'Plowing Old Ground' exhibit puts focus on Vermont's organic farming pioneers

This photograph by John Nopper of Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm of Westfield is part of Plowing Old Ground: Vermont s Organic Farming Pioneers, an exhibit of Nopper s photographs and text by Susan Harlow which can be seen at The Works.

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Thursday June 6, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Time was when "organic" was a word of the lunatic fringe, and nobody had ever heard of "localvores." Time was when there weren't co-ops or CSAs or farmers' markets in our local food system when nobody was even thinking there was such a thing as a "local food system."

Somebody changed that or more specifically, a few somebodies. They were pioneers in a movement, founding fathers of what may someday become our slow food nation, and they came to Vermont in the late 1960s and ‘70s and began farming in a different way organically.

Typical was Howard Prussack, who rode a Greyhound bus from Brooklyn to Bellows Falls in 1971 to help some friends who were homesteading. Ten years later, he became Vermont's first certified organic farmer, and he's still doing it at High Meadows Farm in Putney.

Prussack and the other farmers at the vanguard of Vermont's organic movement are still growing, still leading, still working hard and taking delight in coaxing food from seed. Now some of their energies are focused on cultivating legacy as well as kale and carrots.

It is this interesting point in the lives of these pioneers that a new exhibit opening Friday at The Works as one of the Strolling of the Heifers' four Farm Art shows tries to document. "Plowing Old Ground: Vermont's Organic Farming Pioneers," featuring the words of Susan Harlow and the photographs of John Nopper, captures these farmers as they reflect on where they've been, what they've built and where they're going.

"They're getting older, and they have great stories of the beginning of this industry and culture, and they would be lost if we didn't record them," said Harlow, a long-time agricultural writer and editor, who grew up and still lives on Harlow Farm in Westminster.

Harlow had met Nopper in 1987 while doing a story for Vermont Business Magazine on his farm. Their paths kept crossing, and they became friends.

Nopper built and managed a large-scale sheep operation on his farm in Putney for many years. Recently he sold his stock but still maintains a commercial hay operation. Selling the stock did free up some time for him to pursue his interest in photographer.

When Harlow told Nopper a couple of years ago of her interest in capturing the stories of these pioneer organic farmers, he agreed to add his photographs to her words. The hope is someday to turn the project into a book. For now, "Plowing Old Ground" pairs black-and-white portraits by Nopper with 500-word essays by Harlow of six of Vermont's early organic farmers in different parts of the state, from Putney and Westminster, up to Norwich and on to Hardwick, Plainfield and Westfield.

Taken together the exhibit tells the story of some incredible -- and incredibly important -- people in Vermont's history.

"Vermont was one of the earliest states to embrace organic agriculture. In that historical context, we're important," said Harlow. "We chose these six to give it some shape and because they were there at the beginning. They were the vanguard."

Many came to Vermont during the 1960s, drawn by back-to-the-land movement, communal farms and a sense that there was a better way to do things.

"Farming really was the response to what they saw as a tough set of circumstances," said Nopper.

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Some were pretty intentional about farming; others less so. Jake Guest met the people he started a communal farm with while he was in jail after being arrested for taking over the administration building at Dartmouth College.

Paul Harlow's path was different. He grew up on a dairy farm, but gradually became convinced that organic was the way to go.

His sister Susan quotes him as saying: "I was skeptical you could grow things without herbicides and fungicides. About 1977 we started something called the Big-O - a quarter-acres grown organically. Damned if things didn't grow all right. To my surprise, it was doable."

Scattered throughout the state, these early organic farmers built a movement by themselves and created everything they needed from scratch. They read what few books there were on the subject, connected with old-time farmers and the few experts around. They learned about soils, seeds, sun, plants and livestock. They made mistakes and kept plugging. Often the best sources of information were each other.

"It was a very communal group of people. They got together. They shared information with each other," said Harlow.

Not only did that learn to farm a new way, they had to build the infrastructure to support it. They created ways to market and distribute what they produced. They created awareness of what they were doing and why it was good, They created the demand for their products and convinced retailers to carry their products to meet the demand.

"Organic is here, and it wasn't always here. It didn't just happen. It took entrepreneurs. It took thoughtful people," said Nopper. "I want to continue to emphasize the challenge these guys faced."

But they faced them and grew not just vegetables but an industry. They founded co-ops and farmers' markets. They wrote the rules for organic certification. Samuel Kaymen and Bruce Kaufman helped create the Natural Organic Farmers Association, now known as NOFA. Kaymen went on to found Stonyfield Yogurt.

Now their thoughts are turning to matters of legacy. Some are trying to scale back and enjoy life more. Some have been through bouts with cancer or heart trouble and have to slow down. Some are contemplating who will run their farms next. Some are still making plans to grow, change and lead.

"I don't want to give the impression that they're in the old folks home," said Harlow. "They're still at it, but they're looking at their legacy."

"All of these farmers are having a little bit of perspective on their lives," said Nopper.

Through Susan Harlow's words and John Nopper's image, we all can, too.

"Plowing Old Ground" remains on exhibit at The Works on Main Street through June.

Jon Potter can be reached at jpotter@reformer.com or 802-254-2133, ext. 149. Check out Ovation on Facebook.