Vermont’s economy and culture were both built on self-sufficiency by thousands of small farms (not on the backs of black slaves toiling in Green Mountain winters). Integral to those farms was an idea central to modern financial investing: diversification. In investing, the idea is that by diversifying one’s portfolio, if one class of asset declines, others that grow in value can offset those losses. By farming not just milk, but many other products “in season,” Vermont’s family farms diversified wisely — logs, maple syrup, meats, vegetables, cedar oil, and value-added products such as cheese and butter, provided alternative sources of sustenance and income. If one crop failed, or the market collapsed, other goods were available to offset that shortfall.
Twenty-first century Vermont has abandoned that wisdom. Manufacturing jobs have not endured in Vermont — it doesn’t make much sense to truck in the materials to fabricate products to be trucked out again, and Vermont’s geography has always stymied such investments. Dairy farms have declined steadily: only a relative handful of mostly large dairies remain. Lost with them is the diversity of livestock once available in Vermont.
Tourism has grown as a staple of Vermont’s economy, but this is dangerous folly. For one thing, Vermont’s tourism has been built on the agriculture that tourism is destroying. This is not to say that there is not growth for farms in agritourism, but that if the farms disappear so too will much of the appeal of our hillsides, as well as the views. But also, spiking real estate prices to satisfy the droves of transplants moving here make farmland cost prohibitive.
History teaches that when an economy declines, luxury expenditures (including vacations) are the first to go. Destination weddings, craft breweries and high-priced vodka may rule the day today, but they will all be bankrupted the day the natural cycle of economic decline returns. Imagine what the Great Depression would look like in Vermont in 2022.
We live in a nation where the vast majority of citizens have lost any comprehension of agriculture or its central importance to economies and human health. This process advanced quickly in urban areas: Vermont has been one of the few rural places in America where poor white farmers just kept on doing the only thing they knew — farm. COVID has revealed the cataclysmic danger of dependency on industrial food transported many thousands of miles — and indeed Vermont has increased meat production faster than its facilities can keep pace with. But that corporate food supply, just like the industrial methods employed to produce it, is not sustainable.
Vermont’s tourist “industry” is not sustainable as the sole source of economic growth. Though profiteers dream of crafting a gentrified Vermont a la Martha’s Vineyard, the reality of massive federal money-printing will intrude on that fantasy. Inflation will steadily amplify, shrinking real wealth and vacation budgets. Especially hard hit will be food prices: what a shame that Vermont has hitched its economic future to an unsustainable tourism fantasy rather than the core that all humans will always need — nourishing food. This was always Vermont’s core, until bureaucratic growth and corporate domination eclipsed and prayed upon that food-producing culture. The exploitation of Vermont’s farming culture for the profit-making of nonfarmers is coming to a close.
The companion hypocrisy is the incessant railing about the “climate emergency” by elites who never say a peep against the skiing “industry” or the environmental idiocy of advertising to attract people to drive fossil fuel cars here to peep at leaves. Vermont’s tourism is both an environmental and an economic folly: policymakers are presently oblivious of this; future generations will know it through experience.
Dear reader, perhaps this essay is altogether too gloomy for those steeped in cognitive dissonance. But there is an alternative: the national economy thrives; the national debt does not produce inflation; corporations begin making healthy fresh local food to meet the demand of consumers. All three of these are likely impossible, and all three are necessary to avert the looming peril we face as Americans.
As out-of-staters flock to Vermont to condemn it for being racist and backwards, and in need of modernizing, they are pounding the last nails in the coffin of that self-reliance which has always been Vermont’s culture. And when stagflation descends upon America — a declining economy coupled with unprecedented debt that forces interest rates to rise and the currency to wobble — Vermonters will be left holding the bag — of nothing.
The common-sense diversification that was necessary for Vermont farms is being discarded in favor of high-profit specialization. That works fine until history repeats itself, and reality intrudes — humans all need food. Vermont has abandoned its farming creed, dependency on technocrats and fools has expanded. When the economy implodes, there are few alternative economic directions for Vermonters to pursue. Agricultural land developed for subdivisions will be unavailable to revert back to food production; breeding stock has largely disappeared.
Note: I am not attacking tourism or related businesses, any more than I would be attacking maple syrup production if I said a farm that relied upon that alone incurred risks that are avoided by diversification. Progressives advertise solar panels as bringing economic growth to Vermont, but these are not manufactured here, are inefficient and polluting, and have been subsidized by a grotesquely regressive wealth transfer from poor to rich through net-metering hijinks. Snowmaking equipment is no more “green” that the chairlifts and long-distant commutes encouraged to fill the slopes — and it is a dangerous economic dependency that also focuses wealth in a few hands rather than dispersed widely — as with farm production. But here again I am not calling for ending skiing — I am pointing out the hypocrisy and vulnerability that attach to that tourist-dependent industry, not to small local farms.
Additionally, this tourist-centric force in Vermont is making housing unaffordable — both home ownership and rents) for large numbers of native Vermonters: places like Stowe have become cost-prohibitive for locals, as tourists mob Airbnb rentals and buy up properties to rent at nosebleed prices. This too is a cost of tourism dependency that undermines Vermont and forces human capital to emigrate for affordability.
Vermont’s economic model has become a tourist trap — not for the visitors, but for the residents of this once-agrarian state — when the rich tourists stop visiting. Supporting small farms is not just good for community, it’s good for business, and it’s good for survival.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and the former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2021. All rights reserved.