For the Community, By the Community

Four women hugging each other and smiling and laughing at the camera - Vermont

Embarking on a New Type of Farm

 

While the pandemic has underscored the need for strong food systems and led more consumers to support local farms, farmers continue to face an uphill battle. In Vermont, farmers cite soaring land prices as the top barrier to starting their own business.

The White River Land Collaborative in Tunbridge poses a particularly thrilling solution: multiple farmer tenants, equitable land use, pooled resources and support, a focus on sustainability, lots of ways to engage the community, all on conserved land.

 

To get to the White River Land Collaborative, you must first pass through its history. An old covered bridge named for the farm’s previous owners provides safe passage over the White River, guiding you toward a rambling house and a massive barn built in the early 1900s from trees felled on the property. Step inside that barn and you are struck by the sweet smell of moldering hay, which once lulled overwintering dairy cows to sleep.

aerial view of farmstead with barns and silo - Vermont

Shona Sanford-Long grew up eight minutes down the road, never dreaming that someday she would help bring the aging enterprise into the future. But when she heard the farm was up for sale, she knew she wanted to raise her livestock there.

“The first time walking on to the farm and walking into that big gambrel barn, there’s just something that catches you there,” said Shona. “You can really feel the imprint and the care that generations of people have put into managing this land. There’s something really special about that.”

woman farmer with her cattle in farm fields - Vermont

Like so many farmers, Shona was unable to afford the land’s asking price. So, she reached out to Fran Miller, Senior Fellow at the Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Policy, to explore the possibility of a communal ownership model.

“So much farmland is about to be transitioned, the dairy industry has been decimated, so what are we going to do with all these big land holdings and infrastructure?” says Fran. “We have to support models that include collaboration between different enterprises. If we can make this work in some way that can be replicable in Vermont and other areas, wow. That’s exciting to me.”

Soon Fran and Shona were joined by Shona’s mother, owner of Luna Bleu farm, Sarah Danley, Vermont Farm to Plate’s Network Manager, and other community members who were equally passionate about preserving Turnbridge’s agrarian roots. In 2020, the White River Land Collaborative was born.

group of women having a meeting around a desk - smiling, talking - Vermont

The farm’s 60 acres of agricultural land will host Shona and other farmers with complementary land use needs, and develop infrastructure—for example, cold storage, processing facilities, or event space—in response to community input.

Fortunately, the community is eager to engage.

“I’m totally in love with the landscape here, but what has turned out to be far more valuable is the strength of the community,” said Tunbridge resident Rudi Ruddell. “There’s a tremendous amount of volunteerism that makes this community work and a sense of really watching out for each other.”

people at welcome table set up under a tent for a farm tour on a sunny summer day - Vermont

The farm has an additional 140 acres of forest land and scrub brush that will likely support a solar installation and an indigenous-led land improvement plan.

“The Land Collaborative is helping people be aware of access to land and other cultures,” said Emily Boles, an Abenaki environmental scientist and Land Collaborative advisor. “Vermont has been about neighbors helping neighbors long before settlers arrived. If we extend that to the land as well, then we have something really powerful going.”

“We can’t just ignore how we make our food, how we feed ourselves,” warns Suzanne Long, Shona’s mother and owner of Luna Bleu Farm. “If we keep letting farmland prices rise in a way that destroys the system, then we are in trouble. With the help of VLT, this land is going to be available for future generations of stewards. We hope that kind of idea spreads throughout state and country and world.”

 

VLT bought the conserved farm and is leasing it to the Collaborative so they have time to refine their plans and raise the money needed to succeed. “It’s potentially a great model for other communities to follow and something we’re eager to support and be a part of,” says VLT’s Maggie Donin.

For for more info on the White River Land Collaborative, contact Francine Miller at fmiller@vermontlaw.edu

Story by Rachel Mullis. Photos by Caleb Kenna and Kyle Gray. A version of this story appeared in our 2020-21 Year in Review.