The Future of Land Stewardship

Locke Goss Farm, Barnet, Vermont 1971. Photographed by Richard W. Brown

My fondest childhood memories are of playing with my cousin Louis on our family’s Vermont farm. We chased cows and chickens, explored far reaches of the forest, investigated every nook and cranny of the old farmhouse and its barn. On hot summer days, we slipped into the cows’ spring-fed water tub.

When our grandmother sold the farm, she first gave each of her six children a parcel out in those back woods. My cousins and I enjoyed this farmland because our great-great-great-great grandfather had purchased it in the early 1800’s, and then every succeeding generation had farmed it and preserved it for the next. This tradition of land stewardship and preservation endured until farming -- and the communities it served -- was gradually displaced by industrial advances that increasingly centralized agricultural production.

For most Vermont families, the end of farming meant that the land could no longer be kept for future generations. Property taxes have risen steadily, and land is assessed for taxes based on its potential ‘development’ (for suburban residences) rather than its agricultural productivity (only partially offset by the Current Use program). Besides, those future generations have fled the coop -- how can one leave land in Vermont for the grandchildren who live in Baltimore, Denver, or Miami? The legacy of “family land” has been unquestioningly traded for the flipped house or transitional rental.

But there was something more than economic lost with the family farm. Those older generations set land aside for that next of kin: this generation sells the “family” home and moves to Florida or Arizona to live off the principal; or signs off on a complex reverse mortgage to siphon off equity. Instant gratification is not just for the young: after all, it is today’s elderly who were the first generation to be told that greed is good; that he who dies with the most toys wins.

Yes, I know that the retiring folks “earned” it -- but no one earned it like my grandmother, who left her children land. My point is not to judge but to observe. And then to wonder: what are we teaching our children? Why should they care for the elderly when the elderly leave them a polluted planet, unrepayable debt, and an idea of family so dissolved as to no longer be called a “unit.”

Being tied to the land is part of human identity. Like smells and sounds, our experiences of place shape our sense of self, and our sense of community. As GK Chesterton observed, “ did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they loved her.” And this tethering of human to creation is reciprocal: as author Wendell Berry has spent volumes explaining, the proper stewardship of land can only be undertaken by attentive farmers. We cannot “preserve” land by roping it off to wildness: we must nurture land and soil the way we are nurtured by them. And it takes generations of families to fully know the land, its drainage, carrying capacity, soil types and hidden resources.

The loss of small farms and farm families has decimated agrarian life around the world, and most visibly in Vermont where we have not shifted to a manufacturing or other industrial base: why would we want to? Alternatively, yoking our economic future to skiing or other tourism places us in dependence on the economic fortunes of foreigners who do not share our values and who will give no thought to us if they stay home next year. Even now, lakefront properties in Vermont have plummeted in value -- those are out-of staters who support our tax rolls and our property market. We are dependent not on our own communities and selves but on strangers in a strange land.

The only healthful path forward is to bolster our growing small-farm industry. It is booming, and is not measured by scale but by quality and proximity. This is local food, local people, local animals, local land. The goal is not monetary wealth but happiness and good health, and restored communities.

“‘Infant humans have special areas in the cortex where they remember human faces (but not names), and another area where they build memory maps of landscapes.’...this particular sentence I have clung to as something needed. It suggests and seems to respect the possibility that my mind, as I am a placed person, may have been formed from birth by memories, an active knowledge of the faces and the countryside that surrounded me, drawing my interest and my love, during all my young life.”

Wendell Berry, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, 2011.

Most native Vermonters understand this formation of self: in a house-flipping culture of self-gratification, that very foundation of “place” is eroding. But for many of us, we are wedded to the land and landscape. It defines what and who we are; we can never be truly apart from it. No matter where we reside, a part of us lives in the land. We must all reclaim that heritage….

Originally published with The Newport Daily Express, 11/17/2017