Leadership in Vermont’s Sustainable Food Movement

Leadership in Vermont’s Sustainable Food Movement

By Judson Peck, M.S. Environmental Policy ’15

Leaders are committed individuals who educate and inspire us to collectively take action to make change. What characteristics define leaders and what skills and strategies do they employ to motivate us to take action? I explored the answers to these and other questions by talking with two prominent leaders within the sustainable food movement in Vermont.

Sustainable agriculture uses farming practices that protect environmental and human health. The vast majority of food grown in the United States depends on toxic chemicals (only 4% of total food sales were organic in 2012) and is transported long distances (over 3,000 miles from farms in California and Mexico to consumers in Vermont). As public awareness of the risks involved with conventional agriculture increases, there is a growing movement to make food production in the U.S. more sustainable, healthy, and local. Much of this push for awareness and change is initiated by people like Ellen and Will.


EK speaking+ copy
Ellen Kahler speaking about VT’s Farm to Plate initiative.

Ellen Kahler is the Executive Director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) in Montpelier, which provides financial and technical assistance, industry development, and network services to catalyze the development of Vermont’s green economy. One of the signature VSJF programs she oversees is the Farm to Plate Initiative, which is a 10-year comprehensive strategic plan to strengthen Vermont’ food system. The statewide initiative aims to increase economic development and jobs in the farm and food sector and improve access to healthy, local food. Ellen manages eight full-time staff and numerous consultants, and provides direction, strategic planning, fundraising and community outreach and interface for the organization.



Will Allen at his farm in East Thetford.

Will Allen is the Farm Manager at Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in East Thetford. The certified organic farm grows healthy, local food and strives to engage the community to develop and share practices that promote sustainable agriculture and good health. Will is a lifelong farmer and activist who was one of the pioneers of organic farming in California. He founded the Sustainable Cotton Project in 1990, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping cotton growers transition to cleaner production (using minimal chemicals) and working with cotton companies to encourage them to purchase and use cleaner cotton in their manufacturing processes. Cotton is one of the most chemical and water intensive crops. Will has also been a pivotal leader in the first-in-the-nation H.112 Bill to label genetically engineered foods in Vermont. The Bill is currently scheduled to take effect July 2016, but is under threat from an ongoing lawsuit from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Industry, and the International Dairy Foods Association.


Who is a leader?

Leadership is not for everyone, so what characteristics define a leader? According to Will, a leader is someone who takes advantage of the situation and seizes the opportunity, which for him, is the essence of having an impact. “It’s how you compose yourself. You can either walk away from a situation or deal with it”—the latter is a leader. Similarly, Ellen explains that the key attributes of a leader are crafting a shared vision (for an organization or movement), developing a roadmap forward, and understanding the role most needed to be played in order to achieve the vision. A leader assesses the situation to determine the type of role and the direction to take, including what course corrections may be needed based on emerging obstacles or opportunities. A leader thus maintains a higher evaluation of the situation and responds with the correct action.

“It’s how you compose yourself. You can either walk away from a situation or deal with it.”

What skills do you use to lead others?

Ellen explains that it is important for leaders to hold a larger view to understand the underlying nature of the system that the movement seeks to change and structure interventions accordingly. Clarity of thought and a clear communication style are also important for leaders to articulate what they see happening and share this assessment with others in order to remain responsive to the changes taking place “on the ground.” It is also crucial that leaders are flexible, adaptive to change, and “comfortable with being uncomfortable” because they are often confronted with obstacles. Ellen notes that a sense of humor helps when dealing with resistance. She adds that leaders must have confidence and trust their intuition. Ellen’s leadership skills have developed with years of experience and training, but she is also just naturally drawn to the bigger picture.


What strategies do you employ to lead others?

education_4_700_500_90_c1 copy
A school tour in a greenhouse at Cedar Circle Farm. www.cedarcirclefarm.org/about/education-center

Will believes in the power of demonstration. For example, the Sustainable Cotton Project organized bus tours to show the public the problem with conventional cotton production—a farm using large amounts of chemicals—and explain the history behind the rise of chemical use. The tour also showcased an alternative—an organic cotton farm—to demonstrate a solution. Will emphasizes that leaders need to have an alternative or solution to the problem. Many people can identify the problem, but not many people can find a viable solution. Similarly, Will co-started Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center to demonstrate the importance of organic, local food production. In addition to growing organic produce, the farm facilitates several school and community vegetable gardens and encourages the public to visit the farm and attend trainings.



