Orly Munzing says she felt a little guilty strolling through her neighbor’s apple orchard. So, one day, she stopped him while he was working on his farm. "I said, 'I’m walking through these beautiful orchards and you do all the work. What can I do to help?'"
Munzing said she expected Dwight Miller to tell her to roll up her sleeves and get to work. He did, but not in the way she expected. Instead of a shovel, he gave her a mission.
"He looked at me, and with his Vermont twang he said, ‘You know how to talk to people right?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and then he said, ‘Why don’t you go and tell all your friends that they need to support farmers. If you and your friends don’t start supporting these small farms, none of us are going to be around in 10 years.'"
That was Munzing’s “light bulb moment.” She said she went home and started doing some research and brainstorming with friends. While she was in college, she’d been to Pamplona, Spain, home of the famed Running of the Bulls event – it takes place in a fairly small town like Brattleboro. She and her friends had thought of a variety of festivals from “Daffodil Days” to “Hawaiian Days” – but Munzing said, no one else is home to the Holstein Association.
“Why don’t we march a bunch of heifers down the street?” recalled Munzing. “Sort of the female version of Running of the Bulls.”
The rest, as they say… is heifer history. “Strolling of the Heifers” was born.
Each year, not only do local farmers and youth groups march heifers through town, they host a large expo highlighting area farms, products and sustainable living ideas, a Slow Living Summit and boost the area’s economy. The event is free, so it’s hard to tell how many people attend the event, but organizers say it’s in the “tens of thousands.”
Now in its 11th year, the annual Strolling of the Heifers is designed to show farmers they’re appreciated and connect consumers to the food they eat.
“The first time, it was absolutely mind boggling,” said Mary Ellen Franklin of Franklin Farm in nearby Guilford, Vermont. She and her family have walked heifers in all but one of the parades.
“It felt like there was a real appreciation for us getting it all together and appreciation for the farmers in the community,” she said. “It’s nice to be appreciated and have your day in the sun.”
Franklin said part of the beauty of the event is that it’s just so simple. The parade features about 100 heifers and floats loaded with grade school children or a few antique tractors.
“It’s great fun and absolute blast to walk down Main Street and see the people come out in such numbers,” Franklin said.
Strolling of the Heifers includes an 11-acre “expo” with exhibits, bands and displays from area farmers and information about sustainable agriculture. It’s preceded by the Slow Living Summit – a conference about supporting local and sustainable agriculture and farmers while building communities.
Once the event is over, organizers are quick to point out the work doesn’t stop. Using proceeds from Strolling of the Heifers, Munzing said the board looks for ways to support agriculture.
She talks with farmers and takes their suggestions to heart. When the event first started, the farmers asked for more ag to be taught in the classroom. The Strolling of the Heifers executive board funded visits to farm for areas schools and brought farms into the classroom. Those efforts took hold and now area schools have a “farm-to-school coordinator” that helps connect classrooms to area ag operations.
Once that program was taken over by the school system, the Strolling of the Heifer committee started making micro loans to farmers who wanted to start or grow their business. That program has also been taken over by other agencies, Munzing said.
When farmers wanted an apprenticeship program, Strolling of the Heifers funded it until the local vocational school took it over. Now the committee hosts a “Farm Food Business Plan” contest.
“It’s not just a weekend event,” said Strolling of the Heifers general manager Martin Langeveld. “We can’t keep doing the same ol’ thing on farms. You have to be entrepreneurial. There are $30,000 worth of prizes aimed at farm and food related enterprises. We’re encouraging people to think about how they might grow their market, find or expand their existing markets.”
Dwight Miller, who issued the challenge to Munzing all those years ago, has since passed away. Munzing said he because a dear friend and was very active on the advisory committee for Strolling of the Heifers. Did he like what he saw?
“Oh, yes. Wow” Munzing said. And while the number of farmers has decreased as Williams predicted, there are still a few and they keep committee members focused on their goals.
As for the Holstein Association, the unique community member that helped inspire the event, after more than a century in downtown Brattleboro, anything that support agriculture is good for the association, according to Peter Cole of Holstein Association USA.
“It’s amazing, the turnout,” Cole said. “I’m always amazed at how people react to the cows, the tractors."
While the Association has always participated in the event, this year will be a bit different. Instead of sponsoring a float, Association staff members will be walking heifers down Main Street. PD
Pictured are participants, human and bovine, of the 2011 Strolling of the Heifers parade. Photo courtesy of Strolling of the Heifers and by Jesse Baker. Click here to see more photos of the event.
Progressive Dairyman magazine