More than a stroll

Saturday May 18, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The trail to the Dwight Miller and Sons Orchard starts across the street from Orly Munzing's house on Partridge Road in Dummerston.

The well-tended path, which is maintained by a number of homeowners in the area, winds through dense forest, and Munzing walks or skis it when she can for physical, spiritual and mental health.

Munzing used to walk the trail to meet Dwight Miller in his orchard, part of one of the oldest continually operated family farms in Vermont.

Munzing and Miller never made arrangements to meet, but, as she recalls it, he would often be out there, tending to his hay bales, apple trees or blueberry bushes.

Miller would always take the time to talk with Munzing and the two would discuss local politics, the weather, and very often, Vermont's struggling dairy and farming industries.

This was back in the late 1990s, which was a particularly tough time for farmers.

Development threatened open land, national and international agro-businesses were making it hard for small family farmers to compete, and many older farmers like Miller were retiring with few prospects from the younger generation willing to take over.

One day, while the Dummerston residents were chatting, Miller suggested that Munzing do something to help the situation.

Looking out over Miller's land -- the rolling hillsides dotted with apple trees and rich fields of rows of vegetables -- Munzing first came up with the idea of starting a day-long celebration in Brattleboro to support farming and get more people involved in what Munzing understood to be a critical problem.

"I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘You have to do something Orly. You have to do something to help farmers,'" Munzing recalls. "If you don't do something all of this you see won't be here in 10 years."

Downtown Brattleboro was also going through a rough patch with a number of downtown storefronts boarded up, so Munzing thought it would help everyone to have a day-long festival and parade celebrating agriculture.

The first Strolling of the Heifers was held on one Saturday afternoon in June 2002 with a handful of volunteers and an enthusiastic crowd that was there to cheer the farm animals as they marched up Main Street.

This year the 12th annual Strolling of the Heifers is a five-day event, with a budget of about $250,000.

Its expansion includes the three-day Slow Living Summit which is expected to bring more than 400 people to town in the days leading up to the stroll, and for the first time The Strolling of the Heifers has hired a full time, year-round general manager.

Strolling of the Heifers also filed a request for proposal to take over the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro, which would give the group a highly visible year round presence, and a chance to develop and run even more programs, Munzing says.

Even after the success of that first year, Munzing wasn't sure she'd return to for another, and she had no idea the Strolling of the Heifers would eventually grow into the educational, development and entertainment enterprise that it has become.

And even as she approaches 60, Munzing says her group is poised to continue its work to support family farms and advocate for a slower, simpler and more mindful future.

"You know, we've come a long way, and a lot of the ideas we talked about 12 years ago are commonplace now, and they get more support all the time," she said one afternoon while looking over the Dwight Miller and Sons Orchard. "There are a lot of positive changes going on. I'm very encouraged about the future."

It's not just a parade

Prior to taking over as Executive Director of Strolling of the Heifers Munzing worked for more than two decades in education.

When Miller convinced her to start an event she wanted to raise money and bring attention to the plight of farmers, but she also said she was committed to teaching something, and to making sure that the people who did come to the stroll left with more than a green balloon and a belly full of free ice cream, cheese and yogurt.

"From the start I saw this as a great chance to educate people," she said. "I knew we had to do more, and when these people went home they had to take something with them, and hopefully think about the choices they were making in their own communities."

Not only was Munzing trying to get people to think about agriculture, health, obesity, sustainability and development, but she recognized that the money raised could extend beyond the June weekend when the stroll was held.

Over the years many of the programs Munzing helped start have spun off to take on lives of their own.

She wanted to get more teachers and schools involved in school gardens, and in the early years she provided funding to bring classes out on to area farms.

Today the Agencies of Agriculture and Education support farm-to-school programs, and Vermont is a leader in the movement.

The stroll also wanted to get more youth involved in agriculture, and Munzing was able to get a grant through Sen. Bernie Sanders' office to bring high risk teenagers to local farms to work.

Now, across Vermont high schools, career centers and colleges are increasing their options for students who want to learn about agriculture.

A micro-loan program for farmers was spun off and is now run by a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts and a local agricultural business plan contest expanded to include the whole state of Vermont and is co-produced with Vermont Technical College.

Munzing is humble about the impact she had on all of the changes that have come around over the past few years.

