Picture a Vermont farmer. Does a grizzled, seventh generation dairyman come to mind, Holsteins and silo in the background?

A $180,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to a consortium that includes The University of Vermont and three partners aims to complicate that image.

“We tend to use one brush to paint the picture of farming in Vermont,” said Linda Berlin, director of UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the grant’s lead partner. “Historically that may have worked, but today it’s more complex.”

While dairy farming remains an important part of the state’s economy and landscape, contemporary Vermont farmers are an increasingly diverse lot, says UVM anthropology professor Luis Vivanco, co-director of the university’s Humanities Center, another partner on the grant.

"Many are female; they vary in age, ethnicity and race; and they produce a wide range of agricultural products,” he said. “The goal of the grant is to tell the story of this changing dynamic in an engaging way that brings people together.”

The other partners are the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Folklife Center and the Vermont Farm to School Network.

The group received a $90,000 grant from NEH. As part of its Challenge Grant program, the agency requires the partners to raise a matching amount. 

Eight Vermont farmers, comics and digital videos

The three-year grant program sets out a thoughtful process for developing and telling the story of contemporary farming in Vermont, one that draws on the expertise of all the partners.   

To begin the project, an advisory panel drawn from the grant partners and supplemented by humanities scholars and farmers in the state will select eight Vermont farmers from diverse geographic, gender, cultural and racial backgrounds, different farming sectors, and varying ages, and invite them to document their stories through oral history.

The themes and stories embedded in the oral histories – identified by UVM humanities faculty and other experts in a three-day “humanities charrette” – will then be expressed in comic books, a proven tool for promoting engaged learning, and digital stories, multi-media videos drawing on photographs and audio files in the collections of the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Folklife Center.

The comics and digital stories will in turn form a curriculum for a group of Vermont middle schools, supported by a teacher discussion guide the grant will fund, and designed to spur further discussion about contemporary Vermont farming in each school’s community.

Expertise, contacts and infrastructure developed by the Farm to School Network will help the partners embed the curriculum in the target schools.

Better decisions, closer community

Having a deeper grasp of who is farming in contemporary Vermont “will enable us to bring a fuller understanding to whatever agriculture-related decisions we make,” said Berlin, “whether at the legislative level or in what we honor and prioritize in our communities. We make better decisions about things we understand.”

While the partnership model makes it more likely that the project will yield quality products, it is also an end in itself, Vivanco said. Part of the NEH’s goal is creating “humanities communities, the more unlikely, the better” in ways that, in Vermont’s case, help build strong communities and connections in the state’s cities, towns and villages.

The effort to raise private funds to match the National Endowment for the Humanities grant is underway. Those interested in donating to the program should contact Kurt Reichelt at the University of Vermont Foundation at [email protected] 

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