Greg Dennis: Ag traditions old and new in House race
It’s been true for decades that in Vermont most of us no longer live or work on farms. Addison County sometimes even seems to be slowly suburbanizing.
So it’s easy to forget how wrapped up Vermont’s identity remains with agriculture — from the beauty of our landscape to the local produce at the natural foods store around the corner.
While our politics are often dominated by concerns about energy, social services and healthcare, agriculture still has a big role to play.
To see that, you’ve only got to look as far as the Vermont House race in the Addison-5 district, which encompasses Weybridge, New Haven and Bridport.
The incumbent in that district is Rep. Harvey Smith, a Republican with a dairy farming background steeped in centuries-old traditions. He’s being challenged by Susan Smiley, a Democrat who’s been quietly making her mark in organic farming and the local food movement for nearly 40 years.
Their candidacies draw on two very different strains of Vermont agriculture — a dairy industry that while politically powerful is fighting a rear-guard action against extinction or at least irrelevancy, versus a burgeoning localvore industry that has been gaining strength since the ’60s.
According to Harvey Smith’s website (and yes, even some longtime Vermont farmers have websites), Smith grew up on a dairy farm and began farming in New Haven in 1972. He sold his herd in 2005, but he still grows crops and raises cattle, pigs and chickens. He’s been around long enough to be honored as the Vermont Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer of the Year in 1975 and its Farmer of the Year in 1992.
His campaign draws on familiar themes about lower taxes and less regulation, with a website that features his ties to former Gov. Jim Douglas, while highlighting Smith’s 10 years in the Vermont Legislature. (His string of terms was broken when Chris Bray, now a state senator, beat Smith in one election.)
Contrast Smith’s career with Susan Smiley’s background.
Like Smith, she’s done some work in regional planning. But she’s best known as one of the mothers of a local food infrastructure that doesn’t rely on milk production and strives for self-sufficiency.
Smiley has been active for decades in the Northeast Organic Farming Association, better known as NOFA. She and her late husband, Jerry, raised four kids on River Road in New Haven, in an old farmhouse fronted by a legendarily prolific vegetable garden where she still spends a lot of time.
The Smileys were among the county’s early and most determined back-to-the-landers, though they resisted that term at the time. Three of their kids were born at home, in an age when midwives were available but little known and home births were unusual. Susan cooked on a wood stove and they heated their house strictly with saw-cut wood for many years.
One recent morning, in fact, she answered the phone after having just come in the house from a stint splitting wood by hand.
Abe Lincoln, move over.
The first farm animals on the Smileys’ 150 acres were Angus beef cattle, and they soon added Jersey cows. Susan developed a regular yogurt route. When dips in the economy meant that Jerry had a hard time finding work as an architect and planner, he home schooled the kids and Susan went back to work.
She became the purchaser for many of the ingredients in Earth’s Best Baby Food, which was headquartered in Middlebury, and later worked for a Spanish company sourcing non-GMO ingredients.
Along with many others who were here in the 1970s, she remembers when the Middlebury food co-op was a buying club that met once a month in someone’s living room.
Smiley says that two weeks before the Nov. 4 Election Day, she’s already knocked on most doors in her far-flung district. But she’s hardly your typical politician.
For one thing, she’s had to establish a political identity separate from her husband. Jerry was an outspoken, conservative Republican who often trusted government only in that he trusted it to screw things up. He ran unsuccessfully for the House, in fact, in a district similar to the one where Susan is now campaigning.
She takes pains to point out that her politics are different from her late husband’s.
I’m quite sure that during their long marriage, Susan and Jerry had some lively political discussions around the dinner table.
Smiley approaches the stump and voters’ questions about property taxes with characteristic optimism. She’s also talking about other issues that have long concerned her — controversial ones like where to place alternative-energy installations, and more mundane but nonetheless essential ones like what we can do to promote weatherization and other energy-conservation measures.
And of course she’s talking about self-sufficient, local agriculture.
Smiley has spent four decades living and thinking about life close to the land and food produced close to home. Whether or not she wins this November, she’s sure to carry on in that local food tradition.
Editor’s note: Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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