In 2013 I attended my first Vermont Farm Show* at the Champlain Valley Exposition, just one year after the venue change from the Old Labor Hall in Barre to serve a larger audience at the fairgrounds in Essex Jct. Joined by my partner Mitch, my reason for attending was twofold:
having been working as a dairy and agritourism marketing consultant since 2008, Mitch (being a teacher in a rural part of Vermont) was interested in learning more about the industry, especially now that we were stewarding new land in Plainfield, Vermont with dreams to explore herbalism homesteading.
- attending was part of my job interview process in becoming the first communications director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, where I would soon begin working on both the Vermont Farm to Plate and Vermont Bioenergy Initiatives.
*The Vermont Farm Show was created in 1979 as a nonprofit organization (the Vermont Farm Show Board) to conduct an annual agricultural industry event (managed by a Farm Show Manager) to promote Vermont agriculture, organize and conduct industry association meetings, and exhibit farm equipment, supplies, and products.
After attending my first Farm Show in 2013, I vended for the next five years (2014-2018), staffing/organizing the Farm to Plate booth. My role was to build awareness, relationships, and engagement in the Vermont Farm to Plate Network’s collective impact work implementing Vermont’s food system plan statewide to increase economic development and jobs in the farm and food sector, improve soils, water, and resiliency of the working landscape in the face of climate change, and improve access to healthy local foods for all Vermonters.
I watched over the years as the stress and mental health challenges of farmers became more forefront in the conversations taking place at the Farm Show. I found myself more frequently holding space for intimate conversations about health, wellness, spiritual connection to the land, and how to manage expanding obstacles when speaking with farmers and food producers. Conversations with nonprofit/government colleagues and partners at the Farm Show became opportunities relationship building with less and less time for more nuanced conversations in the constant cycle of meetings, deadlines, grant protocols, and reactionary responses to inequities.
It’s not surprising that my own health began to suffer as my responsibilities grew at an untenable pace with an increasingly urgent and often frantic culture to address the escalating needs and challenges to feed people in ways that care for the viability, humanity, and sustainability of people and planet.
In 2018 I concluded my work in Vermont’s food system with a cancer diagnosis and unraveling health crisis. This experience served as one of many catalysts and inspirations for the creation of EmpowR Transformation.
Core to EmpowR’s work in connecting the arc of personal to cultural transformation is the integral role of healing–ourselves, our relationships, our groups and communities, organizations, and institutions–so we can be the microcosm to the macrocosm of transformative justice. EmpowR’s work approaches conversations, practices, and shared learning that generates healing and solutions at the root of complex issues to transform the conditions that cause personal and collective harm, suffering, and injustice.
Much of what EmpowR does is vision and incubate the emergence of something new, where the cultural conditions of belonging, wholeness, trust, and authentic relationships are foundational.
In late 2022, I was contacted by the Vermont Farm Show Board to facilitate a revisioning process for the Farm Show that represents the shifting and emerging needs of farming in Vermont, is financially sustainable to manage, and both celebrates and supports all of the people who grow and produce food in Vermont.
“The VT Farm Show is in a pivotal time of transition–needing to pause, reflect, reach out, and re-adjust to better serve the Vermont farming community. We felt well guided with Rae’s careful intention and process to approaching our complex situation with many potential collaborators. While the Vermont Farm Show has a lot of work ahead, Rae helped provide a clear plan to help us move forward. We appreciate that Rae expanded beyond the current systems and how-it’s-always-been-done-thinking to help the Vermont Farm Show begin to re-imagine a diverse and inclusive future that is led by a representation of all Vermont agriculturalists, from all scales.” ~ Kyla Parmalee, Vice-President, Vermont Farm Show BoardI will admit, I was scared to return to Vermont agriculture in any capacity outside of slowly growing an herb farm at Grandmother Cherry Sanctuary. Facing that fear is one of the greatest healing gifts offered to me as it helped me return to my deep love for this land and the people who steward the sustenance for life. Working with members of the Farm Show Board has been an emotionally and intellectually stimulating project to practice emergent strategy and to facilitate a process that unfolds based on the conversations and information presented rather than adhering to the urgency of unrealistic deadlines–one of the primary ways that dominant systems and power dynamics stay in place.
The Farm Show revisioning process produced a Scope of Work that presents an opportunity for resource and power sharing, inclusive community engagement, and to meet the expanding needs of a more diverse agricultural landscape. Revisioning the Vermont Farm Show also allowed me to loop back to my Farm to Plate roots, with the Scope of Work recommendations aligning with Farm to Plate Vermont Agriculture and Food System Plan intentions for Vermont agriculture to be more economically viable, environmentally resilient, and socially just.
Throughout 2022 and 2023 members of the Farm Show Board and Vermont agricultural community engagement leaders actively participated in a revisioning process to inform how, when, and where future farm shows can be offered. The result of this first stage of inquiry is preparation of a Scope of Work to address shifts in Farm Show governance structure, funding, overall management, and how to plan for event programming.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FARM SHOW SCOPE OF WORK AND SHARE WITH VERMONT AGRICULTURAL LEADERS TO INVITE TRANSFORMATIONAL WAYS TO APPROACH COMPLEX CHALLENGES
Header image from 2019 Vermont Farm Show poster with artwork created by Tim Newcomb