By Elizabeth Bassett, contributor
On Thursday September 30, the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte was the setting for the announcement of a $6 million gift to support diversification of farm ownership in Vermont. The High Meadows Fund, with a mission to promote vibrant communities and preserve a healthy natural environment in Vermont, stipulated that $2 million of this gift expand land ownership and access among people who have been historically marginalized or oppressed based on their race or ethnicity. This leadership gift is the largest of its kind ever made in Vermont.
The executive directors of the Vermont Land Trust, Nick Richardson, and Dan Smith of the Vermont Community Foundation, spoke of the need to diversify both ownership and production on Vermont farms as the state’s dairy farms continue to struggle against a host of challenges.
Dr. Lydia Clemmons, President and Executive Director of the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, spoke of her family’s history as Black farmers.
“My great grandparents Margie and Walter Beck built a successful farm in Louisiana in the 1930s. The Beck’s success, however, inspired resentment and an angry mob burned the farm and chased the family away,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons recounted her ancestors’ plight, which mirrored the experience of countless other African-American farmers.
“Knowing that the white mob’s goal was not only to destroy their home but to kill them in order to take their farm and their oil—my mother’s family changed their family name so that it would be harder to trace them,” she said. “In doing so, they abandoned their rights to their farm, their crops, the oil—they left all of it behind them.”
Clemmons said her family was one of “six million other African-Americans who fled the racial violence and oppression of the rural south—leaving their farms, their livelihoods, their wealth behind them—to make a way out of no way, to the northern US, the Midwest, and California, during the Great Migration.”
In the 1960s, Clemmons’ parents, Jack and Lydia Clemmons, a doctor and nurse, bought their farm on Greenbush Road. But rather than leaving the horrors of racism behind, the Clemmons family was to suffer another racially motivated assault in 2017.
“Some 90 years after my mother’s family’s beautiful farm in Louisiana was attacked by a mob of jealous white farmers, history repeated itself right here on our family’s farm in Charlotte,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons said she believed “the same hatred and jealousy” that motivated a racist mob to destroy her family’s farm in the 1930s “motivated a new group of individuals to try their best to destroy the beautiful farm of an African-American family in Charlotte, Vermont in 2017. But that is another story—and it is documented in a Vermont Human Rights Commission report published earlier this year.”
Clemmons went on to say that “words cannot express” her family’s “joy and hope” for the gift’s potential “to shape a vibrant future for Vermont’s farming. Like hundreds of farm families in Vermont, we know first-hand the challenge of holding land and maintaining what we have.”
The Vermont Land Trust, in partnership with a diverse group of farmers and community leaders, will work to design and grow the $2 million fund to expand land ownership and access. The fund’s governance, structure, and decision-making will be determined by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color in Vermont.
The remaining $4 million will expand Vermont Land Trust’s capacity to put more experienced farmers, of any race and ethnicity, onto the land in the coming years.
“Agriculture is central to our identity and sense of place,” said Nick Richardson, President and CEO of the Vermont Land Trust.
“The climate crisis, demographic change, and broader economics require us to act boldly and change the trajectory of decline,” Richardson said. “Now is the moment to help the next generation of farmers buy land and grow farm enterprises. This gift, and decades-long partnership with the High Meadows Fund, enables us to take a great leap forward in protecting and strengthening agriculture in Vermont.”
In addition to announcing this major gift, Gaye Symington, executive director of The High Meadows Fund, announced the Fund will transition to a grantmaking entity within the Vermont Community Foundation and not remain a separate non-profit.
“An accelerated pace of investment will have a lasting impact on the future of Vermont’s agricultural economy, rural communities, and food system,” Symington said. “It’s critical to give greater control to those who have been marginalized by traditional approaches to land ownership.”
Smith spoke of the importance of creating “a sense of belonging for all Vermonters.”
“Communities where anyone willing to commit to the working landscape—regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background—has a pathway to steward the land without fear of discrimination and isolation are key to closing the opportunity gap in Vermont,” Smith said. “We are a rural state where the working landscape has long been central to our economic vitality. To keep that legacy alive and our rural communities vibrant, we need to create conditions that attract, support, and retain a diverse new generation of farmers running a range of successful and sustainable enterprises. This remarkable gift advances that reality.”
Clemmons said she hoped her family’s own past experiences would help inform Vermont’s future support of Black-0wned farms.
“It’s important for all of us to learn from stories like those I’ve shared from my own family’s experiences in 1930s Louisiana and in 2017 Vermont,” Clemmons said. “Our family’s stories are not unique. They have been experienced by Black farming families across this state and all around this country for generations. Owning and stewarding land comes at a price for those who have historically been oppressed. Learning from the failings of our past as a society is vital for us to avoid the same pitfalls in the future. “