Power, Politics, and Farming: Planting Social Justice from the Soil Up

an interview with Heather Surprenant of Moonlighting Farm

by Nina Gaby

“Let’s change what it means to be a politician, let’s change what farming looks like.”

~Heather Surprenant

In collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, and Vermont Public Radio, the Rural Life Survey launched “This Land,” a project focusing on individual stories, illustrating the unique challenges and successes of rural life in Vermont. Among these challenges, responders were queried about quality of community, access to food, the farming industry, satisfaction with elected representatives and concerns about attrition of young Vermonters.

I wanted to discuss these challenges with Heather Surprenant, who, in full disclosure, I have known since she was in Junior High with my daughter.

Surprenant was one of those young Vermonters who left the state but then returned and, in 2019, started an organic farm in Barnard, Vermont where she also works at the General Store.

And where she has staged a run for the Vermont House of Representatives as the only farmer and among just a handful of women.

In August, she won the primary for her district. Who better to ask about why farming, why politics, why come back to this small and somewhat isolating state where so many of her peers have left?

Representation is important. “I look at farming as an act of social justice,” writes Surprenant on social media. “We heal the earth, we nourish bodies, we create inclusive and supportive communities. Farming is powerful, political.”

Vermont has seen the decline of the farming industry, once ubiquitous to the image of the state. And to compound the agricultural crisis, the state is “graying,” which means the agricultural industry risks further losses as young people are leaving, not returning, and the family farms have no one to take over.

So where are the solutions and who represents change?

Surprenant is 29 now, and has owned Moonlighting Farm for the past year. I was thrilled to see her. We met in the small apartment she shares with her business partner, Nick, just above one of the farm’s garages attached to the home of the owner of the land. From the window we can see the pasture and woods farther off where Surprenant’s three goats, seven chickens, and her baby dairy cow, Marlo, congregate with other cows owned by the farmer from whom Moonlighting rents land.

The owner is a beef farmer who leases to Moonlighting, an older man, past normal retirement age, whose children do not want to farm. The arrangement benefits all involved, as Surprenant explains below. A small barn next to where we parked our car houses an ancient horse, “Aribet,” who has lived on the farm for 39 years.  The gardens where Surprenant grows organic produce for local markets and CSA members are found on a rise behind the house.  

In between updates and a little gossip, I began to ask questions.

So how did you choose the name for your farm?

“Ha,” Surprenant looks around the small kitchen. “Our farm is named ‘Moonlighting Farm,’ because both my partner and I work second (and third) jobs in order to sustain our primary love, our farm.”

How did you go about starting the farm? How might others do the same?

“Well, that’s a super hard question to answer. Access to land, especially for young folks, those within the BIPOC community and women is particularly challenging. It’s expensive and very rarely do you make enough money to sustain yourself. So the odds are pretty stacked against you when you are just starting. I live and farm on a much larger and established beef and hay farm. I lease land from the older farmer who is also looking for younger farmers to keep his land in agriculture. It’s a blending of generations. An older farmer passing the torch to the new generation of soil loving youths just hoping to live a life in intention. We need more organizations that connect younger farmers with affordable land and farming opportunities.”

When you were young, what did you think you would do when you grew up?

“Honestly, I thought I’d be a human rights lawyer. Farming doesn’t feel too far removed from that now.”

Are there things in your earlier life that shaped your decision?

“I grew up in rural Vermont surrounded by farms, but I always thought I would leave and do something ‘bigger.’ But after living in San Francisco and farming for a couple years after college, I realized that my desire to do something bigger was deeply connected with my desire to have a positive impact on my community back home in Vermont. Farming here has felt like the most beautiful way to honor our rural traditions while simultaneously breathing to life and energy into the Ag community.”

She stops to reflect on what brought her here. A graduate of Smith College in Political Science, Surprenant does not feel that her education is at all at odds with her goals as a farmer or as a politician. Surprenant learned farming “the old fashioned way” at the Farm and Wilderness program in Plymouth, Vermont, where she was a farm apprentice for two years, also working there as an assistant manager. She has a breeding certificate from Vermont Technical College and attends the NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farm Association of Vermont) conference annually. She views farming from a systems perspective, as she does most things.

“I see the movement of young farmers towards whole systems, more diversified systems. Failing farms only produce one thing. Newer approaches can do more on less land, and can eventually make a profit.”

Now, more than ever, the food supply challenges during this pandemic have shown us how vulnerable we are to forces outside our communities, be they regulatory or workforce related. What are your thoughts on this as a local farmer?

“You know, I’ve been thinking about this question with a much more critical lens lately. In the early stages of the pandemic, folks flocked to grocery stores, stockpiling everything they could. The impact that style of ‘panic buying’ had on supermarkets was huge and they simply could not keep up with the demand. It took seeing empty shelves for some folks to really think about where their food comes from and the fact that it’s shipped from thousands of miles away, means that it isn’t as readily available for consumers.

