Miles Pond, Vermont

North Dakota and Vermont are among the most rural states in the nation. Both are proud of their agricultural heritage. Both value family farms, and have in place mechanisms in law and policy to protect and support farms and small towns. Neither state has been all that successful in that endeavor. With a few exceptions, small towns in both states continue to lose population, schools and businesses. I’ve been visiting Vermont for more than 15 years, since my daughter attended law school there and decided to stay. It’s been fascinating to see the differences and similarities between the Green Mountain State and the Peace Garden State.

Vermont’s dairy farming, once characterized by hundreds of family milk cow farms, today is dominated by a couple of huge co-op processors and several factory farm-type mega-milking operations. There are a few specialty (organic, raw milk, very local) farm-based bottlers. Small-scale grass-fed beef farms have an upscale market, as does organic produce grown year-round in greenhouses and locally raised lamb and turkeys. But those farms are not significant in the overall economy of the state. It’s the stuff of summer and fall farmers markets, which are in nearly every town. Moreover, the small farmers often are part timers who work in town to earn enough to keep the farm going. In North Dakota, we call it hobby farming.

Vermont’s apple orchards feature fall festivals that sell everything from cider to fritters, and coincide with tourism’s fall color season. Some growers sell fruit to local food stores. But orchard agriculture is tourist agriculture. It works well. And no other state is more identified with maple syrup, even though other states produce more and a syrup cartel in nearby Quebec sets the price for Vermont’s commercial producers. Sugaring is both a small-scale tradition and big business.

Vermonters have decided to honor a 300-year-old agriculture heritage by adopting policies and land-use law to underwrite a myth. It’s economic fakery, but it’s political and cultural requisite. It works for them.

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North Dakota’s ag mythology is younger than Vermont’s (less than 150 years old), but is similar in purpose, if not in outcome. North Dakota touts the “family” farm, which under the state’s family farm law is a malleable legal construct. But the cherished law has done nothing to counter economic forces that affect production agriculture of the kind practiced in the Great Plains. Despite decades of noble rhetoric and well-intentioned efforts, there are fewer and fewer successful small farms in North Dakota. Farms get bigger every year. The larger the farms, the fewer people on the land, which means fewer kids in small-town schools and fewer patrons on small-town mainstreets. “Small” does not work for modern production agriculture. Don’t believe it? Look at the statistics. The trends have been steady for years. Farm subsidies, North Dakota’s biggest welfare program, work better for big operators than for “family” farmers. Even the recent record-breaking feeding frenzy at Uncle Sam’s subsidy trough has not slowed the decline of communities that depend primarily on farming. That’s no myth.

The ag sectors of both states are different, as are weather, geography and history — factors that skew comparisons. Also, their politics could not be farther apart. Nonetheless, both states tend to view farming and rural heritage through wooly lenses. Therefore, blue liberal Vermont and red conservative North Dakota spend loads of other people’s money to implement absurd farm policies. Go figure.

Click here for more of Jack Zaleski's columns.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.