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Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024

VT Folklife Center Explores Grass-Roots Food Movement with ‘Growing Food, Growing Farmers’

MIDDLEBURY — Nestled between Otter Creek Bakery and Two Brothers Tavern, the Vermont Folklife Center occupies an ideal spot in downtown Middlebury to offer Vermont-focused exhibits to the public. Currently on display in the Vermont Folklife Center’s Vision and Voice Gallery is the “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” exhibit, a project that began four years ago as a way to showcase the local food movement in Vermont.

A portrait of a young farming family in Rutland County.

The “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” project presents the stories of organic, small-scale farmers in Rutland County. John Barstow, Development Director at the Vermont Folklife Center, explained that it was established in order to “try to get a handle on … the state of agriculture (‘ag’) in Vermont today,” with an emphasis on local farmers.

The project uncovered a system of farmers in Rutland County all connected to Greg Cox, a farmer well-versed in the ways of organic, small-scale farming. Cox “saw the need to help young people interested in ag get into farming,” Barstow said.

Cox rented land and machinery to new farmers and helped them learn more about sustainable agriculture in Vermont. Rather than resist competition at the Rutland farmers’ market, he offered the young farmers spots right next to him to sell their vegetables.

Cox spoke to the Vermont Folklife Center about those who doubted his ability to create a viable farm in Rutland. “We just didn’t argue the point. We said, ‘Well, we think we can.’ And with the folks in Rutland, we did it,” Cox said.

Project producer Greg Sharrow interviews farmer Greg Cox.

Perhaps due to the generosity and kind-heartedness of Greg Cox, a mentor for most of the farmers involved in the project, there was a common theme in the interviews that the Vermont Folklife Center conducted: they all strove to help others and protect the environment.

[pullquote speaker="ALISHA BRASWELL " photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]“I think people should keep farming ... it’s worth it.”[/pullquote]

Alisha Braswell, a relatively new farmer, expressed her doubts about the effectiveness of opposing the system of commercial farming around the world. “It’s such a big system to fight,” she said, “but I think people should keep farming and it’s worth it for sure.”

Another farmer, Ryan Yoder, emphasized the importance of local action to solve global issues. “If I actually want to make changes and see a better world, I have to do that myself,” he said.

Each of the farmers involved in the “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” project was part of an extensive process to capture true sentiments about the local food movement in Rutland County. The purpose of the Vermont Folklife Center, in the words of John Barstow, is to “help Vermonters understand each other better.” The Center accomplishes this goal through an ethnographic approach. Ethnography, Barstow describes, “is a method of understanding other people in their own words, their story, removing as much bias as possible.”

In their interviews with the Center, the farmers were able to individually express their commitment to improving their community through sustainable agriculture. The exhibit also includes an audio portion: the viewer can listen to clips of interviews with the farmers while perusing the gallery.

A panorama of the exhibit at the Folklife Center.

Student involvement presents a unique facet of the “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” project. The project organizers hired Macaulay Lerman, a student who participated in the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program at the Vermont Folklife Center, as the photographer for the “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” exhibit. Lerman used the technique of long exposure and worked with his subjects to best capture their personalities. Barstow had high praise for Lerman and his photographing technique.

“He thinks a lot about how they’re posed. He collaborates with them,” Barstow said, “so even the photographs are an ethnographic sort of achievement.”

[pullquote speaker="JOHN BARSTOW" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]“The future of agriculture is a big burning question in Vermont.”[/pullquote]

The “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” project is one example of the work that the Vermont Folklife Center does to improve our community in Middlebury and in all of Vermont. “There are many ways in which our work heightens awareness and understanding of differences,” Barstow noted. “If they heighten understanding, it’s not a difference that separates it, it’s a difference that contributes to a greater, stronger community.”

The “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” exhibit is on display in the Vision and Voice Gallery in the Vermont Folklife Center until Jan. 4, 2019. After that, the Center is hoping to take the exhibit on tour around Vermont, starting in Rutland.

Barstow welcomes visits by Middlebury students to the Center, especially those students interested in Environmental and Food Studies. As Barstow explained, “the future of ag is a big burning question in Vermont.”