Man of the land: Baird feels his roots in Rutland County

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/23/10] 

Farmers have a certain temperament — apragmatic patience and straightforward manner grounded in reality, honed in the fields and applied to their everyday lives. They possess a strong respect for the land and a commitment to community — an acknowledgement that we’re all in this together.

Wouldn’t it be nice if these people were in charge?

This fall, Chittenden farmer Bob Baird thought the same thing when he threw his hat into the ring to run for state senator for Rutland County.

Baird Farm has been in operation since 1918 when Baird’s grandparents started it as a dairy.

In 1980, Bob Baird and his wife Bonnie took over the farm from his father. He suspended the dairy operation in 1996, focusing instead on raising heifers and producing maple syrup, the latter of which has become a big business (Baird notes that sales for November were up 30 percent from last year).

On the farm, Baird and his wife, along with two part-time employees, work on the daily operations of maintaining the heifers and, when in season, farming the syrup.

According to Baird, those daily chores have changed a great deal since he was a young boy working in the fields.

“It used to be all hand labor,” he said. “It’s become more automated so it’s not as grueling physically.”

But while technology may have eased the burden of certain tasks, Baird is quick to note that the farming lifestyle is no less demanding; tending to the herd and keeping up the land is more than a full-time job.

Yet somehow Baird has managed to find time to work outside the farm. For 11 years, he worked for the Vermont Land Trust as its Southern Vermont Agriculture Director, dealing with farmland access. (He has also sat on Shelburne Farms’ board of directors for the last 15 years.)

Indeed, land conservation is an important and personal issue for Baird. As development began to transform parts of Chittenden and surrounding communities into Rutland exurbs, Baird watched his grandmother’s family’s land get sold off and divided.

“It influenced me to get involved,” he said, adding that he has “a real attachment to the land” on which he has grown up and made a living.

Baird has since successfully conserved his family’s land, keeping it part of the working landscape and preventing it from being developed.

In Vermont, it’s not uncommon to see farmers cross over into politics. Legislators grapple with a number of issues like food safety regulations and land use that have a direct impact on the agricultural community.

The seed of Baird’s recent foray into politics was planted long ago and has been germinating for some time. In addition to his work with the Land Trust, Baird has also served on the Chittenden Select Board.

In the 1960s, he took part in the first Green Up Day, and campaigned for the 1971 improved legislation of bottles, which led to the enactment of the state’s longstanding Beverage Container Law.

“I had always been interested, and I just reached a point where I thought I should give it a try,” Baird said.

While the bid was ultimately unsuccessful, Baird views the experience as a positive one.

“The process was not as bad as I thought it’d be,” he said with a laugh. “I really enjoyed it.”

Yet despite his enjoyment, he is uncertain if he’d try it again.

“If I felt reasonably confident the outcome would be different, I’d consider it,” he said, noting that it was a “lot of time to commit.”

Almost two months after the election, Baird is still getting caught up, but he now has enough distance from the experience to be reflective.

“I learned a tremendous amount about myself, politics and the county,” he said.

For one, he learned how to be a bit more of an extravert.

“You have to get comfortable introducing yourself to people who don’t want to meet you,” Baird said.

Through those types of interactions, which Baird noted could range from pleasant to angry to surreal, he learned a lot about Rutland County and what makes it tick.

“There’s good energy around the county,” he said, acknowledging how much has changed and noting the way forward for the county is to “focus not on what used to work, but what will work.”

In hindsight, Baird is pleased with the campaign he ran.

If he were to do it again, he’d want to introduce himself to as many people as possible in the county. In smaller towns like Poultney where people were able to get to know Baird one-on-one, he fared well. Rutland, however, was a harder nut to crack.

Another observation Baird made was the division along party lines; conversations with some people shut down as soon as they learned Baird was running as a Democrat.

But Baird is no ideologue, and reveals that he is not entirely comfortable labeling himself, noting that the issues we are facing transcend party.

“We share the same concerns and interests,” he said.

One of those concerns is making sure Rutland County is well represented, and that means working together.

“We don’t have power like Chittenden County does,” he said. “We need to make sure Rutland gets its share.”

Looking around the county, Baird is especially buoyed by the resurgence of local farms. “It’s very exciting — there’s tremendous potential here,” he said.

“Vermont needs to let agriculture go where it goes,” he said, noting that non-dairy farming is the fastest growing sector of agriculture in the state.

He looks to communities like Hardwick as examples of the transformative power of local food, pointing out that the need to both supply food for the local community and export to markets around the country.

Locally, he speaks warmly of the work being done by the Rutland Area Farm and food Link and applauds Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras’ repeated assertion that agriculture can be part of the city’s economic engine moving forward.

As Baird catches his breath in the wake of a very hectic fall, he hopes to turn his attention back to the farm as well as take some time to relax cross-country skiing, traveling and, this summer, possibly hiking the Long Trail.

Through it all, he has maintained that farmer’s patience, groundedness and good sense that we need more of in politics.

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