Vermont’s Working Landscape: A Worthy Investment

In time and perhaps with age, we learn to doubt or at least question the predictions of gurus and futurists. Our landscapes are riddled with the remnants of “model communities” and retail and industrial endeavors that either turned out to be fads or investment pipedreams. Nature, or our “higher power,” or whomever we personally delegate with cosmic change, has a way of humbling our dreams and periodically reminding us of our rightful place in the universe.

Tropical storm Irene,  recently did so, reminding us that our peaceable kingdom can be swept away.

Watching the city of Detroit – decimated not by nature, but by man-made reversals of fortune – plow vacant residential communities under to make way for urban farming enterprises also reminds us of the ebb and flow of human enterprise. Nature’s force is inherently entropic, seemingly wanting the built environment to revert to a natural one.

Every place has built landscapes, working landscapes, and natural landscapes. For the last hundred years, Vermont has been defined by the beauty of all three. With the westward migration of sheep and dairy farming moving down off the hillsides into the fertile river valleys, much of Vermont’s former working landscape has reforested itself.

Most communities fiercely defend the growth of their built environments against out-of-scale or sore-thumb development. But who cares for the working landscape, the farmlands, forests and riparian networks out of which many Vermonters harvest renewable energy and timber, and on which they grow grains, produce, and graze animals?

The ebb and flow of human activity in the working landscape creates risks. We’ve all seen farm fields blossom into housing developments, depriving young farmers of land and infrastructure on which to begin new farming enterprises. Nature too, takes its course and fallow fields that once produced hay for livestock overgrow with alder, and prickly ash.

At the behest of the VT Council on Rural Development, a broad coalition of Vermonters, legislators, non-profits and businesses committed to maintaining this vital economic and aesthetic component of our landscape is addressing this risk, responding to studies that show that Vermont’s working landscape could well be lost within a generation without a plan for investment and stewardship.

The comprehensive plan, entitled Investing in our Farm and Forest Future, celebrates the generations of farm and forest families and entrepreneurs whose work has produced the landscape that is central to Vermont’s identity. It states that Vermont will never conserve the working landscape simply by fiat or by purchase, but must invest in the economic foundation of the land itself by supporting the farm and forest enterprises that are its stewards.

It outlines clear steps to make Vermont a national leader and to inspire, attract and nurture a creative new generation of food, farm, and forest entrepreneurs as a foundation for our future prosperity. As we celebrate and make our New Year commitments to improve our lives and communities, this will be one of mine.

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