David Zuckerman: A life of politics and produce

Courtesy photo

David Zuckerman and his wife Rachel Nevitt on their Hinesburg farm during a double rainbow.

Editor’s note: Contributor Phyl Newbeck meets and writes about the people who call Shelburne, Charlotte and Hinesburg home. This is her 300th Notable Neighbor feature for The Citizen and the Shelburne News.

It was his childhood summers in rural western Virginia that instilled a love of farming and the outdoors in David Zuckerman, and those experiences are part of the reason he chose Hinesburg as his home.

Vermont’s lieutenant governor was born and raised in Brookline, Mass., but every summer he spent eight to ten weeks at a homestead off a series of dirt roads along the side of a mountain. Although he shudders today to think of the chemicals his mother used to grow crops, the experience did spark his interest in fresh food.

Another inspiring life experience occurred the summer before Zuckerman started college, when he took a National Outdoor Leadership School kayaking course on Prince Edward Sound in Alaska just a few months after the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil. The trip was almost called off, but organizers adjusted the route. Zuckerman was able to witness glaciers calving and get a glimpse of the Alaskan wilderness, but he also saw firsthand the effects of the environmental disaster.

As a student at the University of Vermont, Zuckerman initially chose to major in chemistry with the hope of following in the footsteps of his late father and becoming a doctor. His minor was environmental studies. As he began to explore that field, he became active in a number of student organizations and found that he wasn’t devoting sufficient energy to his studies.

In the middle of his sophomore year, Zuckerman took a year off to work and then hike the Appalachian Trail in an effort to decide what direction he wanted to follow. Upon his return to UVM, he switched his major and minor, and spent subsequent summers in various outdoor pursuits including one season as a student conservation associate at Olympic National Park in Washington.

He was offered a full ranger position for the following year but felt that his studies had already been interrupted once. He turned down the position and spent the summer farming. That helped propel him towards a career in agriculture and in 1999, he started Full Moon Farm in the Intervale.

While Zuckerman was exploring farming as a career, another profession called to him. For years he had been cynical about electoral politics due to the influence of corporate financing. But in 1992, he volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ congressional campaign, attracted by Sanders’ focus on issues.

From there, Zuckerman went on to volunteer on other local campaigns.

In the summer of 1994, he was still a student at UVM when he was asked to run for the Vermont House of Representatives. “I was tremendously flattered and foolishly said yes,” Zuckerman recalled.

He helped register more than 1,000 voters but lost a six-way race for a two-person seat by 59 votes. “It was a tremendous learning experience,” he said.

Two years later, Zuckerman ran again and became the fourth member of the Progressive Party to serve in the State House. He stayed in the House for seven terms – 14 years – followed by two terms in the State Senate. In 2016 he was elected lieutenant governor.

Now 46, Zuckerman’s farming career has grown alongside his political one. After nine years in the Intervale, he and his wife picked a plot of land in Hinesburg where he could add organic meat to his vegetable production.

In 2007, complications raised by the illness of Zuckerman’s father-in-law led to a restricted crop. One last year at the Intervale was followed in 2009 by an incredibly wet season in Hinesburg, raising additional challenges.

“It’s still a struggle,” Zuckerman said.

Time spent in Montpelier means he is unable to work as much as he would like at the farm.

This year, Full Moon Farm has created a more flexible community-supported agriculture program. With five different locations, the CSA offers customers the option to prepay and then choose the produce they would like to purchase, rather than be given a mixture of products.

Zuckerman’s partner in life and on the farm is his wife, Rachel Nevitt, whom he met through housemates in the contra dance community. They have been together for 18 years and have a 12-year-old daughter.

Full Moon Farm has three year-round employees and eight to ten seasonal workers.

For many people, the mention of Zuckerman brings to mind his iconic ponytail – a hairstyle he has had since college. What many people don’t know is that around 2008, Zuckerman shaved his head as a part of a fundraiser for local nonprofits. Fellow legislators, lobbyists and Statehouse staff pledged money for each inch that was cut. That severe haircut resulted in $5,000 being distributed to four community service programs helping youth across the state.

Zuckerman says his present role as lieutenant governor is a switch because he is less involved with policy now than when he served in the Legislature.

“I can express policy viewpoints with my soapbox,” he said, “but most of the time that’s not what my role is.”

Still, Zuckerman said he enjoys the job in part because it allows him to travel the state and see different communities. “I like hearing people’s stories and learning about their needs and concerns,” he said. “I get to see if government is working or not working for them.”

Zuckerman said he sees his role almost as an ambassador for the state, as he learns about how people interact with state government.

“It’s an amazing honor and responsibility,” he said. “If I can provide a positive experience for someone, that gives me a wonderful day to come home from.”

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