The American Guide to the New Vermont

I grew up in Vermont, surrounded by green mountains, sprawling farmland, and a population rich in cows and white people. Indeed, the US Census Bureau reports that the population of the state of Vermont is, staggeringly, 95.1 percent white. The 1937 book Vermont: A Guide to the Green Mountain State, from the American Guide series, includes a chapter titled “Racial Elements,” which begins plainly, “The people of Vermont are, and always have been, predominantly of English stock.” It notes that without new land tracts to develop—as in the West—or the kind of factory towns found in other parts of New England, Vermont remained “relatively unaffected by the waves of foreign immigration that have swept over almost every settled section of the country since 1930.”

A closer look at census information from the last few decades shows that the state’s demographics are finally shifting, however slowly. Beyond the growing diversity among younger generations—Hispanic and black populations in Vermont have doubled since 2000—there have also been excellent programs developed to welcome asylum-seekers and new immigrants to the whitest state in the country. More than 6,000 refugees have settled in Vermont since the 1980s, many from Bosnia, Vietnam, Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq, Congo, and Sudan.

While photographing a story last year, I got to know some of the refugees who had moved to Burlington and called the Old North End neighborhood home. They have opened new businesses and restaurants in recent years, making the area vastly more vibrant. For immigrants in a new culture, finding access to basic comforts, such as foods from home, is not always easy. I was told about the difficulty of finding goat meat, for example—a mainstay in many African, Asian, and Caribbean diets—in a region where only the milk and cheese from the animal are more generally distributed. The same is true for vegetables such as daikon, African eggplant and corn, amaranth greens, and bitter melon, as well as various herbs and flowers.

This was when I first heard about New Farms for New Americans, an organization located on the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington, not far from where I grew up. NFNA has conducted research and worked closely with Somali Bantu, Bhutanese, Burundian, Burmese, and Vietnamese farmers and gardeners, among others, providing education and training for those who may be unaccustomed to growing in Vermont’s climate. (The state has a notoriously short growing season, from late April to early September.) NFNA teaches skills to those interested in venturing into trades in agriculture and maintains a community garden space for refugees and recent immigrants, where they can grow native crops to support their families and friends. I thought that was a wonderful thing, and I felt compelled to visit.

When I contacted NFNA last September, they let me know that their annual harvest festival was coming up and extended an invitation for me to attend with my camera. I visited during the days leading up to the festival to meet and photograph a few of the farmers, as they completed what was likely their last big harvest of the season. The air was beginning to cool and the leaves felt like they could turn at any moment. Though there was often a language barrier, I was met with openness by the farmers I spent time with. On the day of the festival, there were live music, kids’ games, and a delicious, potluck-style spread, much of which was made with ingredients harvested in the days prior. I quickly understood how significant these plots of land are—not just for the sustenance, but for the difference that having such a community has made in growing a feeling of “home.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled the American Guide book. The chapter on agriculture includes a brief visual introduction, featuring a selection of the expected photographs: a cow, a dirt road, a snowy farm, a granite quarry, a local post office. A few pages later, and there again was “Racial Elements,” which ends with a bleak portrait of migrants to the state: “The foreign elements in Vermont have made no appreciable contribution to arts or manners and no changes in the ways of living—or of thinking—of Vermonters.” It was a sentiment that was starkly different from the Vermont that I have known. What would today’s American Guide say? I imagined the new chapters being written for Vermont, and the increasingly diverse new generation that would write it more beautifully.

Shane Lavalette would like to thank AALV and NFNA staff and volunteers, Thato Ratsebe, Alisha Laramee, Ruth Baldast, Edward Lincoln, and the many farmers and gardeners, including Menuka, Khada, Thal, Dirgha, Judith, Pius, Hadija, Dahir, Fardowsa, and Hsara.

Please consider supporting New Farms for New Americans by sponsoring a family with a donation of any size. A $100 donation will sponsor one new family to lease a full plot for the next growing season, and a marigold and zucchini will be planted in your honor.

This story was originally commissioned by Topic.com