’89ers Rob and Kate Williams raise yaks, but that’s just a piece of the plan

Rob and Kate Williams, both Class of 1989, at Steadfast Farm, home of the Vermont Yak Company. They co-own the company with two other couples.
Rob and Kate Williams, both Class of 1989, at Steadfast Farm, home of the Vermont Yak Company. They co-own the company with two other couples.
Jim Westphalen

If you find yourself driving on Route 100, up through the lovely, winding Mad River Valley of central Vermont, slow down just as you pass the village of Waitsfield and pay close attention to the left side of the road. You’re looking for an old white farmhouse, with a big red barn and outbuildings —  

the sort of small family farm that once thrived all over the state but now survives, more often than not, as a weekend retreat for wealthy Bostonians or New Yorkers. You’ll know it’s the right place when you spot those big hairy animals clustered out beyond the barn or grazing on the hill behind it. There’s no mistaking yaks: In their long shaggy coats, they look like hippie cows.

This is Steadfast Farm, home of the Vermont Yak Company and “the only working yak herd in New England,” as Rob Williams ’89 likes to put it. Williams and his wife, Kate ’89, are co-owners of Vermont Yak, in partnership with two other local couples. The Williamses first got interested in these hairy beasts a few years ago while in Montana visiting Kate’s brother, who uses yaks to guard the sheep on his ranch. Yaks come from the Himalayas, but there are now some 5,000 in the United States, living almost exclusively in the north because their heavy coats make heat intolerable.

Out in Montana, Kate and Rob tried yak meat; not only did they find it tasty, their children did, too. They had been thinking about raising animals for some time, and now they recalled the old dairy farm, less than a mile from home, that had not been worked for 20 years. An idea to bring the old farm back to life began to take shape.

In the year since Williams and a friend drove out to Minnesota and picked up the 24 yaks that would start the herd — it’s now 32 animals — Rob has become something of an expert on all things yak. The six owners of the Vermont Yak Company divide business responsibilities according to their fields of expertise. Kate, who has an M.B.A., keeps the books and corresponds with other yak owners around the country — yakkers, as they call themselves — while Rob, who teaches media studies at Champlain College in Burlington, handles marketing and public relations, which means, among other things, maintaining an ever-growing repertoire of yak facts and corny yak jokes. Such as: What’s that bovine tune the Rolling Stones do? Jumpin’ Yak Flash. And: Can you pass me that bovine love potion? Oh, you mean the aphrodisi-yak?

And here’s an intriguing yak fact: Yaks do not have upper teeth. To prove this, Rob encourages a visitor to extend his hand to one of the hairy beasts. The yak sucks it eagerly, then pulls away, leaving a trail of silvery slime looped from yak lip to glistening human hand. Yuk.  

Jim Westphalen

The yaks don’t know it, but they are part of a much larger plan. Williams is a leader in the Vermont secessionist movement, which is itself part of a broader, national movement promoting “re-localization” — the idea of building societies based on local goods and energy, and developing local government and culture.

Secession has a long and mixed history in this country, the very founding of which, if you think about it, was an act of secession. Secessionists today have a wide range of grievances, often involving federal spending and taxation. Williams, like a lot of people who think along these lines, believes we must confront a litany of planetary crises, but that the United States is just too big and unwieldy to do that effectively. “Never before has the world had to confront the issue of global peak oil or of climate change,” he says. “I think the key to managing those challenges is re-localizing and decentralizing.”

Williams edits a newspaper called Vermont Commons, which explores political, economic, and cultural issues related to secessionism. (The paper comes out six times a year and has a circulation of about 12,000.) He believes that the United States “is no longer a functioning republic for so many different reasons: It’s way too centralized; it’s way too corrupt in terms of the way the political process does or doesn’t work.” What really got his attention, he says, was the “systematic suppression” of votes in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But he is quick to point out that talk of secession is not merely a sign of his dissatisfaction with the Bush policies of the last eight years, though legislation like the Patriot Act does not please him. “The U.S. empire is essentially ungovernable,” he says. “The problems we’re confronting are well beyond the scope of one person or one party or one platform to fix.” Though he speaks admiringly of President Barack Obama’s talents, last November, for the first time, Williams did not vote for president as a matter of principle, explaining that he was loath to validate the national government. (He does vote in state and local elections.)

