Slower Living for a Rooted Future

Vermont is leading the way toward agricultural and economic change. What we can learn from the “Slow Living Summit” about building sustainable futures everywhere.
Boy and cow, photo by Strolling of the Heifers

"Strolling of the Heifers" is a yearly event that takes place in Vermont, celebrating the rooted and green Main Street economy. This year, the first annual "Slow Living Summit" was added to the festivities to foster discussion about sustainability in a new economy.

Photo by Strolling of the Heifers

In an increasingly vulnerable world, we're searching for rooted communities—and what we can learn from them. Read more at our blog, Finding Rootedness.

Many of you are aware that every summer, in various cities across Spain, there is the traditional “running of the bulls,” a risky, testosterone-filled spectacle that could be seen as a metaphor for our crumbling growth-at-all-costs economy.   

Well, in Vermont, for three days each summer, there is a festival that is equally engaging, but is diametrically opposed. It is called the “Strolling of the Heifers,” where up to 100 heifer calves, led by young future farmers, stroll down the streets of Brattleboro as thousands cheer from the sidelines. To celebrate sustainable family farming, the parade is accompanied by three days of a “live green expo,” a film festival, and a street party with musicians, street vendors, and clowns. This event could be viewed as a metaphor for the rooted and green Main Street economy that hundreds of communities across this country have started to build.

This summer, the Vermonters added an ideas forum to kick off the “Strolling of the Heifers.” It was the first annual “Slow Living Summit,” and John spoke about our work on the opening night. About 300 people from small businesses, nonprofits, government, and education shared their experiences in dozens of workshops and plenary sessions that pointed to a more collaborative and sane future.  

Part of what was striking throughout the idea-fest was how the initiatives for a new economy in Vermont and the United States mirror what we have encountered in our travels to find “rootedness” in places like the Philippines and Trinidad—places that might, on the surface, seem worlds apart from Vermont.

"Everyone has a fundamental right to the pleasure of good food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition, and culture that makes this pleasure possible.”

The summit featured an address by the new Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Chuck Ross, who laid out how Vermont is catalyzing various stakeholders to design a strategy for transforming its agriculture and energy in a sustainable direction. Planning sessions are pulling in leaders from small business, citizen groups, and government to collectively identify leverage points for change and to help develop and implement the strategy. Ross sees Vermont as providing a model for the nation, but also envisions linking up with states from Maine to Maryland, which are themselves encouraging “for-benefit” (as opposed to “for-profit”) corporations and creating state-level “genuine progress indicators,” as a way to spread innovations among states.

Visionaries from the private sector shared their experiences as well. Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Yogurt, urged the audience to reject a food system “that makes us sick” and to turn instead to “completely new political and economic solutions” that root agriculture in community. He described the rough and rocky climb of healthy organic foods to reach their current four percent of our country’s food and fiber—fighting tooth and nail with the world’s largest agribusiness and chemical companies every step of the way. 

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John shared the stage with the head of the “slow food” movement in the United States, Josh Viertel.  As Josh explained, the “slow food” movement believes “that everyone has a fundamental right to the pleasure of good food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition, and culture that makes this pleasure possible,” and now has 1,300 chapters in 153 countries. Josh encouraged participants to approach action as individuals, as community members, and as citizens: from “voting with your fork” as an individual, to supporting co-ops and community-supported agriculture in your community, to citizen campaigns to change policy.   

Activist Majora Carter added examples from West Virginia where groups are building windmills on mountains that were to be mined for coal. She pointed to Chicago where small entrepreneurs have hired former prisoners to produce skin products made from local honey.      

In John’s own remarks, he refocused the audience’s gaze to outside of Vermont—to the huge numbers of farmers around the world who, like their counterparts in Vermont, are rejecting chemicals to build rooted sustainable agriculture. As we have written in prior blogs, this movement is taking off in the Philippines and elsewhere.

And John looked ahead to a different future. Ten years from now, John hypothesized, many of the participants would look back at the Slow Living Summit and realize that it was a marker in a great, new transformative movement—a movement of movements that is linking the people working on slow food to those working on slow money, sustainable agriculture, community banking, fair taxes, and thousands of other examples of building economies that are green, equitable, democratic, and, yes, “rooted.”

Ten years from now many of the participants would look back at the Slow Living Summit and realize that it was a marker in a great, new transformative movement.

Part of what was impressive at the Slow Living Summit was to see that hundreds of small businesses and small farmers are already moving in this direction. Cooperatives and new forms of democratically run firms are spreading quickly.  And in Vermont, a new governor is using the government’s convening power and ability to shift incentives to speed the transition. 

As the Slow Living Summit demonstrated, Vermont is one of the places in the United States that is at the front lines of a “rooted” new economy movement.  And if we were to place a wager on this tortoise-versus-hare race:  move over running bulls, the strolling heifers are the way of the future.     


  • about finding rootedness from John Cavanagh and Robin Broad.

  • More and more people, communities, and nations are taking steps to reduce their vulnerability to a volatile global economy.

  • The resilience of our food supply is as much about the quality and diversity of our food sources as it is about how much we produce.
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