Vermont Commons: Good-Bye to Rural Vermont’s Exceptional Leader, Amy Shollenberger

Something that comes as a surprise to many people when they start getting interested in local foods is the state and federal barriers that prevent Vermonters from becoming less dependent on the industrial food system. Even more shocking is the fact that many Vermont laws around food are much stricter than those at the federal level.

Five years ago, when we moved to Vermont, you couldn’t buy chicken raised and slaughtered on a local farm at the farmers’ market, and it certainly couldn’t be served in a restaurant. Finding farm-fresh raw milk was nearly impossible since the farms couldn’t advertise, and when you did find a farm that sold it chances were that you would have a hard time getting any of the measly 25 quarts a day that the farms were allowed to sell. Few people other than organic farmers knew about harmful effects of GMO crops in our state, and growing hemp – an eco-friendly food and fiber crop – was illegal.

But the tide is turning, and while many people and organizations have been a part of these regulatory changes, Rural Vermont, under the leadership of Amy Shollenberger, has been a consistent force in every one of these agricultural victories.

In the four years that I have been involved with Rural Vermont I have admired how Amy has taken an organization that operates on a shoestring budget and built a strong and committed board of directors, a legion of volunteers who stuff envelopes, host ice cream socials and man tables at farmers’ markets and events, and a loyal army of activists who stoke the fires under our legislators. Amy will give all of the credit for Rural Vermont successes to these groups, but none of it would have been possible without Amy’s inspiring leadership.

Amy would probably flunk the test of what we have traditionally considered a “good leader.” In the 20th century leadership became synonymous with being tough-minded, managing through layers of bureaucracy, and maintaining an aura of superiority. A Barack Obama-era leader, by contrast, is inclusive, makes the best use of people’s strengths, and inspires everyone to work as a team, achieving results that would be impossible for rugged individuals to attain. This perfectly describes Amy’s leadership style.

But Amy is also a lobbyist, and that same leadership style that brings out the best in the Rural Vermont membership has proven to be very effective with legislators as well. Many state representatives and senators will tell you that Amy is the best lobbyist at the Statehouse. Along with the Rural Vermont board, Amy sets goals at the beginning of the legislative session and then develops a carefully crafted strategy for working through the system to achieve those goals. The strategy always includes creating awareness and educating legislators about the issues important to Rural Vermont members, connecting the issues to real people, often farmers or consumers who tell their stories at hearings and in op-ed columns. And then there are the all-important phone calls, e-mails, and handwritten notes that Amy has taught all of us are so important in helping lawmakers form opinions about controversial issues. Amy works tirelessly during the legislative session spending long days and nights in the Statehouse, sometimes waiting for hours just to catch a representative in-between meetings to gain support for one of the bills Rural Vermont is behind.

On July 1, 2009, Amy will be leaving Rural Vermont to start her own consulting business. This plan has been in the works for a couple of years. Amy is leaving the organization stronger than it has ever been, and while the next executive director of Rural Vermont has some big shoes to fill, the right person will find a turn-key operation that is (as its website says): “Vermont’s community of family farmers, neighbors and citizens committed to supporting and cultivating a vital and healthy rural economy and community. We believe family farms and the local food that they provide are at the heart of thriving communities and environmental sustainability. Economic justice for family farmers is the foundation of a healthy rural economy. Towards this end we strive for fair prices for farmers and we work to counter corporate consolidation of agriculture and the food supply.”

I am sad that Amy is leaving Rural Vermont, happy for her new venture, and a bit apprehensive about the future of local food advocacy in Vermont. But change is good, and whoever steps in to fill Amy’s shoes will surely be a different leader than Amy, but there is no reason he or she can’t be equally effective. Most important for the future viability of Rural Vermont is a strong membership, and that is something that each and every one of us can help guarantee by becoming members and getting involved. Any time that you are willing to give to the organization will be gratefully appreciated, and if everyone in the state who cares about strengthening our local food system gave just one hour a month, the organization would be unstoppable even without Amy.

Best wishes, Amy, and thank you for all you have done for Vermont family farms and those who benefit from their products. Robin McDermott is a co-founder of the Mad River Valley Localvore Project. She and her husband, Ray, operate their business, QualityTrainingPortal, from their home in Waitsfield, where they also grow much of their own food. This article originally appeared in Vermont Commons in 2009.