A USDA Pilot Project Funds Vermont Farmers Who Practice Sustainable Grazing

"It’s a lot easier to participate in these kinds of programs when there’s money in the checkbook," says dairy farmer Guy Chioniere

Mario Reinaldo Machado June 4, 2023

It is a cold December day when I arrive at Howling Wolf farm in Randolph, Vermont. After a brisk knock on the farmhouse door, Jenn Colby appears. She is smiling and gestures to come in out of the cold. Inside, over a cup of tea, we look out over downtown Randolph. It’s a view that is at once unique to this farm and also one that would be familiar to anyone from Vermont: small town roads and brick mill buildings with smoke rising from their chimneys, all framed by hills and forest. Soon our conversation gets going.

I am a researcher on a five-year USDA-funded project called Managing Pasture for Healthy Farms and Soils Across Vermont that aims to help farmers implement sustainable grazing practices. As the program enters its second year, I hope to learn from participating farmers like Jenn what is working and what is not. We talk about field visits and data collection and the mechanics of trying to adopt best practices given inflation and a changing climate, but soon our discussion leads us into more interesting territory.

“I don’t want to maximize production,” Jenn says at one point, referring to her flock of 20 sheep, which she raises for meat that are currently holed up in the barn against the weather. She says she wants to grow her flock gradually while she improves her pasture and hones her management techniques. “I want to go slow. The way I am doing things is not what the TSP’s [technical service providers] recommend if I want to be most profitable. But I like the way I am doing things. I am seeing all sorts of interesting biodiversity emerge and that’s more important to me.”

It is an uncommon perspective, but then again, Jenn is an uncommon kind of farmer. It’s not that she is opposed to the idea growing her agricultural business. As someone who worked with farmers for almost two decades through her role in the University of Vermont’s extension program, Jenn understands this motivation as well as anyone. In recent years, she has found creative solutions, such as an agrotourism business complete with a rentable yurt for overnight guests, that allow her to support the farm business and enable an alternative management strategy. It’s not a traditional approach to farming, but Jenn would be the first to tell you that such out-of-the-box thinking is what’s needed most. Maximizing production is just not the right approach, both for her land, which is marginal and in need of management after neglect by previous owners, and for her community, which relies on the erosion control of upland farms like hers to maintain water quality and conserve soil. Instead, a different kind of farm and a different kind of farmer is necessary. Luckily for Randolph, there are people like Jenn to fit the bill.

Howling Wolf Farm in Randolph, Vermont.

It would be a mistake to say that Jenn is representative of the other farmers in the Managing Pastures project. But it is perhaps accurate to say that Jenn is one example of the many different kinds of innovative, thoughtful, and value-oriented producers that the project has attracted. The Managing Pastures project, led through a partnership between the Vermont Land Trust, the University of Vermont, the University of Vermont Extension, and the Denver-based Bio Logical Capital is working with farmers to evaluate the ecological, social, and financial outcomes of transitioning pastures to more intensive grazing management.

The project provides direct payments to farmers, along with technical support, to help offset the risks and costs associated with the adoption of new management practices. Put another way, this project provides financial compensation that makes it easier for farmers to make sustainable management decisions for their land and their community, which many of them are already inclined to do were it not for the many structural, financial and technical hurdles they currently face.

To participate in the project, farmers were able to apply and were selected based on a number of criteria including farm type, land management history, and pasture management goals. The research team wanted to study fields newly transitioning to more intensive rotational grazing in order to track outcomes over time. Currently, 15 farms participate ranging in size from 25 acres to just over 500 acres, representing a mix of dairy, beef, and mixed ruminant operations. In total, the Managing Pastures has around 1,200 acres of pasture enrolled across Vermont.

On a technical level, this $2.6 million project incentivizes participating farmers to implement a set of practices including supplemental seeding and improved fertility management. It also pays farmers to implement managed intensive rotational grazing, or MIRG, which is a grazing system designed to more closely resemble the natural movement of animals on the landscape, similar to grazing methods practiced by shepherds in Europe and the Fulani in West Africa. To practice MIRG, animals are only allowed to graze a small area of pasture for a set period of time while other areas are left to recover. This style of grazing can help to maximize the quality and quantity of forage regrowth while supporting healthier soils, reducing erosion, and improving carbon storage capacity.

When combined, these three practices can enhance pasture production and livestock well-being, while decreasing the negative impacts of animals on the land. Rather than the narrative so in vogue these days that casts livestock as a detriment to the environment, through well-practiced MIRG, animals can become integral parts of managing the landscape for improved ecosystem services.

To be successful, however, it is important that the benefits from participation in the Managing Pastures project and rotational grazing are not restricted to the animals and landscapes. They must also contribute to a farm’s bottom line, which is an altogether more complicated matter.

Matt Choiniere on the family dairy farm in Franklin County, Vermont.

Guy Choiniere is another farmer in the same cohort as Jenn. On paper, their operations could not be more different. Not a sheep farmer, Guy is a third-generation dairy farmer from Highgate in Franklin County who manages a herd of 80 milking cows. Unlike Jenn’s hilltop farm in Orange County, Guy’s farm is larger and flatter and a few miles from the Canadian border. For people familiar with Guy and his farm, his participation in the Managing Pastures program is perhaps no surprise. Guy has long been a leader in the state on adopting more sustainable practices, transitioning his father’s conventional dairy farm into a certified organic dairy farm in 2005. Since then, he has also been busy converting his once grain-fed herd to being 100% grass fed, which they have been as of 2014.

