Cows stroll to save New England farms

Brattleboro, Vermont, is home to the annual Strolling of the Heifers, a riff on Spain's Running of the Bulls, that is meant to draw attention to the region's farming tradition.

Tony Eprile
Cattle take over Main Street in Brattleboro, Vt.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Promptly at 10 a.m., the cows walked down Main Street. The crowd, three rows deep – an estimated 50,000 people, equivalent to nearly one-fifth of the population of Vermont – roared in appreciation. Many had been waiting for hours. Some 100 heifers, garlanded with flowers and hand-drawn signs with their names (Ashley, Jolly, Hannah, Marilyn), stepped purposely and surprisingly delicately in what has become a beloved town tradition: the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

The parade, a riff on Spain’s famous Running of the Bulls, was launched in 2002 by Vermonters lamenting the loss of New England farms. The idea was to draw attention to farming’s importance to the community’s health, heritage, and economy (years before the term “locavore” entered the vernacular).

“Without farms, we don’t eat,” says Orly Munzing, the parade’s founder and executive director, adding that “when food became a commodity, people lost touch with where their food came from, even here, where a farm is a stone’s throw away.”

Certainly agriculture in Vermont has changed over the decades. From a high of 11,000-plus in the 1940s, the number of dairy farms hovers around 1,000 today. Ironically, this year’s parade was led by the Robb Family Farm, which is closing its dairy business after 104 years of production. Helen Robb said shutting down was “a hard decision,” but the economics of running a small dairy (50 to 55 cows) no longer made sense as the price for milk barely keeps pace with increasing feed, seed, diesel, and fertilizer costs.

One bright spot, however: the rise of small niche farms, particularly makers of artisanal cheeses.

The weight of the future of Vermont farms was largely forgotten in the celebration of the heifers. Following the four-legged stars were school marching bands and an assortment of quirky local nonprofits. Not far behind came the clowns, with cherry-red cheeks and oversized shoes, wielding manure shovels to ensure that the road would again be fit for traffic.

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