Not to mention, you’re raising that carbon footprint every time you purchase a head of lettuce in Vermont that was grown in California. I think what’s been a positive byproduct of this health crisis is folks are not only supporting local farms and farmers, but that they are realizing the importance of eating nutrient dense food and food grown within their community. Farmers have always been here, but now we are gaining that visibility.

As a young farmer, I believe that farming is an act of social justice. Farming intersects with food accessibility, climate change, affordability, the local economy and health. The sooner more people realize this, the sooner we can begin really healing the parts of our communities that are in need.”

Your website explains a lot of how you feel about community and the social justice aspects of raising food and being a part of an innovative landscape. What are some of the other pieces of this that you may not have had space for on the website?

“Food isn’t optional. We all know that. But to take that even further we need to unpack the politics that are interwoven with food justice. First, access to fresh produce is not equitable in our country. Urban landscapes and extremely poor rural communities are often disproportionately lacking in adequate grocery stores, and additionally are often unable to afford the food that we know is important for our bodies. Diet is so connected to our health and a person’s income should not determine whether they can access the food they need to be healthy.

In terms of the way we farm in this country, I believe we need a complete restructuring of our current agricultural model. We focus on three Monocrops: corn, wheat and soy. These three ‘foods’ are in almost everything we consume yet they offer very little nutritional value and are often grown in ways that perpetuate climate change by eliminating beneficial insect populations, soil erosion and compaction, lack of diversity and the spraying of herbicides and pesticides are damaging to our health and the health of surrounding plants animals and insects. We need to increase the number of small, diverse and sustainable farms because I truly believe this is how we can handle the climate crisis.”

People are hungry; we are seeing cars lined up for miles waiting for food. We see crops being overturned and milk thrown out, animals put down. How does the new agriculture fit into this scenario?

“This is where farms need to be connected with organizations and folks within their communities that work towards shifting that surplus to areas where people are in need. We should not have food insecurity while simultaneously wasting thousands of pounds of food. It’s a matter of scale to me. Smaller farms means they can meet the demands of their local communities and the risk of waste is much less. What the government needs to do is purchase the surplus so the farmers don’t crash, and work to redistribute that food to areas that are known as ‘food deserts.’”

I’ve heard these small farms referred to as “hobby” farms. Can small farms become a serious economic force and can an independent farmer make a living? What are the things you would need in place for all this to happen?

“Yes! Absolutely. And in fact, they are already a serious economic force. We just need people to realize the importance of supporting local. It’s a greater cultural mindset that we need to shift and educate folks on the importance of small-scale Ag.”

We see a lot of psycho-social issues in our little state, many related to mental health. The student run Northern Vermont University news site, describes an alarming trend. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmers are responsible for more suicides than any other occupation with a rate twice as high as that of military veterans. While suicides tend to increase during times of economic strife, these statistics prove it is time for industry to get creative to save dairy farmers and their farms.” How do these concerns affect you and your farming community?

“I am not growing on the scale or size that many of these farmers are who are impacted so severely in times of economic downturn. Additionally, I don’t have just one crop or product that I am producing and that changes things. If someone doesn’t want to buy my broccoli, that’s okay, because I’ve got thirty-seven other crops that they might buy. If people aren’t buying your milk and you’re a dairy farmer, that’s your entire livelihood. That is devastating for the farmers who have made this their lives work, who are up at 3 am milking and again at 4 pm, working round the clock with very little financial gain. If you are feeding people, you should not be food insecure yourself. You should not risk poverty to farm and that’s where a cultural shift needs to happen.

Farmers are valuable! We need to treat them that way.”

Do you have a community of like-minded folks that learn from each other or were you kind of alone in this project?

“My little community is full of forward thinking gems who are passionate about sustainable agriculture! There are a surprising number of folks under 35 who are seeking that ‘back to the land’ lifestyle and it’s really cool to watch that unfold. It’s why I moved back to Vermont. People are moving here to pursue that lifestyle and I’m excited to see how the movement grows.”

As Surprenant unfolds her campaign for a House seat in the Windsor district, she speaks about the “politics of expensive food” and is well aware that “quality doesn’t eliminate poverty.” Good food is expensive, and in a state where more than twenty percent of the population is food insecure and food costs are among the highest in the nation, that matters to her as a politician as well.

Changing what a farmer looks like is a goal for Surprenant. At present, there is only one other farmer in Vermont’s State House. Having past experience working with non-profits, Surprenant hopes to utilize those skills to engage and listen to small business owners, which includes the new farming community. Bringing individual concerns to the State House can hopefully make changes across the board, bringing together the food insecure with people that might be able to creatively feed them while also diversifying land use and insuring environmental survival.

Please read more about Surprenant on Facebook at Heather4VTHouse.