Throughout this process, Guy—and now his son, Matt—have adapted their farm while maintaining profitability and production each step of the way. They are a rare success story for an agricultural sector that has struggled heavily in recent years. Vermont has lost almost 40% of its dairy farms since 2012, even as milk production has increased. An important dimension of this success, apart from Guy’s hard work and innovative attitude, has been his ability to access grants and programs, like the Managing Pastures project, to provide economic and technical support.

It was early winter when I spoke to Guy. After a full year with the Managing Pastures program, I was curious to hear more about what his experience had been like. There were challenges of course, as Guy mentioned, especially around data collection and communication between the farmers like himself and the various research teams on the project. At the same time, there were benefits as well that Guy had expected to see, especially around improving soil micronutrients and contributing to more productive, resilient pastures.

The hay fields at Choiniere Family Farm in Franklin County, Vermont. The farm’s organic dairy herd is 100% grass fed.

“Soil health and wanting to learn more about that is what led me to the CIG [Managing Pastures] project.” He said. “But it’s a lot easier to participate in these kinds of programs when there’s money in the checkbook.”

Though the dairy Guy operates is successful, his farm, like all farms, is not immune to the myriad economic forces that pressure farmers to adopt practices like overgrazing, increasing the use of fertilizers, or putting additional acres into annual feed crop production, which have a quicker return but at the cost of degrading the soil and land. Instead, we need programs that produce long-term and more sustainable change, programs like the Managing Pastures project, which is to say, programs that change the thinking and the economic incentives around agriculture as much as they do the practices themselves.

Rather than the current model of farm subsidies, which incentivizes the (over)production of certain crops, the Managing Pastures project instead provides an example of another approach towards subsidizing agriculture, one in which farmers are compensated not only for the food they produce, but the environmental stewardship (and by extension, the ecosystem services) that they provide through their work. Such an approach might improve the sustainability of food production at the same time as it supports the viability of farms, especially small and family farms who are marginalized under the current subsidy regime.

In Guy’s case, overseeing the transition from his father’s conventional dairy to a grass-fed organic dairy has changed his thinking about land management considerably.

“I always focus on soil,” says Guy. “I finally realized that I was more of a steward of the land. I don’t get credit for what the soil is doing, because the soil knows what to do. I have to stay out of the way and just learn the windows of opportunity and the mechanics to do it [farm] with the least amount of damage.”

When I ask Guy about how he envisions his farm in the future, his response makes me pause. “It will be a system, an ecological system, that needs a bunch of different players. And it won’t only be about cows. Cows are gonna be just a small piece of it. And adding community to this ecosystem is sort of our last piece of the puzzle.”

I am taken by this idea of a farm that is more than a place that produces food, but rather, a hub around which members of community can gather and engage not only with the farmer and each other, but also with the natural environment. On Guy’s farm, this happens in the form of community events that they host every year and a series of public trails that they are establishing on their property so that others might enjoy the natural beauty of the land his family stewards. But from the sounds of things, this is only the beginning of a new and exciting direction for Guy and his farm.

Despite the differences between their farms, Guy and Jenn share similar perspectives. What they value as farmers goes beyond strict economic practicalities and reaches towards deeper notions of stewardship, community, and a more reciprocal relationship with the environment. This vision of farming’s future stands at odds with the profit maximization that too often defines agriculture today. It is also a vision of farming that does not have to be unprofitable if given the proper economic and governmental support.

This understanding, which Jenn and Guy share with many of the other farmers in the Managing Pastures project, is one that recognizes the other important things that agriculture provides. These include not only material benefits like soil production or water filtration, but also contributions to the public good such as supporting rural livelihoods, identities, recreation and a sense of place. From this perspective, the role of farms and farmers is not just to produce food, but to also to steward land in ways that allow both human and non-human communities to survive and thrive both now and in the future.

Fostering that change and compensating farmers for those efforts is what the Managing Pastures project hopes to do. In this sense, the project could serve as a model for future projects in Vermont and other states. Over the next four years as the work continues and research is conducted, it is believed that the social, economic, and ecological data collected through the project will speak for itself. Ultimately, however, in addition to continued funding and public support, it will be the stories and experiences of farmers like Jenn and Guy that will determine whether the practices and program work well for other producers in the state.


Resources

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service manages the Assistance for Organic Farmers program, which can help family farmers with practices such as pasture and grazing management, diverse pasture plantings, fencing, and walkways, watering facilities, and shelters for animals.

One of the best books on the subject is The Art and Science of Grazing: How Grass Farmers Can Create Sustainable Systems for Healthy Animals and Farm Ecosystems by Sarah Flack, foward by Hubert Kareman (Chelsea Green Publishing).

The Sierra Club’s Food and Agriculture Team’s Sustainable Grazing Practices provides a concise summaries of the two primary sustainable and regenerative livestock management methods.

The Rodale Institute discussion of Crop Livestock Integration is a good source for further readings and reasources.

Mario Reinaldo Machado

Mario Reinaldo Machado is a research manager for Bio Logical Capital in Vermont and a research affiliate of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont. His research focuses on regenerative agricultural practices, agroecology, and rural livelihoods. In addition to his research, Mario is also a homesteader based in Franklin, New Hampshire, and a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction.

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