by Farmer Skip
Adapt or die is nature’s first and final law. Defy it all we want, nature demands change and even the greatest fortunes cannot maintain the status quo.
This past week I saw that sobering truth up close at Shelburne Farms in Vermont– the Downton Abbey of Sustainable Ag. Here in the land of plentiful barns, the Vanderbilts built one for the record books – a horse breeding barn that was the largest free-standing structure in the country in the early 1900s. Today it stands empty, awaiting the same rebirth that transformed two other magnificent horse barns tucked away here on 3,800 acres of rolling hillsides above Lake Champlain.
This grand vision for agriculture, matched only by the grand fortune of the Vanderbilt empire, never reached its lofty goals. By 1910, with the advent of the car, farm’s horse enterprise began to shrink. Yet like the thousands of samplings planted by Vanderbilt’s army of gardeners, a new vision grew up out the land and now stands out as the nation’s model for farm-based education and conservation.
How gratified I felt as I toured the most elegant of the three barns. Summer camp was in full swing and children outnumbered livestock as they wandered through the bakery and cheese factory and petting pens where young educators reconnected them to the bottom of the food chain. A thousand miles away, in a barn that also found a second life, Green Gate Farms camp season was hitting its stride as campers prepared for its newest feature – a 4th of July parade through our neighboring RV park.
The tale of these two barns begins at the turn of the 20th Horses were still kings and queens of road and field. The Bergstrom boys, Swedish immigrants who built our mule barn, were a world apart from the Yankee Captains of Industry who transformed agriculture in ways even they could not anticipate. Seward Webb, husband of William Vanderbilt’s daughter, Lila, plowed their fortune into this horse breeding empire just as the model Ts were rolling off the assembly lines. Our modest old barn could fit inside one of Shelburne’s cottages. Yet 30 years ago, Vanderbilt’s magnificent structures, with their copper roofs and granite walls, were falling apart and developers were storming at the gates.
Fortunately, the heirs to this gilded heritage envisioned a new kind of agriculture, not momentous and exclusive but down-to-earth and inviting. Lacking the fortune of the their grandparents, a new generation created a non-profit that has transformed ruined aristocracy into thriving democracy. Today, thousands of visitors see and taste the substance behind its mission of “cultivating a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.”
After three days of touring, resting, and idea-sharing with the Shelburne staff, I returned to Green Gate Farms with a greater appreciation for what Erin created. What began as a response to a CSA member’s innocent request to have her boys “learn how to catch and cook a chicken,” has become so much more. As an active member of Shelburne’s Farm-based Education Network’s alliance, Erin relishes her time in Vermont because it inspires the work we do on our farm.
Shelburne’s network of farmers and educators share a deep understanding that we must meet in the middle if we want to overcome the challenges in this age of extreme. In the previous age of extreme, the downstairs staff of Downton Abbeys came upstairs only to serve. Shelburne turned that Old World on its head. Here everyone eats the same food served at the that same table. That’s how I came to meet Alex Webb, the Vanderbilt descendant who has spearheaded this transformation – waiting in line at the farm’s food truck.
We hadn’t even made introductions before we were sharing our challenges to make farm-based education more mainstream. It’s no small task to wed city and country, to break the industrial food chain and forge higher expectations link by link. Yet this is how the straight line of mass consumption becomes a balanced circle of need, just as nature demands. Planting and harvesting, producing and consuming, life and death – they are inseparable on the farm and it is these other immutable laws of nature that today’s youth hunger to experience.
Whether nourished on the grand landscape of Shelburne or the much-diminished fields of this old Bergstrom farmsteads now known as Green Gate Farms, an idea that is worthy of the times will flourish and multiply. As we celebrate our tenth year here, it’s good to reflect on our agricultural roots. Better yet, to reconnected with these old farms as new farms evolve.
A truly sustainable future, true-to-nature, depends on preserving the one while nourishing the other.