From Kingdom Farm & Food to Open Farm Week: Celebrating the Region's Agricultural Roots

August 1, 2022

Vermont’s eighth Open Farm Week August 7 to 14 will celebrate local foods and the people who grow them. It will offer chances for the public to connect with farmers, see the animals, learn about farming traditions, and taste the foods. In the Northeast Kingdom, the regional Kingdom Farm and Food Days was running for five years before that, offering the same opportunities within the region until the two parallel efforts merged into one.

The Northeast Kingdom possesses an abundance of agricultural history, pride, knowledge and skill that can still be found on our local farms today. One person who has been deeply involved in promoting and celebrating this culture is the Center for an Agricultural Economy’s (CAE) Community Programs Manager, Bethany M. Dunbar. 

It was High Mowing Seeds of Wolcott who got things started when they began hosting their annual “Field Day” in the early 2000’s. The event began as a day-long event featuring a variety of workshops on growing, preserving, and preparing food for farmers, industry peers, and community members. The event culminated with a free, locally sourced meal prepared by the New England Culinary Institute. Bethany, who at the time was a reporter and editor of the Chronicle, and a dairy farmer with a passion for local agriculture, covered the event for the paper and in doing so helped with community outreach and awareness. The success of “Field Day'' was immediate, and each year the event grew larger, with more workshops, more partners, and more community participation, ultimately growing into “a 500-person free gourmet meal in a field” said Tom Stearns, founder and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. According to Stearns, people came from all over including rooftop farmers from Brooklyn showing up to camp in vans.

Melon tasting during the 2014 Field Day event at High Mowing Seeds
Melon tasting during the 2014 Field Day event at High Mowing Seeds. Photo by Bethany Dunbar

In 2009, the communities of Wolcott and Craftsbury, having just seen and experienced the fanfare related to the publication of Ben Hewitt’s “The Town that Food Saved”, asked “how can we do even more?” Their answer: Kingdom Farm and Food Day (KFF). Community members and regional farms began to organize tours and draft animal demonstrations to coincide with High Mowing’s workshops and community meal, with hopes of building upon the already existing and very popular event. After a few years of the events running concurrently, KFF absorbed “Field Day'', and Bethany, now working at CAE, was tasked with helping to coordinate, manage, and further grow the event as a way to connect farmers with their community, offer opportunities for participation to the region’s summer residents, and generally celebrate the agricultural roots of the region.

Like “Field Day”, KFF quickly grew beyond what anyone had imagined, and what started out as a handful of events and tours across the region grew to include dozens. Animal demonstrations were expanded to include traditional craft demonstrations. Kids activities were organized to increase the family friendliness of the events, farmers’ markets started promoting the events, encouraging the purchase of fresh off-the-farm goods, and communities and farms from all across the Kingdom got involved. 

  Tom Stearns gives a workshop in the fields at High Mowing Seeds during the 2014 Field Day event. Photo by Bethany Dunbar
Tom Stearns gives a workshop in the fields at High Mowing Seeds during the 2014 Field Day event. Photo by Bethany Dunbar

Simultaneously and independently of KFF, the State of Vermont had begun to recognize the potential power of promoting to tourists the importance and uniqueness of Vermont’s farming culture. In 2014, working with farms across the state (including many who were already involved in KFF), they hosted the first  “Open Farm Week”; a week-long series of on-farm activities as a way to give Vermonters and visitors alike “a behind-the-scenes look into Vermont’s vibrant working agricultural landscape.” After a couple of years of hosting KFF as a standalone group of regional events that took place at the same time as the State’s Open Farm Week, the organizing force behind KFF decided to reimagine the events to be part of Open Farm Week.  

Draft horse demonstration at the KFF event at Atkins Field in 2017. Photo by Bethany Dunbar
Draft horse demonstration at the KFF event at Atkins Field in 2017. Photo by Bethany Dunbar

In talking to Bethany about the various forms that have embodied these celebrations of the region’s agricultural roots, the words spirit, connection, community, and learning kept coming up. These words still resonate with Bethany after so many years, as she sees these events as an opportunity to connect the communities of the Northeast Kingdom with the farms, farmers, and artisans who have provided and sustained the region for so long. When asked for a favorite memory, Bethany says, “I remember a young Hardwick resident, taking the reins of a huge draft horse and the look of pure elation on his face. It was such a profound moment of ‘we’ve done it!’ for me. In a very real and tangible way, we brought everything wonderful about our local agricultural landscape to the people who make up our communities, and in doing so sparked joy, an interest in, a new appreciation for and a direct connection between community and agriculture. I feel very privileged to have this job and I’ve learned so much about so many things that I never expected as a result. I hope that I can share my enthusiasm and passion for the work with as many people as possible for many years to come. And, I hope to see everybody on the 12th.” 

Community Farm & Food Celebration!

Artisan Justin Sutera at the 2021 Community Farm and Food Celebration. Photo by Kent Shaw
Artisan demonstration by Justin Sutera at the 2021 Community Farm & Food Celebration and Open Farm Week event at Atkins Field Photo by Kent Shaw.