And to be sure the locavore movement, Michelle Obama's campaign to encourage home gardens, the explosion of community supported agriculture and the growing focus on sustainability cannot all be attributed to Munzing's discussions with Dwight Miller. Still, if Munzing did not start the revolution, she has certainly been in on it from the ground level.

"Whatever we started, I wanted to make sure it was sustainable," she said. "I wanted to bring more people in to the movement."

One of the newest and most successful additions to the Strolling of the Heifers weekend is the Slow Living Summit which will hold its third conference this year starting on Wednesday, June 5.

Just like most of the group's programs, the Slow Living Summit grew out of an idea.

Four years ago Woody Tasch, an author who wrote a book on slow investment strategies, wanted to come speak during the weekend.

His ideas about sustainability and slow investing fit in with the mission of Strolling of the Heifers, said Marketing Director and Slow Living Summit Coordinator Martin Langeveld, and the next year the first Slow Living Summit was held.

There were about 300 people the first year, 400 in 2012, and Langeveld says interest is strong for this year's event.

While the Strolling of the Heifers was started to bring attention to small family farms and local food systems, Langeveld said similar ideas about slow living, slow investing, sustainability and spirituality all share a belief in working toward a better world, and he says the summit is a place to bring all these ideas under one roof.

Langeveld said he thinks the Slow Living Summit will remain as a project of Strolling of the Heifers.

"We see this as the serious side of the stroll," he explained. "We want people to have fun but we also want to take the time to explore some the bigger topics around sustainability, slow growth and resiliency."

The Slow Living Summits turns the Strolling of the Heifers into a five day event.

It expands the festival's impact on the local economy and broadens it's goals beyond the farm fence.

"It's a lot of work to run a five-day festival, but it's worthwhile," Langeveld said. "We see it fitting hand in glove with the weekend. It is an expansion of the mission. We realized a while ago that this is not just about farming. We need changes in our farming system and our energy system and our housing system, and our financial system. The question is how do all of these things interact? Everybody is a part of something bigger."

After the last cow pie is cleaned up

The Strolling of the Heifers made one the biggest changes in its 12-year history this year when it hired Julie Potter to be its general manager.

Munzing will continue to make the calls to raise corporate and private grants, and Langeveld will work on development and concentrate on the Slow Living Summit, but having a full-time manager ensures that the education and development work continues beyond the weekend parade.

The hiring of Potter comes as the stroll tries to take over the River Garden.

Two other organizations also have proposals in with Building a Better Brattleboro to manage the currently vacant, downtown property on Main Street.

Potter says that since she was hired this winter she has had to get up to speed with the group's mission, finances and organization.

Over the past few months she has put all of her energy into preparing for the weekend.

After the parade this year, Potter said the staff, board and volunteers are going to have serious discussions about the future.

If the River Garden proposal is accepted, the Strolling of the Heifers would have a highly visible presence in Brattleboro.

It would have a space to promote food and agricultural events, including the Brattleboro Winter Farmers' Market, and Potter says managing the River Garden would open up a while new chapter in the group's history.

"I think they wanted to hire a general manager to help bring all of these pieces of the stroll together," Potter said. "Our whole objective is trying to promote education, and to help people see those connections between the food they eat, the farmers who provide that food, and the food systems."

Potter grew up in Windham County and her grandparents, Frank and Mary Hickin, ran Hickin's Mountain Mowings Farm in Dummerston for more than 40 years.

She has a long history, and a strong bond, with family farms and says the Strolling of the Heifers is poised to be an important player in the growing sustainability and local food movements.

"If the River Garden works out it, would give us a year-round presence in Brattleboro, which already has strong food and agriculture connections," she said. "Whatever happens we want to continue to be a force and engage people in this conversation. The more people you can help to make those connections, to find a place in their lives to be more mindful about the food they eat, the better it is for everyone."

Potter playfully refers to her office at the Cotton Mill Building as The World Headquarters of The Strolling of the Heifers.

On the wall, white boards show sketches of traffic flow, entertainment schedules and volunteer phone numbers.

For now Potter's main focus is organizing next month's festivities, and it is more than enough to keep her busy.

She says that with all of the talk of fundraising and consciousness raising, of helping farmers and of adding to the national dialogue on obesity, sustainability and local agriculture, The Strolling of the Heifers still is, and always will be, a celebration.

"We raise a lot of money during the weekend, but you can't do all of the other stuff without the party," she says. "A lot of work goes into this, and it's really all about making sure everyone has a good time."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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