Lisa Whitney, left, will take the reins as Retreat Farm board president as longtime board President Buzz Schmidt, middle, steps down and Kristin Sullivan steps into the executive director‘s role.
Josh Steele
Lisa Whitney, left, will take the reins as Retreat Farm board president as longtime board President Buzz Schmidt, middle, steps down and Kristin Sullivan steps into the executive director‘s role.

Retreat Farm founder steps down as board president

Buzz Schmidt leaves after a decade of service

Buzz Schmidt is stepping down as president of Retreat Farm's board of directors and Lisa Whitney will take that leadership role.

"It's a big moment for the farm, for sure," says Schmidt, the organization's founder. "I feel very good about the transition; I think it's the right thing to happen."

He says it "makes total sense because we have a really good team in place, and it's really important that they have the latitude to do what they have to do and feel the responsibility to do it."

"I'll still be around, if needed, in a pinch, but I don't expect to be," he said. "It's the right time for this to happen."

When Schmidt first visited the farm in 2013, he immediately saw the promise and potential of the neglected but otherwise magnificent historic property.

"I've driven by it forever, since I had a driver's license," says Schmidt with a laugh. "I'd always been drawn to the property but never been on it."

He says he "went in and immediately fell in love with it."

Schmidt had conversations with the Windham Foundation, which had acquired the property in 2001 and, in turn, ultimately granted the property to the then-newly formed Retreat Farm, Ltd. organization.

"The team was so critical to making it all work," says Schmidt. "Obviously, it wasn't just me, it was a number of people who worked to transition the property to a public space."

He says it's "really important to me that I'm not credited with this exclusively; it was the staff, early board members, the funders, and the Windham Foundation."

"I just count myself lucky to have landed in the midst of all this," Schmidt says.

Fulfilling a vision

The 500-acre farm on Abenaki homelands at the edge of Brattleboro's downtown consists of forest, farmland, waterways, and nine historic structures that Schmidt and his team have worked to transform into a multi-faceted anchor institution for southeastern Vermont and central New England.

"Buzz's love for Retreat Farm inspired him to pour his time, energy, and self into the Farm," says Communications and Finance Managing Director Lindsay Fahey.

Over the years, Schmidt's enthusiasm and fortitude "have challenged all of us to step into the possibility of this special place - bringing new opportunities, resources, and programming to Brattleboro. I can't imagine what the fate of this property might have been without Buzz's vision."

For 10 years, Schmidt has volunteered, working with staff members to restore the historic farmstead as a heritage site; to transform Farmhouse Square from concrete paddocks into a community gathering space; to place more than 240 acres of land into organic agricultural practice; to create educational, recreational, and cultural resources; to nurture start-up programs and nonprofits, including the Atowi Project; to clear and rebuild more than 10 miles of trails for public use; and much more.

Among recent projects, the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary Trail revitalization effort is "pretty far along," says Schmidt.

The trail work, paid for with grant money from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, was undertaken to "make the trail safer and replace the derelict structures on it and provide a little-bit-better access to the water on the far end," he says.

Now most of the improvements on the far side of the Meadows are in place, and all the bridges have been replaced.

"We still have work to do at the Route 30 trailhead, and that will happen next summer," Schmidt says. "For the most part, it's done, and it's fabulous."

Restoring the 190-year-old North Barn has truly been a labor of love. The Farm has collaborated with the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, River Gallery School, The Stone Church, HatchSpace, and other community partners "to create a welcoming space that celebrates the community and gives Brattleboro another place to gather," he says.

The North Barn is intended to emerge as a community center par supreme, with space for proms, nonprofit fundraisers, meetings, presentations, music, art, dance, and any other event to bring folks together, including some private parties. The barn will have a dinner seating capacity of 250 and a concert/lecture capacity of 600.

The Barn is on track for completion in late spring. The $6 million project is largely grant funded, with one U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Facilities loan and private and government grants as well.

Schmidt says what's left to raise is $250,000 for furnishings, for which donations are welcome at

"I saw the schedule of events that is expected, and it's really gratifying," says Schmidt, who toured the barn Dec. 14.

"Many nonprofit events will dominate, but there will be private events as well," he says. "I think on balance it will be seen as an iconic community gathering space, and we're all really proud of it. It is amazing. It's beautiful in there already; you can tell what it's going to be like."

Passing the torch

In October, Schmidt began to transition the Farm's leadership for his departure by bringing on Dr. Kristin Sullivan as executive director.

"Now Buzz leaves incredibly big shoes to fill," Sullivan says, calling Schmidt "a true visionary [who] has built a remarkable asset for Brattleboro and all of New England by bringing Retreat Farm to where it is today."

"It has been an honor to continue his legacy while shaping the Farm's future," she continues.

She will do so with Lisa Whitney, the new board president, citing her "commitment to community engagement and service."

Whitney is a trained social worker, an active community member, and current director of campus operations at the Winston Prouty Center.

"I am extremely excited to help shepherd the committed, talented, and highly competent Retreat Farm staff and board through this next phase of exciting growth," she says, crediting Schmidt and predicting that the community will "honor his vision for and commitment to this place for a long time."

"There's no doubt that our current staff and board team will ride through this transition well together," Whitney continues. "Retreat Farm is an amazing asset and we look forward to sharing even more of it with our community and region."

The board has unanimously named Schmidt the founder and president emeritus in honor of his work and impact.

Those who want to honor Schmidt are encouraged to donate to the Retreat Farm's Community Roots Fund.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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