A posting on the Thetford Listserv last Monday announced “that the United Church of Thetford has donated its North Thetford building and land to the Vermont Land Trust and the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. Our expectation is that VLT and NEFOC will bring a new vision and new energy to the property.”
The Vermont Land Trust (VLT) is a well-known organization that has a mission of supporting farmers in buying land at an affordable price so they can run a sustainable business. One of their projects, familiar to Thetford residents, was the conservation of land that became Sweetland Farm just over the border in Norwich. Their action ensured that this most desirable piece of real estate will remain in farming. Another VLT conservation easement keeps Crossroad Farm in Thetford’s Post Mills village as the farm we all know and love so well. The VLT also conserves land, such as prime forests, that have important economic, community, and environmental benefits. Their overarching goal is to improve the health of land, water, and soil.
There’s a third initiative to add to the mix, one that addresses more general issues of land ownership. It is VLT’s intent to help people of color, for whom land ownership has historically been out of reach or denied, to achieve access and ownership of land. VLT has established a Land Sovereignty Fund that was seeded by a large donation from the High Meadows Fund to address racial and ethnic disparities in this area and to nurture justice, equity, and inclusion.
The term land sovereignty encompasses more than mere ownership. It refers to the sense of belonging to the land and is fundamental to many indigenous cultures. In fact, one of VLT’s other initiatives is to clarify the rights of indigenous people to gather, forage, and hold ceremony on conserved land. It is VLT’s goal to transfer money from the Land Sovereignty Fund to organizations led by black and indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC).
One of the first beneficiaries is the Northeast Farmers of Color (NEFOC) Land Trust. VLT is sponsoring NEFOC’s ownership of the former North Thetford Church. NEFOC had its beginnings at a place called Soul Fire Farm that was founded in Grafton, NY, by a Black-Jewish family. They got their start by restoring the soil and putting in farm infrastructure on 80 acres of degraded Mohican land. After four years, in 2010, Soul Fire Farm started its door-to-door delivery of fresh vegetables and eggs to low-income residents. From these beginnings they added farming education and training and became recognized as a force in the growing food sovereignty movement.
Food sovereignty is a concept first framed by the international peasant movement. It places the “aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
Working towards food sovereignty depends on food consumers rethinking how they eat and how they relate to the land and to food providers. At the land level, Soul Fire Farm employs regenerative and ancestral farming practices to rebuild topsoil, sequester soil carbon, and increase biodiversity. It also offers intensive trainings on topics like Farming in Relationship with Earth, Farm-to-Table, Botany, Plant Medicine, and so on.
NEFOC grew out of winter potluck gatherings of graduates of the Soul Fire trainings and other farmers of color seeking mutual support for their various farming ventures. After several years they founded the NEFOC Land Trust whose goal is to enable BIPOC land stewards to attain permanent land tenure. NEFOC has over 380 members. It works all over the northeast and has staff in five different states. The group is currently in conversation with over ten indigenous governments, including the Abenaki and the Nipmuc, because it is a NEFOC principle that land projects require the approval of the original people of that land. So far they have provided various resources to over 30 BIPOC farmers.
VLT initially accepted the North Thetford building, and NEFOC took ownership once it had secured its 501(c)(3) non-profit status. Under its new ownership the building will continue to host the United Church of Thetford congregation for weekly services and the Thetford Elder Network for monthly luncheons. NEFOC has promised to “continue the tradition of maintaining a shared gathering space for North Thetford and the surrounding communities.” They would also like the space to house “events and activities including skill sharing, youth programming, concerts, and performances.” These would include building construction workshops run by Just Construction to train people at all skill levels, in particular groups traditionally excluded from construction activities. And, excitingly for local food producers, NEFOC will pursue a Commercial Use Certification for the kitchen, so that farmers will have a space where they can create value-added products. The kitchen could also be used for workshops on topics like fermentation, food preservation, and cooking as programs to empower youth and to support food sovereignty.
Last but not least, they will establish a library that will loan books, art supplies, and tools to the community under the theme of liberation from oppression. They will also offer space for book groups in support of the Every Town Neighbors Network, a statewide alliance of community members that works towards safe spaces and to counter racism.
Abenakis will have permanent access to the building and its land as part of forging ties between NEFOC and the Abenaki people. BIPOC residents are encouraged to use the space through the NEFOC network and the Vermont Releaf Collective.
We welcome this new energy and vision of community. It promises to enrich and enliven North Thetford while addressing issues of racial equity and justice, food sovereignty, and care of the land with practical and meaningful approaches.