What’s Beneath Vermont’s Pretty Leaves?
Inside the Green Mountain State’s battle to copyright its hippy, crunchy image
In the fall of the year 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.
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.
“People think of Vermont as a clean state, an honest state, a state with a certain amount of integrity,” said Marsha Phillips a few years ago, then 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.