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Opinion: Mutual Aid? 

Poli Psy

By now, most readers of Seven Days must know that the barn at Pete's Greens in Craftsbury burned to the ground on the frigid night of January 12, taking with it all the farm's packing and storage equipment, and a quarter-million dollars' worth of produce and meat. The barn itself was insured for only three-quarters of its value, the food not at all. At least for the moment, Pete Johnson has lost the farm.

Support from all over Vermont materialized immediately, from the jug of small-change donations on the checkout counter at Buffalo Mountain Co-op to the Bid for the Barn online auction that last week raised almost $65,000 on hundreds of contributed products and services, among them a handspun alpaca hat from Common Crook Farm, a family consultation from Mad River Valley Counseling and a lobster dinner from Stowe Seafood. The solidarity — and the breadth — of Vermont's small-business community is impressive to behold.

In a commentary on Vermont Public Radio, food writer Marialisa Calta asked whether the absence of Pete's Greens would make a difference in the bigger scheme of things. "Does it really matter," she asked, "that patrons of high-end restaurants won't be dining on Johnson's braised fennel this season? Or that members of his CSA will have to survive without deliveries of nitrate-free bacon?"

She answered her question with a hearty yes, cataloging the trickle-down effects of the farm's wholesale business, its Good Eats CSA and its charitable contributions: $100,000 of food purchased each winter from other local producers for the CSA; dozens of Vermont restaurants whose reputations are built on serving local organic foods; 35,000 pounds of produce donated annually to the Vermont Food Bank; 11 wintertime employees whom Calta assumed would be furloughed.

Pete's Greens is a major player in the local economy, or a certain gentrified segment thereof, and that economy is bereaved until the enterprise sends up new shoots and is reborn.

I, too, extend my fervent wishes to Johnson for a fast recovery. After all, he isn't only a respected leader of Vermont's localvore agriculture movement. He's a neighbor and a member of a well-known and beloved family in these parts. His brother, Andrew, an Olympian Nordic skier, and sisters, landscaper Anners and floral designer Danika, are just as ambitious, industrious and charming. The community mourned the too-early death of their mother, Nancy, not long ago.

It is hard to separate Pete's Greens from Pete Johnson himself. That's a good thing about local business: It has a face, someone to be held accountable — or to help in an emergency. That personal connection also makes it easier to forgive a mistake, even if it might affect your own livelihood, and underinsurance to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars is one big business blunder. After all, Pete's Greens is no ConAgra, but neither is it a struggling family farm. The food community is showing admirable goodwill.

It was in the light of these events — the flaming barn, the glowing response — that I watched with dismay as that other Pete, Vermont's new Democratic Gov. Shumlin, outlined his proposed state budget last week. The governor's principal plan for filling the $176 million budget gap is to toss in the splinters hacked off the state-funded agencies that serve the mentally ill, the elderly and others in need; he's also shaving the state's commitment to local public schools.

Just like Pete Johnson's catastrophe, these losses bite into the rest of the economy and leave individuals hurting. Service reductions will put the most vulnerable out in the cold, and nonprofits will have to pick up the pieces. School boards will choose between laying off staff and burdening their towns with higher property taxes. Government workers will have less to spend downtown — for instance, on meals at localvore restaurants. They've already agreed to a two-year, 3 percent wage cut.

You might say all this pain results not so much from what Shumlin is doing as from what he isn't doing, and which he promised not to do during his campaign: raise taxes. He's holding to this despite an unforeseen source of revenue revealed by Public Assets Institute a few days before the budget address: a $190 million windfall for the state's wealthiest 5 percent, thanks to Washington's extension of the Bush tax cuts. According to PAI president Paul Cillo (full disclosure: my domestic partner), "Those who are prospering the most in the current economy could close the state's entire budget gap, and still pay less in state and federal income taxes than they would have if the Bush tax cuts had expired as scheduled." They'd have a few bucks left over to buy their season ski passes, too.

Shumlin said his proposal is "in keeping with the long tradition of frugality and common sense that is the lifeblood of Vermonters."

Well, yes and no. Vermonters, as evidenced by the Pete's Greens story, also have a long tradition of mutual aid.

I don't know what Shumlin's own deepest values are, but, sadly, his budget reflects Vermonters' changing beliefs and feelings. The change didn't just happen this year or last; it's been pushed for several decades by antigovernment rhetoric from the right.

Coupled with the flak government has been catching are the kudos lavished on business. A majority of Americans now believe that the private sector creates wealth and the public sector squanders it. With this formula in voters' heads, policymakers are loath to tax anyone, and they're especially disinclined to discomfit business or the people who benefit most from their success. This is an oversimplification, but when politicians have to make "the tough choices," the friendlier the state is to business, the less friendly it must be to the rest of us, taxpayers and service users all.

The recently published Pulse of Vermont survey, which is taken every five years by the Vermont Business Roundtable, provides some indications of these changing values and loyalties. Respondents show declining trust in Montpelier and a weakening support for public schools; they are warier of their neighbors, and feel more strongly that they need to look out for themselves and their families first. Lower-income people are the least trusting. They should be. They've been screwed. The sorry part is that they see the government and other less-fortunate people as their screwers.

The survey uncovered some other interesting attitudes. Asked what parts of life in Vermont they felt were most threatened, for the first time respondents put the safety of the food supply, and family farms and local agriculture at the top of the list; educational opportunity fell way down.

Why these changes of heart, these new worries? For one, as I've said, since the last survey was taken five years ago, Vermonters have listened nonstop to their previous governor blaming greedy teachers and state workers for the mess the state is in. Meanwhile, farmers have gained cachet. With more organic farms, more food consciousness and more farmers markets, people have gotten to know and like their local growers. And — no small thing — the agripreneurs have been doing some brilliant marketing.

The survey respondents who "had the highest confidence in many of the state's central institutions" were the "most secure financially." They were also the "most committed to life in Vermont." I have a feeling these people make up the lion's share of donors to Pete's Greens. Who but an extremely financially secure person could afford a $200 bowl of onion soup at Hen of the Wood to benefit a barn?

I'm not suggesting that local agriculture is a luxury and public schools a necessity. And I'm not arguing that nonprofit clinics should be supported and private enterprises left on their own when disaster strikes. Pete Johnson is important to Vermont's economy and its community life. But equally important is the kindergarten teacher and the town clerk and the guy who plows the roads. Equally important are the workers who don't own companies and the nonprofits that, beyond fulfilling their missions, provide good jobs.

No doubt, it feels better to give voluntarily to the handsome fellow who grows your spinach than to be compelled to pay taxes to benefit a surly runaway teen or buy a box of Xerox paper for some bureaucratic office. But government provides mutual aid, too. And when the state cuts $4 of services for every dollar it raises in revenue — Vermont's record in recent years, according to PAI — that's not very mutual.

I've been thinking of making lapel pins that say "Raise My Taxes." I invite those financially secure folks to show their commitment to Vermont by joining me in putting one on. And the legislature should muster the courage to take our advice.

Please, keep helping the Pete Johnsons when their barns burn down. But Vermont and the nation are burning, too, and it's time we all carried water to put the fires out.

Poli Psy

"Poli Psy" is a bimonthly column by ?Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.


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