Business & Economy

Strolling of the Heifers organization pauses its operations because of Covid cash crunch

Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers funds a central downtown cornerstone headquarters and nearly $700,000 budget for year-round farm and food programs. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Strolling of the Heifers — a local nonprofit organization whose annual parade funds a central downtown headquarters and nearly $700,000 year-round program budget — is suspending most of its operations as it wrestles with a cash crunch sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before the money runs out, we’re putting everything on pause and reevaluating to see where we can go in the new normal,” founder Orly Munzing said Thursday.

Covid-19 forced the cancellation of this summer’s parade — which normally raises about 65% of the organization’s annual budget — and is threatening to stop the 2021 march.

“We’re not going to create events that will draw crowds and make anyone sick,” Munzing said. “We’re trying to hang in there, but we have to tighten up and conserve what funding we have.”

The nonprofit has let go of its top two paid leaders — an executive director and business incubator manager — but will continue to maintain its Main Street building.

“We’re not closing, we are just suspending our programs to see how we can better manage all this financially,” Munzing said. “We need some time to really evaluate it.”

The organization thought it faced its worst headlines a year ago when nearly a dozen climate change demonstrators, seeking to capture the attention of a crowd of thousands and a live Vermont PBS television audience, blocked the march with a 25-foot-long “Declare Climate Emergency” banner. But that interruption lasted only 15 minutes before police carried off the protesters.

The Strolling of the Heifers has reaped headlines since the first parade in 2002 featured a handful of farmers prodding cows up Main Street, spurring television’s “Good Morning America” and newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times to juxtapose images of Spain’s “Running of the Bulls” with jaywalking Holsteins.

Since then, the event has added several four-season programs supporting agriculture and socioeconomic well-being, including farm-to-table apprenticeships in the fields of baking, butchering and cheese-making and a Windham Grows small business hatchery to help startup and early-stage employers with development support.

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“Our job is to add value to the food that comes out of the earth to make it healthy and make jobs in the community,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at the 2017 kickoff of the latter initiative, which has received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Economic Development Administration.

Strolling of the Heifers purchased the downtown Brattleboro River Garden building in 2013. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

With its 2013 purchase of downtown Brattleboro’s River Garden building as a year-round headquarters, the organization has focused on growing the economy — specifically, agricultural production, processing and distribution that annually have generated $4 billion and 13 percent of all Vermont jobs.

But parade sponsorships have paid for much of the services and staffing. And the nonprofit still holds a $175,000 building mortgage it took over from what’s now the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance after that group couldn’t afford the upkeep.

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Kevin O'Connor

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