After the drive up yesterday from New York to Burlington, today I have had an amazing day touring farms and finding out more about the Vermont Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and the work that they do under their Farming and Climate Change program. The project co-ordinator Joshua Falkener was incredibly kind and took me out to meet 4 different farmers, as well as a quick stop in at the Vermont Farm Show, so all in all its been pretty busy.
The mission of the farming and climate change program is to:
1) provide technical assistance to farmers, agricultural service providers, and policy-makers regarding sustainable strategies for adapting to, and mitigating the impact of, climate change, and
2) seek innovative and effective research-based solutions to climate-related challenges facing the region’s agriculture.
To meet that mission, we strive to provide educational opportunities and consultation to producers and other stakeholders, be a resource hub and knowledge outlet for research-based information, work closely with state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations, and perform relevant applied research.
Current research topics of particular interest include:
- Increasing resiliency of farming systems to moisture extremes
- Reducing soil and nutrient loss during intense storms
- Reducing negative impacts of flooding in farmed floodplain/riparian areas
- Subsurface drainage management and its impact on flooding and water quality
- Distributed on-farm watershed storage approaches for flood and drought risk mitigation
- Innovative uses of various biomass materials for livestock heavy-use areas
It soon became pretty clear that water management in one form or another was a big concern for farmers. What was also interesting to find out, is that as well as being a big dairy area, Vermont also has a growing local food movement, connecting consumers with the farmers, makes Cheddar Cheese, runs great Community Supported Agriculture projects and has the highest percentage of organic dairy farms of all the states in the US. As well as the local food opportunities, Vermont’s location allows it access to a lot of urban affluent populations including Boston and New York, making the prospect of adding value, or producing something with a ‘story to sell’ a good business proposition.
The first farm that we went to see was a community supported agriculture scheme producing organic vegetables to over 800 members throughout the year. Running a winter box scheme where members can come to the farm and collect every fortnight, and a weekly collection through the summer provides a complex business to manage for Andy Jones, who has helped Intervale grow into the largest community farm in Vermont.
Andy has invested in polytunnels to help control pest and disease issues for his tomato crops in the summer, but also to allow him the opportunity to grow more winter crops and satisfy consumption throughout the year. Fertility building is a key concern when growing hungry veg in an organic system, but Andy uses a fertility building phase in his rotation as well as compost applications and a cover crop mix which includes legumes during the year to try and match crop demand.
After visiting Andy, we ventured south to visit Lorenzo Whitmarsh and his dairy cows. The North Williston Cattle company milks 300 cows in a continuously housed system through 4 robots. Manure and slurry management are a big concern for this farmer, especially with the threat of looming regulation due to phosphorus issues with the Champlain river. Mandatory testing of slurry and manure, as well as soil testing, and adaption of management to include buffer strips, cover crops and min till are all proposed by the authorities as best management practices and decisions on how ‘strict’ they are going to be are being discussed at the moment (a move from AAP (accepted agricultural practices) to RAP (required agricultural practices). There are discussions at the moment on this farm about installing an AD system as a manure management tool, and the manure solids, once they have been digested are commonly used as a bedding material.
The afternoon started with a (very cold) visit to a new set up, which is in the early stages of designing an integrated system. Belted Galloway cattle are outwintered on a woodchip pad with a bedded pack system within the house. After the cattle are turned out for the spring and rotationally grazed, the pigs come into the ‘pack’ and turn it over effectively helping it break down and compost.
The composted material will then be (this it the first winter) spread on the veg fields, which will be sold in the (being built) farm kitchen and restaurant which will serve the home produced goods. Outwintering on woodchip is just starting here in the US and they are waiting to see what the impact of the freezing winter temperatures will be on the woodchip (and drainage management).
The final visit of the day was to Shelbourne farm, a truly integrated estate, including a commercial dairy herd, beef cattle, sheep, veg, maple sugar production, an educational facility that hosts 150,000 visitors per year, a cheese making plant making 160,000lbs (72574kg) of cheddar cheese annually, and environmental schemes to encourage birds and other biodiversity. Sam, the farm manager here was truly fantastic ambassador for sustainable farm management, even with a host of different enterprises and often conflicting management needs, and it was a great way to finish the day.
An amazing day meeting great people, all who were open to new ideas, proving things by allowing farm based research, looking for opportunities to add value and innovate, and staying ahead of the threat of regulation.