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Residents look towards common future: Land, food and energy the focus of weekend conference

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05/17/2007

By Janique Robillard

On Saturday, May 12, over 60 people gathered at The Big Picture Theater for the "Imagining Our Common Future Sustainability Conference" to explore how a 21st-century Mad River Valley could feed and power itself.

The event was co-sponsored by the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Commons, Mad River Valley TV, Mad River Valley Localvores, Mad River Sustainability Group and Yestermorrow Design/Build School.

Attendees collaborated in small groups to tackle questions such as "What can we do to increase consumption of local foods?" and "How can we lower The Valley's consumption of fossil fuels?"

Singer songwriter James Kinne and Susan Roy's female a capella group, In Cahoots, provided live entertainment.

LAND AND FOOD

Throughout the morning, participants discussed how to educate students about agriculture and provide local food through the schools, both objectives repeatedly brought up as vital to becoming more sustainable.

Other common goals included creating local land banks or a program to make land available to those wanting to farm, and creating a system to connect farmers to the land.

The day started with a land and food panel discussion led by Helen Whybrow and Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm, George Schenk of American Flatbread, farmer Anita Kelman, Nils Behn of Mad River Sustainability Group, and Liza Walker of the Vermont Land Trust.

Following the panelists' presentations, the audience broke into three groups to focus on issues the panelists discussed -- increasing local consumption, supporting farmers and making more land available for farming.

The Mad River Valley has yet to gather data on how much farmland is being actively farmed, panelists said. It is common for dairy farmers with many acres available for hay to only use a portion of that land.

Schenk recalled the tension that arose when he plowed part of the Lareau Farm to plant vegetables on land that had been a source of hay for dairy farmers. He foresees a "conflict between exporting and feeding ourselves" arising in the future.

Dairy farms were also in the spotlight. Panelists were asked if dairy farmers could survive by selling their milk within the state.

Charlie Hosford, who has spent a lot of time at the Turner's dairy farm, said the Turners could not have transitioned to organic without a guarantee of profit. They have a two-year contract with Horizon Organic.

According to panelists, if dairy farmers were to sell only in Vermont they could make more money and reduce the amount of cows needed, in turn reducing the amount of land used only for hay.

Knoll Farm provides an outlet for organic produce and meat, workshops on organic farming and a retreat for conservation activists. Forbes said, "None of the farming we do now would have been possible without the Vermont Land Trust granting access to the land."

Affordability was brought up multiple times as a barrier to becoming more self-sustainable.

Walker said, "Conserved land sells at top dollar." Realtors can easily make multi-million dollar sales to people looking for second homes and horse properties, making investing in agriculture difficult for most buyers.

As the talk of food became more heated, so did appetites. With Kinne and Roy providing entertainment, conference participants flocked outside to enjoy the sunlight and lunch provided by The Big Picture Theater.

LAND AND ENERGY

Educating children in the local school system remained a constant throughout the energy discussion.

Ideas included sponsoring contests between elementary schools to lower energy use, creating an "EnergyCorps" to help weatherproof homes for those who cannot afford to do so, and working on renewable energy projects in The Valley.

Denis Derryberry of the Mad River Sustainability Group organized panelists to cover a variety of topics including The Valley's land use and population trends, public policy on energy and new sources and systems to provide energy.

The panel was comprised of energy specialists Jito Coleman of Northern Power Systems; Brian Shupe, program director for the Vermont Forum on Sprawl; Mayna Winfrey of Co-op Power in Greenfield, Massachusetts; and Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Sprawl, defined by Shupe, is "dispersed, auto-dependent development outside of compact urban and village centers, along highways, and in rural countryside," a situation becoming the norm in Vermont today.

"Auto-dependent and outside of compact centers" describes the Mad River Valley and some of the energy pitfalls we suffer from - mainly, transportation.

Courtney said two-thirds of Vermont's energy is used for transportation and to heat homes.

Courtney suggested "rethinking and retooling" Act 250, created in 1970 and referred to as the Land Use and Development Act, to work in a "greener future."

Her ideas included incorporating smart growth ideals, reorienting to a transit-oriented community, implementing design standards that require transit availability and strengthening public services.

Smart growth ideals would create more compact communities and lower transportation costs for everyone. Schupe said, "Eighteen percent of household expenses go towards transportation. That's more than medical and food costs."

Coleman and Winfrey discussed the implementation and potential benefits of alternative energy sources.

Coleman has dedicated years of work to creating a MicroGrid system for The Valley. It would link the Mad River Industrial Park and 12 residences on one efficient and reliable grid.

"It is still a possibility, but on hold now," he said.

He has worked in cities across the country installing Stirling engines, which can use non-combustible energy sources such as solar and nuclear power, and natural gas systems.

Derryberry's finals words were, "Take matters into your own hands." Turning The Valley into a self-sustained community is possible, but not if people do not take personal responsibility for change.

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