Strolling of the Heifers to morph into Agritech Institute for Small Farms

BRATTLEBORO — The Strolling of the Heifers — a local nonprofit known for its annual parade before it was sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic — wants to again promote agriculture by morphing from its signature march into a Montpelier-based Agritech Institute for Small Farms.

The “part think tank, part small farm accelerator” will aim to identify, test and provide technical and financial support for ideas that improve economic and environmental viability and mitigate climate change, organizers announced Friday at a press conference in Brattleboro.

“The parade had a wonderful run,” said Orly Munzing, who founded the event 20 years ago. “But when you talk to farmers, what they need is more technology.”

Dan Smith, founding executive director of the Northeast Dairy Compact Commission, will head the new effort.

“The institute is really designed to be of service to advocacy and support groups that exist throughout Vermont and the Northeast to enable small-scale agriculture to prosper,” said Smith, a lawyer who has focused on state and federal milk market regulation.

The initiative, seeded by $250,000 in Strolling money, will work to establish a pilot program on 25 Vermont dairy farms. In addition to boosting farm finances, its organizers hope to help improve water quality and soil health through sustainable practices and incorporate such climate change mitigation solutions as carbon sequestration.

The project, although only just announced, is already reaping supportive reviews.

“The institute’s proposed pilot program is a most welcome, and well-timed, addition to our policy tool kit and provision of support services for Vermont dairy farms,” state Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said in a written statement.

The Stroll began in June 2002 as a parade that spurred national news outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times to juxtapose images of Spain’s “Running of the Bulls” with local farmers producing cows through downtown Brattleboro.

Growing in popularity over the years, the march helped fund a $600,000 year-round budget to promote agricultural production, processing and distribution — a $4 billion Vermont industry responsible for nearly 15 percent of jobs in the state.

Then came the pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the past three parades and spurred the organization to shed its paid staff and suspend programming in 2020 and then sell its Main Street headquarters in 2021.

“Before the money runs out, we’re putting everything on pause and reevaluating to see where we can go in the new normal,” Munzing said at the time.

The Strolling of the Heifers organization, while morphing into a Montpelier-based institute, plans to give $200,000 to the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development for programs that continue to promote agriculture in southern Vermont.

“It’s time to cultivate new ideas and pass the torch to the next generation,” Munzing said Friday.

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