch the weapons. Luckily, they never did.

When he left the Army, Allbee got a master's degree in environmental and marine economics from the University of Massachusetts, then took a job at Cornell University as one of their first Sea Grant specialists.

“Sea Grant was a program that was created back in the 1970s to emulate the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Extension Service,” Allbee said. “Sea Grant was meant to do the same thing for the marine fishermen and coastal users. It still exists.”

“We first went down to Long Island to work with commercial fishermen on coastal issues,” he recalled. “We developed a lot of new nets and other ways for catching fish in sustainable harvests. We created better fishing methods.”

When the Allbees returned to Vermont, Ann quickly found a teaching job while her husband took care of the children.

“Then I was hired to be the first director of the Section 208 Water Quality Management Program,” he said.

A 1974 amendment to the federal Clean Water Act, “Section 208 really was the first provision of federal law that said that states needed to find a way to address non-point-source pollution,” Allbee said.

The state created a program for state agencies and regional economic development agencies to try to work with farmers and rural landowners on how to address what the federal Environmental Protection Agency explains as pollution from many sources and “generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage or hydrologic modification.”

At the time, sewage went right from one's house to the river. Allbee directed the first program in Vermont, the Agricultural Runoff Task Force, to clean up non-point-source phosphorous pollution from farms.

“I was hired by a group that consisted of the secretary of environmental conservation and the state planning officer,” Allbee said. “The governor was Dick Snelling.”

Allbee worked on cleaning up Vermont's water for three years, then moved to the Current Use Program, created by the Legislature in 1978.

The program, still working well today, offers towns a way of taxing large swathes of property at their current use - as forests, say - instead of by the real-estate-appraisal concept of “highest and best use,” which might be the value of the property if it were the site of a Walmart shopping plaza.

By doing so, the Current Use Program has preserved open space and protected open land from development while still allowing towns and cities to collect some kind of tax on the properties.

Allbee helped the first Current Use Advisory Committee set the original procedures for current use.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development says, “This work may be as important as Act 250 or any other one single action for preserving and protecting Vermont lands.”

The Jeffords years

About a year and a half into that job, while looking for current-use information in Washington, D.C., Allbee stopped in to say hello to a friend who was working for then-U.S. Rep. Jim Jeffords.

“He said, 'I'm going back to Vermont, and Jim is looking for somebody to replace me. And he'd like to talk to you,'” Allbee said. “So I chatted with Jeffords. He knew my background. And he said, 'I'd like you to come to work for me on the Agricultural Committee in D.C. And I'd like you to do it for at least three years.'”

Allbee only guaranteed two years. “But I did three and a half, actually,” he said.

Allbee was professional staff to the House Committee on Agriculture. Though his responsibility included soil and water conservation, his primary focus was on the dairy industry.

The complications of milk pricing created an overproduction of dairy in the 1970s. “So the government was buying butter, cheese, and powder milk and storing it in battleships in New York Harbor and in caves in Missouri, and everywhere else,” Allbee recalled.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, federal policy changed abruptly. “He wanted to put more into defense and cut domestic programs,” Allbee said. “And so they were pushing to cut the dairy price support significantly.”

“We were running around trying to figure out what we could do to help save dairy farmers like the ones in Vermont. We talked to the Canadians about their program. We talked to the Europeans. Actually, we drafted a Canadian-type program.”

The new program was ready to go. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who would become a longtime U.S. Senator, was a member of the House and served as chair of the dairy subcommittee.

“But Jim [Jeffords] was really the force,” Allbee said. “And we drafted a bill and got it ready. And Jim and Harkin agreed that it was the only thing we could do to save the industry. They got the committee together, and the committee agreed. And then they said, 'Well, we ought to talk to the guy who's in charge of national milk, lobbyist Pat Healy, and let him know what we're doing.'

“This is how politics works. They brought Healy into the room, and he said, 'If you do that, none of you are ever going to get any political money anymore.' Now Jim wasn't buckling to that. And a few others weren't, but the rest of them did. They said, 'Well, we're not going to do it.'”

So when the 1981 Farm Bill came up, Jeffords was forced to negotiate a compromise.

“There wasn't any other option,” Allbee said. “They didn't care a bit about the industry.”

