Collaboration Over Competition: Log Lunch with Liz Gleason ’08

On April 28, the Log Lunch community welcomed Liz Gleason ’08 to speak about her work as the director of the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). During her time at Williams, Liz was a cook for Log Lunch herself, as well as a Hopkins Forest Caretaker.

Established in 1987, the VHCB is a public instrumentality of the state, placing it somewhere in between a state institution and a non-profit. It receives both state and federal funding, through grants and budget allocations, and in turn funds on-the-ground housing and conservation initiatives across the state. The intention from the start, Liz said, has been to flip the narrative that pits affordable housing initiatives against land conservation efforts. “Taking care of community members is often seen as the opposite of taking care of the land,” she said, speaking to the animosity that arises when different organizations seeking to use space in different ways are forced to compete for the same money and land.

This interconnected model differs from the approach in many states. A real power dynamic exists between housing and conservation projects, Liz said. Conservation organizations often have access to more philanthropy and wealth, whereas affordable housing organizations are made to feel like people are out to get them. In order to ensure that collaboration is being pursued effectively, the VHCB relies on a wide range of expertise, from community members to state agencies to farmers, and has a system of internal policies to ensure that housing projects and conservation initiatives are pursued in tandem.

On the affordable housing side, the VHCB has helped to develop 15,000 affordable homes across the state, including rentals, farm worker housing, and both single and multiple family homes. The land conservation side ranges from natural areas to small farms to conventional dairy farms.

The Farm and Forest Viability Program that Liz heads provides in-depth business coaching to farmers so that they can become more profitable and pay themselves and their employees adequately, which in turn can help farmers engage in good environmental stewardship.

Although Vermont is a small state, affordable housing and conservation are important issues on the national scale as well. Liz emphasized that the cost to rent or own a house has increased dramatically over recent years, to a level that many people are simply unable to pay. The pandemic has increased these pressures and houselessness has gone up significantly. Furthermore, these issues disproportionately affect BIPOC communities. “We can’t talk about agriculture and affordable housing without talking about institutionalized racism,” Liz said.

In Vermont, she said, these legacies appear in patterns of suburban sprawl and “not-in-my-backyard”-ism in response to affordable housing initiatives.

Climate change is another factor adding urgency to both goals. Ten years ago, the city of Brattleboro was hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene. The river that runs through the city flooded, destroying buildings downtown and part of a mobile home community that was home to a tenth of the city’s population. The VHCB’s projects in the aftermath are planned to include rehabilitating the river, adding all-access trails and a community garden on its bank and relocating part of the mobile home community out of the floodplain.

Other VHCB success stories include Bread and Butter Farm and Pine Island Community Farm. Bread and Butter Farm is located in Shelburne, a wealthy suburb of Burlington. Farmland in the area is disappearing to make room for unaffordable housing development. Several organizations came together to purchase the farmland for Bread and Butter. Pine Island Community Farm is outside of Colchester. A land trust purchased the farmland, which contains important floodplain land. In 2009, Chuda Dhaurali, who spent nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, moved to Vermont and has been with Pine Island since its beginning, serving as the pilot goat farmer.

Liz said that despite these successes, it is easy to get discouraged with the scale of the problems VHCB seeks to address. She believes that it is necessary to take time to engage with these hard feelings as well as to celebrate small victories, and to take care of the people she is working with so that they can keep moving forward.

“When I think about climate change, there are so many ways to find paths not to move forward,” Liz said, whether that’s discouraging certain kinds of farming practices or building projects. “Not that we shouldn’t be making those kinds of calculations, but we’re here and we need to figure out how to make it as good as we can. It’s about approaching it with grace and love.”

The Log Lunch chefs impressed yet again with lo mein, complete with handmade noodles and stir fried vegetables, scallion and garlic mustard pancakes, kimchi with radishes and cabbage, and Hawaiian butter mochi for dessert. The vegetables, including some spring leafy greens at long last, came from local farms, and the garlic mustard, an invasive plant, was foraged from Hopkins Forest.

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.