How important is information in leading others?


Information, research, and data play a huge part in Will’s effort to lead people. In his recent book, The War On Bugs, Will documents how the media, scientists, and government agencies combined to convince farmers to use chemicals, hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in an effort to increase their profits and control the American farm enterprise. He uses his book to educate the public about the dangers of the U.S.’s toxic chemical-based agriculture system. On a side note, Vermont, New York, and California are the only states that require agrochemical reports that document how much chemicals farmers are applying to their fields.




Will emphasizes that information for a public audience needs to be dramatic. For example, he has hung bags of chemicals next to cotton t-shirts to illustrate that a typical t-shirt (1 lb cotton) uses 1.5 lbs of chemicals to make. Similarly, Cedar Circle Farm places bags of chemicals next to pick-your-own fields to show the amount of chemicals (650-700 lbs of pesticide and fertilizer per acre per year) that would otherwise be used to grow strawberries if they were not organic.


Although Ellen acknowledges that intellectual reasoning and strong communication is important to inform and convince others to follow your cause, she stresses that connecting with people from the heart is integral. Having a likeable personality, happy demeanor, and hopeful outlook attracts people to make such connections. Ellen notes that “there is so much doom and gloom in the world and on the news that when you are working on a project to create an opportunity for a hopeful and much needed positive change to an outdated system, it’s easier to attract others to get involved.” In the case of local/sustainable food, because many people are concerned about where their food comes from, and because it’s such a big part of Vermont’s heritage and identity, it has been pretty easy to engage with a wide range of consumers and food businesses.


How do you overcome resistance?

In her extensive experience as a leader, Ellen has observed that people agree more often than not, and that those who don’t may simply not understand the situation or be influenced by other personal factors. For this reason, it is important to communicate clearly and try to understand the person—where their point of view is coming from and any other factors that may be influencing their stance. It is crucial not to rush to quick judgments about people, but rather, to step back and ask questions to solicit their view in order to reach common ground. Most importantly, leaders need to listen and work to reduce their ego by realizing that leaders are in service to others. The first thing Ellen does when she encounters an obstacle is to step back, listen, and ask questions to address the resistance before continuing forward.

“Leaders are in service to others”

Will, in his involvement with the Vermont GMO labeling initiative, has met and continues to face strong resistance, both from opposing organizations such as the Grocery Manufactures Association (which includes Monsanto, Dow, Coca-Cola, General Mills and many other corporations), but also from those afraid of losing to these large conglomerates (Vermont lost a lawsuit in 1994 brought by GMA and IDFA against the state’s labeling law on the bovine growth hormone rBST). In order to gain support from others, leaders must appeal to the values that resonate with their target audience. For example, drawing on Vermont’s first-in-the-nation leadership on other issues (it was the first state to abolish slavery, legalize gay marriage and ban fracking), Will appeals to both activists and legislators by arguing that Vermont should be the first state to label GMOs.

“You can’t do it all by yourself”


Finally, Will adds that “you can’t do it all by yourself.” A leader must find allies and bring people together, as he did by forming the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition. In addition, finding pivotal people (and funding) and figuring out how to leverage the most pressure is important. For example, the Sustainable Cotton Project gained support from Patagonia and Nike by effectively pitching the contrast between chemical-intensive and organic cotton production.


What inspired you to take on a leadership role?

Will found that there was a vacuum in organic agriculture in the early 90s that needed filling and he rose to the challenge, while other people saw Ellen as a leader and drew her naturally into the role. Whether we rise to a particular challenge or support others who lead the way, those who “put aside the fear of failure … [will] have a powerful impact” (Howard Zinn). For Will, the struggle is as much fun as the victory.

“Put aside the fear of failure… have a powerful impact”

Overall, leaders assess a situation, evaluating it at a systems level, and then take the correct action. They are confident, flexible individuals effective at communicating, adaptive to change, and have a sense of humor in the face of resistance. They are warm, open, positive people who connect with others to unite and collaborate behind a problem … and the solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *