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The brand called Vermont

How the Green Mountain state cornered the market on purity

IN THE FALL OF 2000, a federal judge sentenced one Mr. Lyman Jenkins, president of Vermont Country Maple Inc., to 46 months in prison and awarded $342,624 in damages to his victims. His crime? Twenty felony counts of mail, wire, and tax fraud in a scheme to adulterate pure maple syrup with cheap cane and beet sugar.

Jenkins was not the first to run afoul of Vermont's government-enforced standards. Kingsey Cheese of Vermont, Vermont Maple Orchards, and Snow River Products LLC have all been slapped with fines for falsely implying their products were made in Vermont. And if the state's attorney general gets his way, Rule CF 120 governing "Representations of Vermont Origin" will soon be signed into law, giving the name "Vermont" something akin to trademark status.

Some might accuse our northern neighbors of having control issues. But according to state officials, the name Vermont has real value. A product labeled "Made in Vermont" -- whether herb-infused maple syrup, pineapple pepper jam, or chai water buffalo yogurt -- is worth 10 percent more than the same product made elsewhere. And though you can't eat him for breakfast quite yet, Howard Dean is also benefiting from the Vermont name, spinning homespun value to a national market hungry for a candidate who is, well, unadulterated.

t's not surprising that the good doctor's perceived goodness floats atop a current of Green Mountain air. "People think of Vermont as a clean state, an honest state, a state with a certain amount of integrity," says Marsha Phillips, president of the Vermont Specialty Foods Association. But just how did Vermont earn a reputation as the land of fresh food and healthy living when nearly 50 percent of its World War II draftees failed the Army physical? Why do flatlanders continue to perceive the state as a dairy paradise even as plunging milk prices have driven more than half the state's dairy farmers out of business since 1982?

The answer depends on who you ask. An aging hippie communard will say it's the organic ideology. The Vermont Land Trust will cite Act 250, the first statewide land-use law in America, which has saved open space even as development encroaches. The authors of "Out! The Vermont Secession Book" and "Real Vermonters Don't Milk Goats" would assert that Vermont never officially joined the Union anyway.

But whether you're a hardscrabble dairy farmer or a countercultural back-to-the-lander, chances are, if you're making food in Vermont, you've benefited from a state government that has doggedly sworn to brand and protect.

. . .

There would be no place called Vermont had the state's founders not aggressively trademarked early on. New Hampshire and New York each saw the tract of land between them as a natural extension of their own territories. But Vermont's rebel leader, Ethan Allen, thought otherwise. In the confusion preceding 1776, Colonel Allen and his Green Mountain Boys waged a guerrilla war with both New York and England before finally forming an alliance with Washington (the person, not the place). The alliance was based on the understanding that Washington would arrange for Vermont to become a state should the Colonial rebellion succeed.

Allen, however, seems to have interpreted the word "state" rather broadly. Throughout the Revolution, he toyed with establishing Vermont as a sovereign nation, coining Vermont money, raising a Vermont army, and entering into "international" negotiations with the British. Though Allen never completed his nation-building project, he made a proclamation that remains an underground state motto: "I am resolutely determined to defend the independence of Vermont as Congress are that of the United States, and rather than fail, will retire with the hardy Green Mountain Boys into the desolate caverns of the mountains, and wage war with human nature at large."

After the Revolution, Allen, along with his land-speculator brother, Ira, and the rest of the boys, came down from the desolate caverns and set about the business of selling off Vermont to people from Boston and Connecticut. Thomas Rowley, known informally as "the poet of the Green Mountain Boys," helped develop some of the state's first marketing with poems like "To Rutland Go": "West of the Mountain Green,/Lies Rutland fair,/The best that e'er was seen/For soil and air. . .."

By 1800 thousands were moving to the nation's 14th state. But instead of "kind Zephyr's pleasant breeze," settlers found raging blizzards, hungry catamounts, and impenetrable forests. They also found unprecedented numbers of a rough-barked deciduous tree that would generate Vermont's first and most important specialty product.

. . .

Flanked by bottles and cans of maple syrup, stacks of maple candy, jars of maple spread, and a machine popping maple kettle corn, seventh-generation maple grower Burr Morse served up a maple ice cream cone at his maple store outside Montpelier last month and declared with warm maple sincerity, "Ben and Jerry's would have never developed the hype that it did had it not been for people recognizing Vermont maple."

It's understandable that Morse should feel a little undervalued. Whereas Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield went national in less than a decade, hyping maple took over 200 years. In the process of building its business, the maple industry created a model of collaboration between government and private industry and nurtured a feel-good image that would form the basis of Vermont's $800 million specialty foods industry.

Like all Vermont specialty products to follow, maple sugar arose as a side business, meant to carry farmers over in times when commodities like wheat, wool, and milk went bust. But maple also put a positive ethical spin on the state. Early on, Thomas Jefferson praised maple as a kinder, gentler sweetener. "What a blessing," he wrote, "to substitute sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which is said renders the slavery of blacks necessary." Later, abolitionists promoted the use of maple sugar as a humane stand-in for Southern cane.

But these efforts didn't amount to much. Just as with wool and wheat, Vermonters found that their sugar couldn't compete in the larger American commodities market. Production of crystallized sugar slowed and syrup eventually became a more common way of expressing maple.

The state government, however, was eager to support the syrup business. In 1893, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association was formed "to protect the manufacturer and consumer from the many fraudulent preparations that are placed upon the markets of this country." The Association created different grades of syrup and helped the state draft the precursor of today's "maple law," which stipulated penalties for those who "adulterate maple syrup with bees' honey, with cane sugar, glucose, or with any substance whatever."

