Staff Blog

This is a space where Foundation staff share their thoughts and musings on giving and community:

Making a Difference and Slaying the Naysayers

Posted by: Gaye Symington on 1/27/2017

Karen Freudenberger, the woman who dreamed up, then organized and managed  Pine Island Community Farm in Colchester, died in her sleep this past December. In my role at High Meadows Fund, I was fortunate to meet Karen and get a close-up view of how this dream became a reality.

Pine Island supports New American farmers who raise goats, bees, chickens, or garden crops, and it sells pasture-grown animals to families who slaughter their own goats and chickens for meat. It grew from a partnership between the Vermont Land Trust and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

The goats grown at the farm are cast-off goat dairy bucklings, their nutrition supplemented by spent grain from craft brewers. In summer the goats munch on brush and hay along the Winooski River. With little tillage and no fertilizers, the fields hold soil and nutrients in place during floods, protecting water quality in Lake Champlain. And the farm provides layers of cultural, ecological and economic resilience.

At a celebration of Karen’s life held early in January, Kesha Ram read a speech Karen made at the Vermont Council on World Affairs just days before her passing. Her words were just what I needed heading into the new year, and I wanted to share some of them with you.

… when I moved to Vermont, I brought a powerful belief that people working together can…well…they can work miracles.  I didn’t get the memo that said you can only get things done if you have a six story NGO with Presidents and senior vice presidents and junior vice presidents and project officers and administrative assistants.  I also missed the message saying that you have to ask permission from six different agencies and read shelves of code books before you launch your project. I thought that it was about good ideas and good-willed hard-working people taking those ideas and wrestling them into results that make a difference.

Arriving here, my antennae honed in on a lot of people who had landed on these shores as refugees. Each has an individual history as a victim of violence or persecution but they nearly all share a farming past.  We also found a population of nearly 6,000 people who longed for the familiar taste of goat meat and were buying 150 tons a year – frozen and imported from Australia and New Zealand.  It became obvious that we needed a farm.  A goat raising farm.  Why not a goat raising farm run by refugees?  And so began Pine Island Community Farm, … where now, 4 years later, we have a Bhutanese farmer raising 300 goats a year, a Rwandan who raises nearly 3,000 chickens, and 68 families from a half dozen countries who are raising familiar vegetables on a 7 acre community garden plot. Last year, those New Americans produced about ¼ million dollars of food…right there on the edge of Winooski.

On our road to success, we ran into speedbumps to be sure … bureaucracies, codes, illogical regulations.  But, in  Vermont as in Madagascar and Mauritania, when good people get together around good ideas…and – most importantly – when they don’t listen to the doubters they can make things happen.  While we needed money to implement the project and have been fortunate to have had some generous donors, we know that our fundamental strength going forward are the people, the relationships, and the networks we have built over the past five years.  Last year we had 1,666 hours of volunteer labor at the farm.  People can save a railway. People can resurrect a proud neighborhood.  People can develop a farm. Times are rough these days; it’s a good time to remind ourselves that people working together really can make a difference.

Read the full speech.

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