It comes as a shock the first time you hear someone utter the words “U.S. empire,” especially when he does so in as calm a voice as the one Williams uses. Far from ranting, he maintains his end of what he calls “this conversation” with equanimity and plenty of examples from history. “I think Rob likes listening as much as he likes talking,” says Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist who also lives in central Vermont and sympathizes with many of Williams’ ideas, though he says he does not believe in secession. In McKibben’s eyes, Williams — younger and more media-savvy than most activists who have led the discussion in the past — has given the Vermont movement a much-needed jolt of legitimacy.

“The Vermont secessionist movement, to the extent there is one, has been regarded as mostly kooky and fringe, full of people who like to dress up as Ethan Allen and issue manifestos,” says McKibben. “Rob has actually performed the very useful service of providing a bridge between that [crackpot fringe] and the more conventional world. ... I think he’s way more interested in actual physical questions about food and energy and money than about overheated rhetoric.” Since Vermonters seem willing to give Obama a chance to address their concerns — he got 67 percent of the vote, higher than in any state except Hawaii — Williams now sees his role as one of keeping the conversation alive.

Williams has always been an independent thinker, says his wife. The couple began dating as Princeton seniors and got married in 1992. They spent most of the 1990s in New Mexico, where both taught at a private school in Albuquerque and Rob earned a Ph.D. in history. By the time they moved to Vermont, in 2001, they had a new baby, Anneka, who’s now 9, and a son, Theron, on the way. Kate had a job with the Trust for Public Land, and they were feeling their way as new parents in a new state.

Vermont, they discovered, was far more complicated than its popular image might suggest. “People have Vermont pegged as a granola-eating, Volvo-driving, Howard Dean-shouting blue state, but it’s not,” Rob Williams says. “Vermont is one of the most interesting states in the country, politically.” He notes that Vermont has civil unions — in April, the state Legislature authorized gay marriage — and “you don’t need a permit to carry a weapon.” And if it’s hard to pigeonhole Vermont, it’s nearly impossible to do that with Williams. In addition to teaching college courses on media criticism and media history, he works with a Vermont-based nonprofit that brings together people from trouble spots around the world for discussion and socializing, writes about the arts for a local paper, and sings and plays guitar in a folk-rock band that works the après-ski scene in central Vermont. The band’s name is Phineas Gage, after a freakishly lucky Vermonter of the mid-19th century who not only survived having a large iron rod dynamited up through his brain but actually lived 10 more years, long enough to profit from it on the freak-show circuit.

Kate is a member of Waitsfield’s select board — the first woman to hold that position in her town. “She and four old guys run the town,” chuckles Rob, who was just elected to another three-year term on the school board. By day, she now works as executive director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a nonprofit that oversees a waterway running 740 miles through four states and Quebec.

Kate agrees almost completely with the localization part of her husband’s argument, and would be happy if the couple grew more of their own food. She says she does not agree with secessionism, though she wonders whether people could “consider bio-regional organizing and have a conversation where you invite people in to create something completely new.”

This is an idea her husband is willing to consider. “A lot of us like the idea of what we call ‘New Acadia,’” he says. “Take the upper part of New England and the Canadian Maritimes.”

Jim Westphalen

Vermonters, both rich and poor, yuppies and “greennecks,” tend to be live-and-let-live types. They also have a long tradition of independent thinking, and, as in the past, town councils — and there are 260-plus towns — play the primary role in governing. From 1777 through 1791, the state functioned as an independent republic (hence the name “Second Vermont Republic” for the current secessionist movement). Williams points admiringly to that early republic’s constitution, which enshrined holding private property as a right but, he says, “also gave elected officials the power with just compensation to reclaim it if the public cause justifies it. To me, that tension between private property and the commons is at the heart of this whole question of independence.”

