Energy & Environment

A birthday on Earth Day: The life and legacy of Shelburne Farms’ Marshall Webb

Family and friends of Marshall Webb, co-founder of today’s Shelburne Farms, look forward to preserving his legacy of environmental stewardship. Photo courtesy of Shelburne Farms

A co-founder and sustainability leader of the nonprofit that owns and operates Shelburne Farms passed away Thursday — but those close to him are focused on the legacy he left behind. 

Marshall Webb died in a drowning induced by a heart attack, Webb’s brother, Alec Webb, told VTDigger, citing an autopsy from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Marshall Webb had been boating and swimming with his grandchildren when the heart attack occurred. 

“It's part of the life cycle, and Marshall was certainly into that. He definitely saw death as part of life,” Alec Webb said. “Being close to farming and forestry, you grow trees and you harvest trees. He died, I think, feeling good about his life because he was in a place he loved with people he loved. He was a lucky guy.” 

Marshall Webb was born in 1948 on April 22 — which years later would be designated as Earth Day. Since he started helping his father with “chores” at age 3, he wore many hats at the farm over the years. He was most recently Shelburne Farms’ Carbon Drawdown Coordinator, aiming to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the farm’s operation. 

Having been a field hand, a milker and a sawyer among many other things, and as someone who dedicated his life and career to the outdoors and to sustainability efforts, Marshall Webb’s birthday was quite fitting, according to his brother, who believes he died with gratitude for the life that he had.  

Marshall Webb co-founded the educational nonprofit organization in 1972 alongside Alec and the other Webb siblings of their generation, rather than selling the land, so as to utilize their family farm as an educational resource. The siblings grew up on what was then a family dairy farm, learning to drive tractors from an age when their feet could just reach the pedals, according to Alec Webb. 

Since the inception of the nonprofit, Shelburne Farms has become a landmark in Vermont. The Webb siblings founded the nonprofit while in their teenage years and early 20s. Coming out of the sociopolitical climate of the 1960s, they were all concerned with being stewards of the environment, Alec Webb said. 

“The first Earth Day was 1970, so that was kind of the context that we were growing up in,” he said. “The ’60s was kind of a time of rebellion. We wanted this place to not be about the past, but to be about the future, and to not be about one family, but to be about a much larger community.” 

Marshall Webb had a deep passion for sequestering carbon, reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency, utilizing renewable resources and being a good steward of the land. A few sources and techniques he engaged with most heavily being biochar and silvopasture

His career laid much of the groundwork for combating climate change at a local scale, in providing sustainable infrastructure needed to enable future generations to utilize the trails and farm, his brother said. He remembers his brother as kind, caring, positive, trustworthy, warm and full of integrity. 

“If you were interviewing him, he wouldn't take credit,” Alec Webb said. “It's hard to describe but he was kind of the mission-culture keeper for this organization.” 

Bob Kinzel, Marshall Webb’s close friend since they were 12 years old, agreed that Webb was incredibly generous and never wanted to make anything about himself. Kinzel, a veteran journalist with Vermont Public, said his late friend was always finding optimism and immense joy in the little, simple things in life, especially in relation to his deep-rooted respect for nature. 

“We could be walking in the woodlands and he could see a tree that he'd say, ‘Boy, I've lived here for decades, and I've never seen that tree before, and God that's a beautiful tree,’” Kinzel said. “He just maintained a sort of youthful energy, even as he became an adult. I mean, we would still do goofy things together.” 

Kinzel said he and Webb could do something as simple and youthful as toss a baseball around and be very content. Regarding Webb’s career, Kinzel described the decision to create the nonprofit as having an enormous “rippling effect,” in Shelburne, throughout Chittenden County and the broader state as a whole. 

Kinzel was at Shelburne Farms in recent days and was in awe at the number of people he saw using the walking trails and staying at the inn. He also noted the educational programs the farm offered.

“It's really sort of a crown jewel,” he said. “I mean, what they have built there is just absolutely incredible and it all started with this amazing gift of the legacy of the farm.” 

Though Webb’s family members describe him as being highly connected to a sense of place within Shelburne Farms, the work itself has often had broader implications.

“Shelburne Farms is one of the most remarkable places in the state of Vermont, and it's a true treasure,” said Ben Doyle, president of Preservation Trust of Vermont. “Marshall and Alec were so key in both setting a vision for that property and realizing it, and in doing so, they set a standard for what's possible in preservation, and also making a property sustainable for the future.” 

Marshall Webb’s wife, Kate, spoke of her late husband as “a man with no enemies,” and someone who embodied the mission of Shelburne Farms, with a professional and personal life aligned closely with practices that promoted a sustainable future for the planet. 

“He knew that access to environmental beauty has a therapeutic effect, and perhaps this access could make us better, kinder, more considerate people,” Kate Webb, a state representative since 2009, told VTDigger in a statement. “He wanted it shared, not walled off.” 

Chuck Ross, chair of the Farm Council and former chair of the nonprofit’s board, remembers Marshall Webb as someone with “always a smile on his face.” 

This spring, Ross and Webb went for a long walk in the woods at Shelburne Farms to talk about climate change in relation to the future of the farm and what needs to be done, Ross said. 

“We're much more than we would have been without him. He has left an enduring imprint on many, many, many people,” he said. “Those people are hard to lose, and he's going to be a significant loss. But I also like to think of things in terms of what someone leaves and he has left many, many gifts.” 

In addition to his sustainability work, Webb spent lots of time in his life developing the system of walking trails at Shelburne Farms. 

“He would come home and be so happy that there were so many people out enjoying the walking trails and beauty,” Kate Webb said in her statement. “He was the Lorax who spoke for the trees. He was the ambassador of fun. He was the love of my life.” 

One of Marshall Webb’s most pressing projects at the time of his death was to achieve the farm’s Project Drawdown goals by his 80th birthday. In his honor, Alec Webb told VTDigger, Shelburne Farms hopes to stick to that timeframe: Earth Day of 2028.

His burial took place Tuesday. The family is planning a celebration of life ceremony for the broader community to come together in his memory in the near future.

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: isabella.ruehsen@uvm.edu

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