Slayton: The New Ceres

Jan 3, 2019

The beautiful new statue of Agriculture, better known as Ceres, is finally back atop the dome of the Vermont State House, and she looks just great. She’s been up there for a while now and it still gives me a warm and happy glow every time I go past the State House and see her.

But lately, I’ve found myself wondering what she sees when she looks out over Vermont farm fields from her high perch. What’s the state of agriculture in Vermont these days?

So recently, I went to talk with Anson Tebbetts, the state Secretary of Agriculture. From his Montpelier office, the new statue atop the State House is an imposing presence.

“I think she’s reminding us to remain focused on agriculture,” Secretary Tebbetts said. “It’s important to our economy, and it’s important to our heritage.”

What emerged from this conversation was a mixed picture. But there was a dominant theme: things are changing.

When Ceres looks out over Vermont agriculture today, she sees new crops and new products: fields of hemp now growing in virtually every county, tall stands of hops for locally crafted beer, even experimental crops of milkweed. She sees a dairy industry that’s enduring massive economic pressure, changing rapidly, struggling to stay profitable - and a burgeoning maple industry, syrup being transformed into new products and packed in a dozen new and different ways.

The Vermont “brand” is still strong, and Vermont remains the most-farmed state in New England, but pressures from a growing suburban population and what the agriculture secretary calls “our microwave culture” of instant gratification has led to a disconnect between many Vermonters and the farmers who keep the incomparable Vermont landscape open and productive.

There are no easy answers for farmers these days. There never have been. Yet Vermont remains the most-farmed state in New England, and farming is still vital to our economy and our identity.

If the new Ceres reminds us of our connection to the land and the value of farming to all of us, then she will have begun her mission. But it will be up to the rest of us to maintain it and carry it forward.