Folklife Center exhibit explores Vermont’s grassroots food movement

MIDDLEBURY — Four years ago, Vermont Folklife Center researchers Greg Sharrow and Andy Kolovos began fieldwork to explore the grassroots food movement in Vermont. Taking a food systems approach, they interviewed farmers, distributors, agricultural support organizations and institutional buyers to better understand the contemporary cultures of farming in Vermont and the economic models that make agriculture viable today.
The interviews tell stories of diverse agricultural systems and communities thriving in many parts of Vermont, including a particular node of activity in Rutland County. Sharrow described his early meetings with farmers in the Rutland area as revealing “the spokes on a wheel,” with the hub located at Boardman Hill Farm, where Greg and Gay Cox have lived and farmed for more than three decades.
Over the years, Greg and Gay watched land costs skyrocket and become a barrier to new farmers. Greg began to conceive of a Rutland-based, community-oriented initiative that would support incubator projects where young farmers could try out new ideas, learn through mistakes, and develop the skills and experience that would contribute to the community’s growth. Gay and Greg chose promising young people with a work ethic and offered pro bono use of their land, markets, infrastructure, and equipment. They mentored hundreds of interns and a series of school program helpers.
“Growing Food, Growing Farmers” is an intimate look at the expanding community of young farmers in Rutland County and the surrounding area. The exhibit showcases farmers, often with their families, through large-format photographic portraits by Macaulay Lerman. Sharrow’s metaphor of the “wheel,” a central theme of the exhibit, is conveyed in the form of biographies and audio interview excerpts that complement the portraits of more than a dozen current and former farmers, many of whom trace some aspect of their agricultural trajectory to the Cox’s mentorship and generosity.
Scott and Lindsey Courcelle, co-founders of Alchemy Gardens, are among the featured farmers that have a connection to the Coxes. In an audio clip from the exhibit, Scott shares some impressions from having worked closely with Greg Cox: “One of the really stunning things about Greg is here he is, giving us this opportunity to go out and beat up his equipment and take up space in his cooler … and then our stand is directly next to his in the farmer’s market.” Scott provides further insight into Cox’s philosophy by reciting one of his analogies: “A lot of people use the analogy of, ‘Well, my piece of the pie is going to get smaller if we let all these new farmers in.’ [Greg’s] whole thing is, like, ‘Then grow the pie. Make a bigger pie.’”
The ethnographic interviews conducted by Sharrow and Kolovos, and the resulting biographical and audio content in the exhibit, share the experience and insights of the farmers in their own words. The large scale portraits — nearly 4 by 3 feet — were created with a similar intention in mind. Lerman’s photographic process is ethnographic in spirit and echoes the philosophy of deep listening and collaboration that forms the Folklife Center’s methodological approach to cultural research.
 “Primarily, I work with a 4 x 5 view camera, an old and yet relevant technology that forces my subject to remain as still as possible for around 10 minutes while the image is made,” explains Lerman. “In the digital age this may seem like an eternity to some, but the need to slow down often relaxes me as well as my subject, and allows for an organic conversation and honest depiction.”
“Growing Food, Growing Farmers” is the product of an ethnographic research approach: making visible the experiences of one community of farmers that exists within the larger network of local food production in Vermont.
A public reception and gallery talk will be held Sept. 7, from 5-7 p.m, at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Complimentary locally sourced food and drink, including beer, wine, craft cheeses, produce and more will be served.
In addition to the exhibition of “Growing Food, Growing Farmers” in the first floor gallery, the Folklife Center is also hosting the traveling exhibition in the second-floor gallery. “Vermont Farm Kids: Rooted in the Land” is a documentary exhibit and film celebrating the lives of a diverse array of youth who have grown up in farming families. It features various farms (dairy, produce, livestock, and maple), and explores what it means to grow up as a farm kid and perhaps become an agricultural entrepreneur.
The project was created for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) by Maria Buteux Reade, a Vermont farmer and freelance writer, and James Chandler, a videographer from Dorset, Vermont.

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