“I think that what people enjoy about the Upper Valley is that it’s kind of a unique combination of major employers … as well as a wide variety of smaller businesses and
then the very rural character,” describes Allison Rogers Furbish, communications and database manager for Vital Communities (VC).
VC is a nonprofit based in White River Junction, Vermont, that takes a regional approach to improving and enhancing the quality of life in the Upper Valley by engaging with communities. In other parts of the country, regional collaboration is common, especially where county governments are the norm. But in New England, things are often more isolated.
This could be especially true in the Upper Valley, a bi-state region that blends towns from both Vermont and New Hampshire. But its people have taken a different approach.
“I grew up in New Hampshire, but I feel that Vermont is just as much my home,” says Furbish, who has spent the last decade working across the river.
“We live in sort of a bi-state way, and it’s challenging to address issues in a bi-state way,” she admits.
There are different laws in place, different funding systems and sometimes different priorities.
A regional approach
VC’s executive director, Tom Roberts, notes that while a regional approach brings more unique perspectives together, resulting in better solutions, “it can be challenging to engage people … because of everything from geographic distance to people’s busy schedules.”
However, since VC’s inception, the vision has been to overcome those challenges to address regional issues that matter.
“The more connected we are with our neighbors — and maybe especially with those who seem different from ourselves — the stronger our communities will be,” says Roberts.
For instance, through VC’s close work with local farmers, as well as other stakeholders in the agricultural community, the nonprofit has identified some urgent challenges, such as how to feasibly create and sell value-added products year-round. VC recently held a community meeting to discuss possible solutions, including the formation of a shared hub for agricultural businesses.
“That’s one way in which we’re bringing people together to try to figure out what could exist in this region,” notes Furbish.
Promoting local foods
Sustaining the Upper Valley’s working landscape is a concern for many because as Roberts explains, it “helps preserve our regional heritage and the physical beauty and rural character.”
That’s why VC has launched a farm jobs directory and the CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program, which gives beginning farmers the opportunity to learn from experienced ones.
VC’s Local First Alliance also helps by encouraging a “buy local” mindset to build the Upper Valley’s economy and sustain the businesses its people love. Members of the alliance benefit from collective marketing, access to low-cost or free educational events, and “Business of the Month” showcase opportunities.
Earlier this year, Local First featured Trail Break taps + tacos, a recent addition to White River Junction that’s been shaking things up with its menu of tasty brews and “crave-worthy” eats. For a newly-opened restaurant, being highlighted by the alliance has been a nice little boost.
Furbish says that when it comes to determining what kind of impact VC’s work is having, “the results often feel difficult to measure. They’re very often long-term.” But after more than two decades, the organization’s influence on the Upper Valley’s vibrancy has become more tangible.
Back in the day, farmers’ markets weren’t a thing in the region.
But, Furbish says, “Now there’s a farmers’ market in every town, including my little town of Canaan, New Hampshire.”
While VC can’t take sole credit, the organization has certainly been instrumental in that kind of growth.
“The work we do, over time, has helped shift thinking and the ability people have to put some of those local values into action,” says Furbish.
Last year, VC was excited to help the region’s young people start that kind of thinking early by bringing POP (Power of Produce) Clubs to New Hampshire farmers’ markets, with a particular focus on areas with a high rate of EBT card usage. The club provides fun activities for kids, like interviewing farmers to find out what time they wake up in the morning or finding all the vegetables of a particular color at the market.
The kids meet farmers, build new connections and learn about new foods. They even get a little bit of money to spend, which is doubled if their family is shopping with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefits.
Last season, nearly 300 children participated, and VC is looking forward to offering the program again this year.
“We built a lot of new relationships while doing that work, so that will enable us to bring even more of our work to those communities,” says Furbish.
Many of those same folks will likely be enticed by one of VC’s most popular events, the Flavors of the Valley Food Expo, which will take place on April 8 this year. From maple cotton candy to homemade crepes, artisanal cheeses to decadent baked goods, the expo is the ultimate showcase of the Upper Valley’s local food scene (details at http://vitalcommunities.org/valleyfoodfarm/flavors).
“One of the favorite booths is the Piermont Plant Pantry where they hand out little violas. It makes everybody think spring,” says Furbish.
More local solutions: transportation, energy, leadership
While agriculture and a strong local food economy are key to the Upper Valley’s culture, VC also focuses on other facets that play into the region’s sustainability, including transportation, energy and leadership development.
“People have been turning to more local solutions because that’s where they feel like they can make a meaningful difference,” says Roberts.
Right now VC is in the midst of a big push to get people signed up for their Weatherize program, a new take on the highly successful Solarize program they ran several years ago. As a result of Solarize, VC was able to more than double the number of solar installations in 24 towns in the Upper Valley during a two-year period.
Furbish says Solarize “not only helped individuals try to live their values but also helped to boost our local economy.”
With Weatherize, VC is partnering with local contractors to offer energy audits to people who sign up by March 31. While these audits typically cost hundreds of dollars, VC’s goal is to mitigate that overwhelming expense so people can make informed decisions about energy improvements for their homes. More details about the program can be found on VC’s website.
Another initiative the organization is focused on this spring is their Leadership Development Program, which helps VC ensure the Upper Valley will have a vibrant future.
“Rather than being focused on building hard leadership skills, it’s really about building knowledge about the Upper Valley and resources here,” Furbish says of the program.
It’s a 10-month commitment for participants, who come together monthly to dig into a specific topic, such as health and human services or arts and the creative economy.
“It’s a really cool program that truly does inspire people to take new steps in their careers and for their communities,” notes Furbish.
VC is recruiting this year’s Leadership Development participants through June 1; more information is available on the website at www.vitalcommunities.org.