Later, maple picked up the endorsement of the influential pacifist and radical economist Scott Nearing, who had moved from New York to a homestead on Stratton Mountain during the Depression after his political views sank his academic career. In "The Maple Sugar Book" (1950), Nearing and his partner, Helen, praised subsistence farming as a way of escaping the "corrupt, ruthless policemanized concentration camps" of the cities. Maple syrup, especially in artsy-crafty bottles, was a source of cash income "beyond the reach of the privateers who were operating big business."

Their followup book, "Living the Good Life" (1954), would eventually help spur the hippie back-to-the-land invasion of the 1960s and `70s, which reversed a decades-long trend of farm abandonment and population decline. In addition to tapping their maple trees, the communards sought advice from native Vermonters on the creation of a range of traditional foodstuffs -- traditions that often morphed into contemporary gourmet foods. "Their kids didn't want to hear the old stories about making cheese and sap beer but we did," a commune member named Veranda Porche told the Rutland Herald in 1983. "We ate that stuff up."

Though the merger between the old hardscrabble culture and the new earthy, crunchy ethic did not always take, maple's homespun image did. "It goes right down to the lithographs painted on the can," says Steve R. Kerr, Vermont's secretary of agriculture, referring to the classic aluminum jug with snow scenes. "The sugarmakers copyrighted the lithograph eons ago to control the graphics on what is otherwise a pretty boring metal can. But that's the Yankee side of us. . .. The litho gives it so much character and so much class."

. . .

But while Vermont's specialty food makers may be sailing on a river of syrup, its dairy farmers -- who account for 80 percent of the state's agricultural revenues -- are drowning in an ocean of milk. Massive swings in milk prices over the last 30 years, exacerbated recently by the collapse of the Northeast Dairy Compact, have prompted numerous schemes to protect and diversify the land and the brand.

In Montpelier, the Vermont Land Trust is using state laws to buy off development rights and stem the disappearance of family farms. Farther south in Woodstock, David Muller has imported a herd of mozzarella-producing water buffalo with a million-dollar loan from the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Over in Howard Dean's adopted hometown of Shelburne, Jamie Miller serves as treasurer of a state-sponsored Cheese Council and teaches the fine art of controlled milk spoilage to visitors from around the world.

As State Archivist Gregory Sanford notes in Joe Sherman's contemporary history of Vermont "Fast Lane on a Dirt Road," the helping hand of state paternalism began long ago. "One of the great mystiques of Vermont is that here is a loosely knit central government overseeing a series of independent fiefdoms," he said. "The reality is something completely different. By the 1890s, Vermont is in the vanguard of centralized government."

Indeed, even as the Maple Growers Association and the state were collaborating on the maple law, Montpelier was stepping in to prop up ailing family farms by cultivating what one official called "the crop from the city" -- tourists. In the 1890s, the Board of Agriculture began producing scores of promotional brochures with titles like "Vermont, its Fertile Farms and Summer Homes."

Vacation stays at Vermont farms helped increase yearly tourist visits to over 50,000 by the early 1900s, although the reality at pastoral B&Bs often fell short of expectation. As Jan Albers writes in her book "Hands on the Land," "Vermont families were not much into healthy food. They liked anything, as long as it was fried. The boarders wanted roast chicken, but the family liked fried pork. . .. A dessert of fresh-picked berries with cream might be nice, so the dried prune pie came as something of a shock." The Board of Agriculture responded by sending out instructions to farm wives on the proper feeding of city guests.

. . .

Today, the state's $10.5 million-a-year agritourism industry is fueled by such state-sponsored programs as the Vermont Fresh Network, which links farmers and restaurants, and a "Buy Local" campaign that the Agricultural Agency plugs on the radio all day long. And then there are the secondary effects of the Vermont Seal of Quality, affixed to everything from bacon to beer. Before 1982, the seal was just a standard agricultural inspection stamp. But that year, in response to the glutted milk market, the seal was upgraded to an attractive green label that could brand products with a trademark as memorable as the Land O' Lakes Indian maiden.

With the label in place, Jerry Kelly, Vermont's director of agricultural development, started inviting producers to participate in out-of-state trade shows, including the first state pavilion at the New York Gourmet Food show in 1984. The exhibition was written up in The New York Times, and Bloomingdale's invited the state to showcase a display of Vermont products. It was a short road from there to Moon Over Vermont Rainforest Dog Biscuits, KC Kritters Goat Milk Brie, and the rest. Vermont's branding success has even led other states like Maine and Virginia to grab for their own slice of the organic three-berry rhubarb crumble.

It remains to be seen whether Montpelier's efforts to promote Vermont's homey rural heritage will produce the intended effect on Vermont itself. Farms are still failing, developers are still building, and free-falling milk prices threaten to undermine the entire rural economy. But thanks to Vermont's marketing efforts, the number of specialty foods has ballooned from seven to more than 200 in the last 20 years, as both local startups and national corporations jumped on the bandwagon.

For some of the carpetbaggers, says Marsha Phillips, the goal is simply "to get branded and get into the Whole Foods and Bread & Circuses of the world." Some companies, like Green Mountain Salsa and Green Mountain Coffee, though based in Vermont, fail to use any local ingredients in their products at all. But for the moment they can rest easy. Vermont has yet to trademark the mountains.

Paul Greenberg is author of the novel "Leaving Katya." His fiction also appears in the new anthology "Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier" (Justin, Charles & Co.).

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