A future for working lands: Theory and practice come together at Smokey House Center

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DANBY — An intersection of climate change, land management, rural living and educational opportunity can be found at Smokey House Center.

Most of the 5,000 acres under its management are protected by strict conservation easements that preclude any development. Here, the future of rural communities, best practices for using natural resources to grow food and solutions for mitigating climate change aren't abstract concepts — they are people's jobs.

The land is for more than admiring, said Jesse Pyles, the center's executive director, as students from nearby Currier Memorial School harvested vegetables during a recent visit. Through partnerships with local farmers, the center aims to build interest in growing food and putting it on the kitchen tables of those in need.

Farms on the property include Yoder Farm, which grows fruits, grains and produce and raises chickens, and Dorset Peak Jerseys, a small family dairy farm run by Caleb and Jessie Smith. Yoder Farm, run by Ryan and Rachel Yoder, is a mainstay at local farmers markets, and the Smiths work with the Yoders to manage a self-serve farm stand at the center on Danby Mountain Road.

Smokey House Center also has a 2,000-tap, wood-fired maple sugaring operation, pastures, hayfields, and a honeybee apiary.

"We don't have a manicured network of trails. We have public events and workshops, opportunities to get involved, and invite people to visit the farm stand," said Pyles, a West Virginia transplant to the Green Mountains. "I think big pieces of land like this are going to be increasingly important to the conversation about community viability — especially rural viability, and particularly in the climate context."

Tragedy and an enduring legacy

That big piece of land is what drew a wealthy couple from New York to Danby, a small town astride U.S. Route 7 a short distance north of Dorset — to the creation of Smokey House through a tragic set of circumstances.

A photograph in a 1954 edition of Vermont Life of a farmhouse in a sweeping countryside to the west of Danby was seen by Stephen and Audrey Currier, two wealthy socialites and philanthropists from New York.

A drive from Danby's town center to the farmhouse a few miles away makes it clear why the Curriers were intrigued. As you travel along Danby Hill Road, the rural landscape reveals open farmlands set against dramatic forested ridgelines. From the west, up Danby Mountain Road from Dorset, the view is more wooded. The two roads meet at what is now the Smokey House Center, which the Curriers acquired in 1958, unable to shake the memory of that photograph.

The same year, the Curriers, both heirs to sizable family fortunes, launched the Taconic Foundation, naming it after the range of mountains overlooking their Vermont retreat. Among their acts of local generosity was a gift of $80,000 in 1964 — a substantial sum in those days —to help build a new elementary school for Danby and neighboring Mount Tabor. It's now known as Currier Memorial School.

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In 1967, tragedy struck. The Curriers were on a short, 70-mile flight over the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands when their plane vanished without a trace. It was a stunning and sudden end, and it left the Taconic Foundation and Smokey House facing an uncertain future.

The Taconic Foundation had focused on charitable works in New York City and other urban areas and on the civil rights movement. Smokey House lay somewhat to one side of that purview, but the foundation did put resources and effort into establishing an educational program for urban youth who didn't find the traditional classroom setting a good fit. The youngsters worked the land to acquire the skills, both hard and soft, to prepare for success later in life.

In 1995, the foundation gifted the property to the Smokey House Center. The idea was to preserve the natural landscape and continue the programs for disadvantaged youth.

A changing climate

Curt Rand is the chairman of the center's board of trustees and a forester who began working there as a college student. He has been a board member for over 20 years and his interest in the health of the forest continues as he watches the subtle effects of climate change.

"We're kind of intrigued with the issues of preserving large landscapes and how agriculture and forestry can fit into that," Rand said. "We have a beautiful forest; we are an example of ways to manage land that are pretty low-impact and sensitive."

There is a large conversation within forestry circles about carbon and the ability of forests to store it, Rand said. Forests can serve as "carbon sinks" as carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. It then becomes deposited in forest biomass such as live trees, deadwood and soils. That makes a forest of 5,000 largely unbroken acres a significant resource.

Funding for the educational side of Smokey House's mission became leaner after the Great Recession, and those programs had to be reluctantly scaled back. Still, they remain a part of the mix at Smokey House. It's not unusual to see a group of students or volunteers tending to or harvesting crops, depending on the season. Most of the food grown there is given back to the community through Currier School, the Vermont Foodbank, the Vermont Farmers Food Center and the Community Food Cupboard.

While the forest plays a role in mitigating climate change, another question has arisen: Who will be here to maintain it? Across the nation and especially in Vermont, towns like Danby are struggling to attract and retain residents. Farming, especially dairy agriculture, once the state's signature industry, is not offering the kind of economic return that attracts newcomers, and multigenerational family farms are disappearing.

With winter approaching, the center is getting a little quieter for Pyles and the rest of the staff, but that doesn't mean it shuts down completely until spring planting season. There's some commercial logging on the property, and the maple syrup operation will gear up in a few months. The landscape is as dramatic as ever, with the Taconic Mountains to one side and the westernmost spine of the Green Mountains to the other.

"We count ourselves lucky [to be] stewards of the place," Pyles said.

Andrew McKeever is a freelance writer and the news director of Greater Northshire Access Television.


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