“Because of Reagan's approach on guns versus butter, [the bill] really slashed federal programs,” he said. “Not just dairy, but food stamps and other provisions that serve rural America.”

The bill did result in the Farmland Protection Policy.

“That basically said that the federal government, when federal funding will take agricultural land, there needs to be a process to make sure that the agricultural land is not jeopardized and remains productive,” Allbee said. “It basically led to many of the [agriculture] protection programs that exist in the country today.”

Working for Jeffords was the highlight of Allbee's professional career.

“Because it wasn't about politics,” he said. “It's about dealing with issues. It's about doing the right thing. And we never went into any discussion on dairy, or water quality, or all the other things, and said, 'What's the politics of this?' It was always, 'Is this the right thing to do?'

“I remember once going to the floor with Jeffords on an issue. And he said, 'How should I vote?' And I said, 'Well, I'm not the congressman. You vote. I can just tell you the issues.' He said, 'That's the best answer you can ever get.'

“He was very well respected because for him,” Allbee said, “it was always about what was right.”

Fixing dairy

Allbee said that, in his view, the dairy business, with “mega dairies of 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 cows” and the loss of dairy farms in Vermont, needs a complete rethinking.

As implemented in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the federal government “offered farmers subsidies in exchange for limiting their production of certain crops,” Allbee pointed out. “The subsidies were meant to limit overproduction so that crop prices could increase.”

“But it isn't meaningful today,” he said. “It works against the Northeast.”

“The price of milk today is based upon a pricing system that is outdated. And it's dependent upon international demand for dairy products. And when you're in the international market, you have to be the lowest-cost producer in the world,” Allbee observed. “And we could never be that in Vermont.”

Vermont has always benefited by value-added products, he said.

“In the 1880s, St. Albans was the butter capital of the world,” Allbee said. “Vermont's place in the market is always developing those value-added products that the consumers in the growing markets in the Northeast want.”

“That's as true today as it was yesterday. We need research on value-added products. We need new marketing strategies. We need to help people enter those markets.

“It used to be that UVM did some development on new products. UVM is out of it now. We used to have a Northeast Research Center that worked on new products. We don't have that anymore. We have individuals doing it.”

“It broke my heart when I saw Thomas Dairy [in Rutland] going out of business,” he said.

Could it have been saved?

Perhaps, he said, with “capital and people coming in with the ability to do some new products,” Allbee said.

“They were doing some things, but they were stressed, stretched on markets, and COVID-19 put them into a tizzy financially. So they needed a lot of help,” he observed.

“But when you see that kind of wonderful 100-year-old business, which makes the best products, going out of business, something's wrong,” Allbee said.

Back to Vermont (again)

After a stint in the 1980s as vice-president of the Springfield, Mass., branch of the Federal Farm Credit Bank, which made loans to farmers throughout the Northeast, Allbee formed AGTEC, a trade and export company designed to develop markets for specialty foods in Europe and Asia.

Allbee eventually sold his half of the business to his partner, and the family returned to Townshend. In 2003, he was tapped to head the state's U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA).

“Jim Douglas had just been elected governor,” Allbee said. “Douglas appointed Steve Kerr as ag secretary. And because of my finance background, I guess they thought I'd be good in the FSA.”

The FSA, which still exists, is a major government lender to the farm sector in the state as well as a guarantor of loans by other lenders, including the Farm Credit System, commercial banks, and others. It was a perfect way for Allbee to combine his agricultural experience with his banking and governmental experience.

After Kerr resigned, Douglas's chief of staff called Allbee and offered him the job. After some reluctance, he accepted. Douglas said he was surprised by Allbee's interest, because his federal job paid considerably more.

“But Allbee is not motivated by pecuniary concerns,” Douglas said. “He's dedicated to serving the rural communities. It was something he wanted to do. It didn't take me long to extend the offer. He was such the perfect fit.”

“We led a delegation to France in 2009,” Douglas said. “There was a new concept called terroir - or taste of place. Allbee was focused on the Vermont Seal of Quality and the Vermont brand, and he said there was a lot of interest in using place names as a brand.”

Allbee talked with his counterparts in Quebec about terroir, as well.

“He was also focused on the farm-to-school program,” Douglas continued. “He got our local ag products into the schools, which makes a lot of sense.”

One of the things Allbee is noted for during his time in office is coining the phrase “working landscape.” For his part, he says that many people working together came up with the phrase.

