Strolling of the Heifers’ agricultural advocacy will live on, in a radically different form

The nonprofit organization morphs into Agritech Institute for Small Farms, with new emphasis on farming technology

BRATTLEBORO — When the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a knockout blow to Strolling of the Heifers in the fall of 2020 that resulted in the suspension of the nonprofit's operations, an end to its annual parade, and the sale of the River Garden, many speculated over what would happen to what remained of the organization.

On Dec. 14, the Vermont Secretary of State recorded a change of name from the Strolling of the Heifers to Agritech Institute for Small Farms, Inc.

On Dec. 30, the organization announced the new chapter in its nonprofit history, the final disbursement of its Strolling of the Heifers funds, and its decision to not revive the signature march of cows and farmers down Brattleboro's Main Street.

“The parade had a wonderful run,” said Orly Munzing, who founded Strolling 20 years ago. “But when you talk to farmers, what they need is more technology, and that's the area the Strolling of the Heifers is moving to.”

The Agritech Institute will start life with $250,000 retained from the Stroll, which disbursed the balance of its assets to other Windham County nonprofits.

The “part think tank, part small farm accelerator” will be based in Montpelier and will aim to identify, test, and provide technical and financial support for ideas that improve economic and environmental viability and mitigate climate change.

Dan Smith, founding executive director of the Northeast Dairy Compact Commission, will head the new effort, which he co-founded with Roger Allbee, the former Vermont secretary of agriculture and the acting chair of the Strolling of the Heifers board of directors.

“We've been working with the Strolling of the Heifers board for over a year to position this new organization in a way to be an important clearinghouse for the development and greater adaptation of technology by smaller farms,” said Smith, a lawyer who has focused on state and federal milk market regulation.

Helping small farms adapt to big changes

Smith said the institute “is really designed to be of service to advocacy and support groups that exist throughout Vermont and the Northeast to enable small-scale agriculture to prosper.”

The initiative will work to establish a pilot program on 25 Vermont dairy farms. In addition to boosting farm finances, its organizers hope to help improve water quality and soil health through sustainable practices and incorporate such climate change mitigation solutions as carbon sequestration.

The project, although only just announced, already is reaping supportive reviews.

“The institute's proposed pilot program is a most welcome, and well-timed, addition to our policy tool kit and provision of support services for Vermont dairy farms,” state Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said in a written statement.

Smith said that Agritech Institute is also working on developing a virtual fence, also known as “geo-fencing,” a concept that is similar to an invisible pet fence.

He said that instead of a shock mechanism, the virtual fence emits noise that tells cows to stay within the pasture's boundaries.

With this system, Smith said, a dairy farmer can move a herd using a computer or hand-held device, rather than having to physically open or close pasture gates.

Local nonprofits also boosted

Two Brattleboro nonprofits also benefited from Strolling's remaining funds to promote agriculture in southern Vermont.

The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA) will be receiving $25,000 from Strolling “to carry on our mission, which is to connect people with the food they eat,” said Munzing.

DBA Executive Director Kate Trzaskos said the organization does not have any immediate plans for using the money, but one will emerge after consultation with the organization's board of directors.

The Winston Prouty Center received $175,000. Executive director Chloe Learey said the money would help fund a 300-unit apartment complex planned for the campus of the former Austine School for the Deaf.

“It was a big surprise and a huge honor to be on the receiving end,” said Learey.

As for the big tents and other equipment that Strolling would use for its Dairy Festival after the parade, those have been given to The Brattleboro Retreat, one of the organization's longtime partners in the staging of the event.

The Stroll's legacy

The Stroll began in June 2002 as a parade that spurred national news outlets from The Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times to juxtapose images of Spain's “Running of the Bulls” with local farmers prodding cows through downtown Brattleboro at a far more leisurely pace.

The event attracted thousands of people to Brattleboro and led to Strolling presenting other agricultural and food-related events, such as the Slow Living Summit.

Allbee characterized the event as “iconic,” and said that it “became an inspiration to see how it brought attention to not only the dairy industry but agriculture and Brattleboro.”

Growing in popularity over the years, the march helped fund a $600,000 year-round budget to promote agricultural production, processing, and distribution - a $4 billion Vermont industry responsible for nearly 15% of jobs in the state.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the past three parades and spurred the organization to shed its paid staff and suspend programming in 2020.

It later sold its headquarters - the River Garden, at 157 Main St. - to the Whetstone Brewery in 2021.

“Before the money runs out, we're putting everything on pause and reevaluating to see where we can go in the new normal,” Munzing said at the time.

It took about a year for Strolling to map out what would best carry on its legacy of advocating for local food and farms.

With the Stroll is the end of its two-decade journey, Munzing said that now “it's time to cultivate new ideas and pass the torch to the next generation.”

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