People on the Land: Rural Resilience Shines in Vermont
By design, happy accident, and cooperative spirit, Vermonters built a state where community is as much a part of the bedrock as its granite mountains. Community developers should take note.
New England communities pull at our heartstrings. Their emotional power is deeply embedded in our minds: images of placid towns, especially in the golden light of fall that washes streets and nearby mountains; the energy of people wresting a living from rocky, hilly, forested terrain; and in our literature, both the dark and bright sides of people living together.
A journey through Vermont in autumn peels away layers of appearance and reality in pleasant, sometimes surprising ways. Day trips around the state reveal a friendly, cooperative spirit that tends to engage the land with care. And the place is obsessed with food and beer, and increasingly, wine. This is a good obsession, because the food and beer are good. Really good. So is the wine, they say.
It’s not that Vermont is perfect. Pockets of poverty are evident, and most counties are suffering from population decline. There is pressure to consolidate schools. But Vermont is a tough place, resilient if you will. The state’s residents deal with their problems by nurturing localized economies. Natural resource conservation and historic preservation are vital for seeking and living a good quality of life.
Vermont, in myth and reality, offers sense of place in its own right. Its communities embrace their place within the place, showcasing their best local assets. Small size and scale have much to do with the look and feel of Vermont’s towns and their deeply felt attraction.
Tough climate and mountainous terrain offer positive and negative influences and opportunities. Vermont’s agricultural heritage is rocky, literally and figuratively. The land, slow to yield food, has created conservative farmers interested in preserving what they have, careful to husband the land that is the source of their hard-gained fruits.
The mythical hard-nosed Yankee farmer pragmatism corresponded with the ideals of back-to-the-land, small-business-minded merchants, service providers, artisans, and outdoorsy folks. Both groups share a love of the land and worked out ways to earn enough money for a sufficient life. It’s no secret. Vermont feeds its tourists well with local foods in local places where there is never a shortage of historic charm.
The state today maintains its heritage because, according to the Statehouse tour guide in Montpelier, no one could afford to tear down the old buildings during the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, a mixture of conservative farmers and more progressive back-to-the-landers built a curious set of relationships that, for the most part, cherish the land and celebrate its architecture and produce.
The rugged beauty and four-seasons climate are perfect for tourism. In fact, tourism accounts for about a third of the state’s economy.
Storekeepers and restaurant staff are courteous, knowledgeable, and, if you want them to be, talkative. There seems to be an engrained sense of care and concern for the customer, accompanied by pride in the arts, crafts, and food products—almost all local—on sale. The merchants seem glad to share in the successes of other Vermont businesses, whether it is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream or the world-class beer being produced, including one brewery in the Mad River Valley. According to the Vermont Brewers’ Association, there are 39 local brewing companies in the state.
The quest for high-quality fermentation has been extended to wines and other fruits, and at least one label has gained global recognition. There are perhaps 15 wineries in Vermont, mostly in the Lake Champlain Valley, but also in the Mad River Valley and along the Connecticut River.
Tourism works for guests and business owners because of cooperative efforts. Our host at the West Hill House Bed and Breakfast told of not being able to satisfy the needs of a potential guest and then referring her to another inn that might be more suitable. Guests willingly shared their experiences over a leisurely breakfast with local foods. In the evenings, we shared our day with the innkeepers.
The solar panels that dot the landscape and rooftops often are the result of folks working together in search of energy independence. Many of these installations are shared ventures by small groups of investors, including the one at our bed and breakfast.
All of this seems a bit like a rural version of the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, where Macy’s and Gimbles decide to work together for customer satisfaction. Welcome to Vermont’s version, a dynamic manifestation of the reality that can underlie fiction.
Vermont, whatever its troubles, is a living example of what people who love their land can do when they decide to work together to build a viable life together. Its motto, “Freedom and Unity” seems woven into the day-to-day life of these earthtrepreneurs who not only seek to use the land’s bounty responsibly, but who help one another and their guests. The result is a trip of memories and a clear illustration of the possibilities for choosing to build strong rural communities that try to be part and parcel of the environment.
The connected communities, each in its own beautiful setting, are as much a part of the state’s bedrock as the granite in the mountains. They represent the life passion of concerned people.
The strong local foundations of communities across the state, seen again and again, represent an ultimate dream of community developers; they balance freedom and unity to create something special and almost magical for residents and visitors.
Vermont’s success is the result of at least a half of century of hard work that has built bonds of cooperation and a comfortable life for many.
Here is a place where the intentional tourist can see the myth of community merging toward a more perfect union with shared freedom to create a more sustainable reality.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.