“What it basically means is that we need to have people working with the land, on the land” in dairy and specialty crops, like maple, Allbee said. “That is part of our tourism. It's part of our economy. It's part of what makes us unique - to have the landscape used for productive purposes, for making food and ag products.

“Otherwise, you just have big developments like Williston,” he said, using the cautionary example of the Burlington suburb that has lost 27 percent of its farmland in 18 years.

“I created programs to try to help people stay on the land, to develop enterprises on the land, to be using it for agricultural purposes,” said Allbee, who stayed in the job until the end of the Douglas administration.

When the incoming governor, Peter Shumlin, asked if Allbee wanted to stay on, he declined. The family wanted to go back home.

“It's Roger's commitment to community,” Douglas said. “That's where he grew up, and he saw a concern. It's not only agriculture. It's the importance of rural communities that really motivates him. He's always been willing to serve, and I hope his enthusiasm and dedication continues for a long time.”

From ag to health care

While his time as secretary was winding down, Allbee had been getting involved with elder care as part of the group that helped launch a senior housing development next to Grace Cottage Hospital. And that led to him ultimately becoming the hospital's CEO.

“My mother, who was in her 80s at the time, said, 'Why don't we have senior housing in the Valley?'” Allbee said. “And I said, 'Well, that's a good question.' So we put together a citizens group of individuals, including my brother and sister, and we used Town Meeting to do a survey of what people were interested in, in terms of when they got older, and did they want senior housing?”

At the time, the state wasn't interested in senior housing; it was promoting the idea that senior citizens should remain in their own homes.

Allbee and some others joined the Grace Cottage board of directors, and after a great deal of fundraising by many prominent people in the region, West River Valley Senior Housing - universally known as Valley Cares - was born.

“When I came back, I was still on the board of Grace Cottage,” Allbee said. “And the CEO at the time had left. We went through a process of trying to hire a new CEO. We had a candidate, but the guy who we thought had accepted it decided to stay where he was. So they said to me, 'Are you willing to do it on a temporary basis - say, three days a week?'”

Allbee accepted the position on a temporary basis that lasted four years, and “in the end, it turned out to be about seven days a week,” he said.

At the time, Grace Cottage had just completed a study with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which recommended a merger with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

“A lot of us on the board said that while there may be synergies, you just don't do a merger like that with a shotgun to your head,” Allbee said. “You have different cultures. Different people are involved. It needs to be developed.”

Eventually, that idea was torpedoed.

“The board decided to continue Grace Cottage and we did a lot of work to stabilize the finances and everything else,” Allbee said. “And I think we achieved that.”

Allbee said he learned a lot about health care from the experience. “I personally feel that we need a single-payer system in this country,” he said.

“Right now, preventable care isn't paid for,” he said. “When I was at Grace Cottage, we had people putting off getting health care because they couldn't afford it. Their deductibles were too high. Then they ended up going to the emergency room because they could get services there.”

The United States has the highest-cost health-care system in the world, Allbee pointed out.

“We have wonderful doctors,” he said. “We can get wonderful things done with technology. But we have the poorest results of the industrialized nations in the world. All our indicators are backwards.

“When we were in France, Jim Douglas and I had lunch one day with the president of the French Senate. He said, 'I don't understand you Americans anymore. You spend all this money on your wars in Afghanistan and everywhere else, but you're not willing to have a good health-care system like we have in France.'

“And he was right.”

Still not retired

Allbee ran for public office twice: first for the House of Representatives as a Republican and then for the Senate as a Democrat. He lost both times.

He also had a hand in creating what has been one of southern Vermont's most important tourist events: the summertime festival and parade known as the Strolling of the Heifers.

As interim head of the executive board of the parent nonprofit, he recently had to announce the sad news that the Stroll has suspended all operations.

Allbee sits on several other boards, including Thompson House, a rehabilitation and nursing center in Brattleboro. He still is a member of the Valley Cares board.

“And I'm still doing work on dairy. Some of us are still trying to change the dairy program. We've done a study for the past six years. We did a dairy and water quality collaborative work a couple years ago with a group of 22 people that came out with some bold recommendations,” he said. “But nobody wants to make a change.

“I'm about ready to give it up,” he said.

Chances are, however, that he will be working on dairy until the cows come home.

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