As Williams likes to point out, “the American Revolution was won with just 25 percent of the population supporting it.” If they work hard enough, Williams believes, a committed minority of people can win over the majority. For now, though, while many Vermonters seem ready to embrace re-localization and energy independence as worthy goals, a clear majority rejects taking that final step of secession. Lately polls have shown that about 12 percent of Vermonters favor secession — up from 8 percent in 2006. Vermont isn’t the only state to have a secessionist movement — there are similar groups of varying size and fervor all over the country.

Paul Gillies, a Montpelier lawyer who has worked in Vermont state government for decades, does not expect to see an independent Vermont in his lifetime. “Not a chance,” Gillies says. “But I celebrate the idea because it’s a classic Vermont thing to feel as though you’re special and don’t even have to be part of anything but yourself. When it comes down to being practical, it’s an economically unfeasible idea. It’s based on a historical misunderstanding about how we came to be a state. But at this point we’re still in the isn’t-it-charming stage.”

Of course, secessionist movements in the United States have been linked to slavery and racism — a fact that came home to Williams when he spent a few months as acting chairman of the Second Vermont Republic. On its Web site, the Vermont group had linked to the site of another group, the League of the South, which publicly has disavowed racism but stresses its Anglo-Celtic roots in a way that makes a reasonable person assume there’s a subtext. The link has been removed, and Williams told one interviewer, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “I have absolutely no interest, nor does Vermont Commons, in partnering with or publishing the ideas of known racist groups.” Still, some of Williams’ more vocal critics fault him for being too willing to pick and choose only those parts of the secessionist message he likes.  

What would an independent Vermont look like? What issues would it tackle? Williams believes that Vermonters would not only pay lower taxes, but they’d also have more say in how their money gets spent. Specifically, Williams points to control over Vermont Yankee, the big nuclear power plant on the state’s southeastern border, and to car emissions, which are regulated federally, not state by state. “Right now the courts have ruled that Vermont and other states don’t have the right to regulate that,” he says.

In May, Williams took part in the first-ever retreat to discuss building a Vermont independence platform, which considered policies relating to media, energy, and agriculture. Williams, for one, is convinced that an independent Vermont would have a lot to offer the world. “People hear secession and they say, ‘So you want to build a wall around Vermont ... . ’ No, that’s not what we want to do. We want to engage the world on our own terms as citizens of this sovereign state, not as part of this 300-million-person empire.”

Here is where the yaks come in.  

Rob Williams believes they, too, have a role to play in making Vermont more independent: As he says on the Vermont Yak Company Web site, yaks offer a way “to bring new variety to the local food movement,” to contribute to “a holistic farming effort in which pasture-fed yaks would fertilize fields and gardens,” and to bring in revenue through meat, agritourism, and breeding.

There is tremendous irony in promoting local self-reliance by importing Asian animals by way of Minnesota. But to hear Williams describe them, there is no downside to raising yaks in Vermont. “They really are the perfect Vermont bovines, for a whole bunch of different reasons,” he says. “They love the cold, and here in Vermont half the year is cold. Their meat is incredibly tasty as well as incredibly healthy. It’s got one-sixth the fat and 40 percent more protein [than beef].” Yaks are slightly smaller than a typical American cow, and are more efficient grazers. “Three or four yaks can graze the same amount as a single cow,” says Rob. “So if you are on 20 acres, you can actually increase your productivity without beating up on the land.”

What’s not to like? Well, one of the yaks did give everyone a scare by tossing 7-year-old Theron over his head. And because the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies yaks as exotic animals, more paperwork and fees are involved than there would be with plain old cattle. Though he does not wish to antagonize Vermont’s cattle farmers, Williams wonders if yaks won’t prove to be the perfect way to revitalize the state’s old farms.

“My vision is to see yaks across the state someday,” he says.  

Or, as the jokester in him puts it, it’s yak to the future.

Freelance writer Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.