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Orly Munzing and Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers

Condensed from “Orly Munzing and Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers” by Joyce Marcel, published originally in Vermont Business Magazine in June, 2015.

How it began

[Stroll founder Orly] Munzing’s Dummerston home abuts the Dwight Miller and Sons Orchard. Their neighbor, the late farmer Dwight R. Miller, Jr. (1924-2008), was the inspiration for the Stroll.

Miller’s roots were deep in the Dummerston soil. His family were among the original settlers of the town and he was the sixth generation to farm on the same land. He was well-known throughout the state for his strong support for local agriculture.

“I miss him,” Munzing said. “He was my little window into real Vermont. I was intrigued by him. I loved his Vermont twang and his no-nonsense approach to farming. I loved talking to him.”

One day the Munzings were walking on the trails which abut Miller’s land.

“I see him and his workers in the apple orchards next to the blueberry fields,” Munzing said. I said to Dwight, ‘We enjoy all this. What can we do?’ I expected him to give me some shears and a rake. He says, ‘Oh, you want to help? You’ve got to start telling your friends, they need to start supporting local farmers. You like what you see here? You won’t see this in 10 years if you don’t support local farms.’”

Munzing began studying Vermont farming.

“I realized we needed to do something because Dwight was right,” she said. “I thought I could have a conference. But then I’d be preaching to the converted. Then a lightbulb went off. What do we have in Brattleboro? The Holstein Association! And I remembered when I was about 19, hearing about the running of the bulls at Pamplona. So I connected the two. We should do the female-friendly version: the walking of the cows.”

Her merchant neighbors thought it was a brilliant idea. And to make it more whimsical, it should be cows strolling, not walking.

“Then I was walking one day and Dwight passed me and stopped his truck,” Munzing said. “I told him my idea. He drives all the way to the sheep house, comes to a screeching stop, gets out of his truck and shouts, ‘Orly, this is the best thing I’ve heard since Old Mother’s apple pie!’”

After that things happened fast. Miller went to the breakfast meeting of a newly formed downtown merchants’ group, Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB).

“As people were leaving, ‘Dwight said, ‘Everybody stop!’” Munzing said. “He had such a booming voice that everybody stopped. And he told them the idea. And the Brattleboro Reformer was there, and they ran a three-line paragraph about the idea. Then the Associated Press picked it up and it went around the world. Suddenly all these reporters were calling. I said to Dwight, ‘What did you tell them?” And he said, ‘We’re having the parade in June.’ So this was 2001, and the first parade was in 2002.”

The focus was changed from a simple parade to supporting local agriculture.  Soon Munzing was on “Good Morning America” and talking to The Boston Globe.  The first parade attracted about 10,000 people and was a huge success.

The future

Despite all the new ideas and projects buzzing around the River Garden, Munzing is also thinking about retiring and spending more time with her grandchildren.

“I’m seriously thinking of succession,” Munzing said. “Not that Martin or I am going to just leave. But we want to get younger people in. So we’re looking. I would like to serve in some capacity, but if some whippersnapper comes along and says they don’t want me here, than good.”

Looking back on her accomplishments, Munzing sounds amazed. “Way back in 2002, a group of volunteers put together the first Strolling of the Heifers Parade, along with a small dairy festival on the Brattleboro Common,” Munzing said. “It was a modest effort, but attendance and national publicity vastly exceeded our expectations. We knew that we had a good idea that helped celebrate and support local farmers, but we wanted to create and be known for something that was more than simply an annual festival.”

So the Stroll developed farm-to-school programs, micro-loans to farmers and the Slow Living Summit. It won some of the competitive Vermont Yankee money. It created the business plan competition. It bought the River Garden. Now there’s this new apprenticeship program and the possibility of a think tank.

“The original one-day festival grew into a full weekend with multiple events attracting up to 50,000 people,” Munzing said. “The original Dairy Festival is now the Slow Living Expo and spreads over 11 acres with more than 200 vendors. Phew! This doesn’t sound like Slow Living? But it is. The point of Slow Living is not to do less, or to do things more slowly — it’s to do everything mindfully, with the good of the community, the bio-region and the planet in mind. There is a saying, ‘Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.’ That embodies both a sense of urgency and a sense of mindfulness. It’s what we strive for and hope to encourage, through Stroll Weekend and all our year-round events and programs.”