By Kevin O’Connor
When a handful of Vermont farmers promised to prod a few cows up Brattleboro’s Main Street in 2002 for what they christened the first “Strolling of the Heifers,” most locals figured it would be good for a laugh.
Little did anyone foresee it would lead to big, serious business.
The 17th annual event, set for May 31 to June 3, again will feature marching milkers followed by a slapstick, shovel-wielding cleanup crew. But the parade is just part of what’s now a year-round nonprofit agriculture-promotion outfit with a half-million-dollar annual budget and its own downtown headquarters.
“It has far exceeded expectations,” says Orly Munzing, the event’s founder and executive director. “Yet we’ve made sure we’ve stuck to our mission.”
The Stroll has drawn thousands of people since its inception, when the sight of jaywalking cows spurred television’s “Good Morning America” and newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times to juxtapose images of Spain’s “Running of the Bulls” with meandering Holsteins.
But the inaugural procession has grown into a four-season series of programs supporting farming and social, economic and energy well-being.
“We celebrate sustainable agriculture,” Munzing says, “and connect people with healthy living.”
When Munzing started the event, she hoped the publicity would, by cultivating interest, help area farmers.
“The Stroll is to support family farms and connect people with the food they eat,” she said at the time. “Once you begin to buy local, you start to think of other ways to live more sustainability.”
Adding an annual Slow Living Summit in 2011, Munzing hoped the two days of speakers would, by communicating information, help citizens and communities.
“The concept of slow living is not simply about sustainability,” she says. “It embodies mindfulness, cooperation and resilience. It’s a more reflective approach to how we live. I want people to better understand that when you live slow, you become more connected to your neighbors.”
This year’s summit, set for May 31 and June 1, will feature the theme “The Future of Farm and Food Entrepreneurship” as well as several prominent national speakers.
Charles Eisenstein, for example, has authored such books as “Sacred Economics” and “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible” and appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Sunday” television series.
Chuck Collins, for his part, is the great-grandson of meatpacker turned mogul Oscar Mayer and has written “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.”
But the work doesn’t stop with the summit. With its purchase of downtown Brattleboro’s River Garden building as a year-round headquarters, the organization is focusing on growing the economy — specifically, agricultural production, processing and distribution that annually generate $4 billion and 13 percent of all Vermont jobs.
“It’s still the ‘slow living’ mission to think about, take care and give to our friends and neighbors, but we’ve taken it into economic development,” Munzing says. “We need to create more businesses that are rooted in the community and culture rather than just filling real estate.”
The organization has received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Economic Development Administration for a “Windham Grows” small business hatchery that helps startup and early-stage employers with development support.
“Our job is to add value to the food that comes out of the earth to make it healthy and make jobs in the community,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at the initiative’s kickoff. “That’s exactly what Windham Grows does.”
A farm-to-table apprenticeship program, for its part, is training unemployed or underemployed people for full-time jobs in the fields of baking, butchering and cheese-making.
“Attaining more skills,” Munzing says, “will help someone attain more pay.”
The organization is sparking national interest through its annual Locavore Index, which ranks states according to their commitment to local food. In 2017, Vermont topped the list (as it has since the index’s start) and was followed by Maine, Oregon, Montana, New Hampshire, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island.
“Of course we’re proud that Vermont comes in as No. 1,” Munzing says. “But our real purpose in compiling the index is to spotlight local food trends throughout the country and to encourage more efforts in every state to spread the benefits of healthy local foods and strong local food systems.”
The Stroll, it seems, never stops.
“The first year I thought it was a one-shot deal,” Munzing says. “Now the parade and festival fund all the work we do year-round. Little did I realize … it has a life of its own.”
Stroll for yourself …
The 2018 Strolling of the Heifers will start with a Slow Living Summit on the topic “The Future of Farm & Food Entrepreneurship” May 31 and June 1, with admission and registration information available at slowlivingsummit.org.
As for public events:
5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Gallery Walk and Street Festival: A downtown Brattleboro block party with food and entertainment on Main Street and at the River Garden.
10 a.m. “May the Farms Be with You” The annual parade steps off with farm animals, tractors and bands, up Brattleboro’s Flat and Main streets. No dogs please, as they can scare the cows.
9 – 4 p.m. Slow Living Expo with food, entertainment and exhibits on the Town Common and adjacent Retreat grounds. No dogs please.
9 – 1 p.m. Famous Farmers Breakfast at Brattleboro’s Marina Restaurant
8- 4 p.m. “Tour de Heifer” farm-to-farm cycling rides of 15, 30 or 60 miles. Registration and more information: bikereg.com/tourdeheifer
9:30 – 4 p.m. Tour five select farms in the Brattleboro area. Pre-registration is required: strollingoftheheifers.com/farmtour
More information is available at strollingoftheheifers.com.
Kevin O’Connor is a Vermont native and Brattleboro Reformer contributor.