BRATTLEBORO — Strolling of the Heifers operations are suspended and under review as the organization looks at how to survive through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our income depends on the parade and festival,” said Orly Munzing, founder of the Stroll. “And clearly we couldn’t do it this year and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do it in June.”
Lissa Harris, former executive director for the group who began in January, said she and Peter Doran, Windham Grows program manager, were let go from their jobs Wednesday.
Harris described being surprised by the decision to terminate their employment as they were in the middle of projects.
“It seemed odd to let the two people go who were executing those projects,” she said. “I can’t really say why that decision was made.”
Harris said she’s sad about leaving the job but grateful to have made “good connections and some good friendships.”
According to strollingoftheheifers.com, Windham Grows is “a socially responsible accelerator that builds the farm and food sector by connecting socially conscious startup and growing businesses. The program provides critical services, resources, financing and business mentors.”
In addition to the parade/festival and Windham Grows, the organization runs the Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship Program, a local business plan competition, the Locavore Index that rates how well each state is committed to the production of local foods, and the Slow Living Summit. The latter was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.
“After careful analysis and consideration, the Board of Directors of Strolling of the Heifers, Inc. has taken action to suspend all operations,” Roger Allbee, interim board chairman, said in a statement. “With a heavy heart, this action is taken due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on the financial operations of Strolling of the Heifers that is very dependent on the annual parade and associated events for its operation.”
Allbee said the board will continue to evaluate the future of the organization and its programs as it suspends all operation.
“The board appreciates the support of the many contributors and supporters, volunteers, and others who have provided so much to its success over the years,” he said. “Over the last twenty years, since its inception, beginning with the annual parade, Strolling of the Heifers has brought so much to the town, area, region, and the state.”
Allbee recalled how “a diverse group of businesspeople, farmers, and community volunteers” coming together in 2002 with Munzing to organize the parade and festival as a way to shine a light on “the plight of family farming and rural communities in Vermont.”
“The annual event has attracted tens upon tens of thousands of people and has been rated as one of America’s top 10 Summer Events in 2014 and Top Ten Time-Honored event for the past 19 years by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “The Stroll bolstered the rural agricultural economy with such programs as ‘Windham Grows’ that supported many emerging agribusinesses, improving their profitability, and creating many new jobs. SOTH’s Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship program trained unemployed and underemployed people in foodservice careers, placing them with local restaurants. The annual Slow Living Summit gathers leaders from around the USA to Brattleboro to discuss challenges and successes in sustainable local food, further enhancing Vermont’s leadership in creating sustainable and healthy food systems to address economic and social challenges faced by rural America.”
Allbee told the Reformer he hopes other groups might pick up some of the programs.
"But those collaborations take time," he said.
Two staff members were kept on payroll for the time being, Allbee said.
River Garden will be closed but a couple of events held by groups renting the space might still happen. Asked about the future of the building, Allbee said, "I think that's a good question."
About $400,000 is left on the mortgage, which was obtained through the United States Department of Agriculture. Allbee said monthly payments are about $1,700.
By suspending operations, the organization will have some money to keep paying the mortgage on the building.
"It's in good shape. There's offices in the bottom," Allbee said. "It's nice space on Main Street. It's been well maintained."
More than 40 percent of the organization's finances depended on holding the parades, Albee said.
"As much as people have tried, we've been bleeding about $35,000 a month," he said. "It's gotten to the position where the programs just can't be sustained."
Allbee said Harris suggested suspending operations and finding new homes for the programs, and the board agreed.
"It's not easy but you can't just keep bleeding cash," Allbee said.