How the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Works Regionally to Help Vermont’s Farmers & Landowners

Farm Assessment Workshop

In Vermont and across New England, prime farmland is both scarce and expensive.  Many farmers are at or approaching retirement age.  Young farmers face daunting challenges as they try to establish their agricultural enterprises.

One critical, and complicated, part of these challenges is finding ways to successfully transfer farmland from those who own it to those who seek to farm on it.  Ben Waterman of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture serves as Land Access Coordinator, and in that capacity, helps to support both farm-seekers and landowners in Vermont.

Center for Sustainable Agriculture Land Access Coordinator Ben Waterman

Center for Sustainable Agriculture Land Access Coordinator Ben Waterman

He’s based at UVM to serve Vermont’s farming community, but he and his colleagues in the New England Farm Link Collaborative are working together as part of a three year “Land Access Project” across the region.  Serving Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, the group is comprised of each state’s “farm link” programs that work to connect those seeking farmland in order to begin or grow their farming operation with landowners with farmland to lease or to sell.

Ben adds, “We came together to make it easy for farmers to get a look at what’s available throughout New England, and also to direct farmers and landowners to the whole array of services and resources to help them make that successful match.”

This is important because there’s much more to a successful arrangement than just helping farmers and landowners find each other, says Waterman. “Every situation is different and can require different expertise and advice than every other one, but partners in the Collaborative have the right accumulated experience and knowledge.  We can help bankers understand a farm business plan.  We can help lawyers understand the agricultural provisions of a farm lease arrangement.   We can help real estate agents to understand the specific information that a prospective buyer or tenant needs to determine whether a land is suitable for their goals. We can help everyone navigate USDA resources and requirements.  Farm link programs are the hub.”

A significant focus of the Collaborative has been the creation and improvement of the New England Farmland Finder website (found at ).  The site provides detailed and regularly updated farm property postings, as well as information and guidance about farmland transactions, such as land assessment worksheets and fact sheets on lease rates. At the time of this writing, there were over 130 farmland sites listed, including 48 in Vermont, and over 1,000 registered users.

The Land Access Project is supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, #2015-70017-23900.  The collaboration is one outcome from Land For Good’s Land Access Project, funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The New England Farm Link Collaborative includes Connecticut Farm Link, Maine Farm Link, Land For Good and Vermont Land Link.  Each member provides a range of services all aimed at one common goal:  to help New England’s farm seekers and landowners connect.

Are You a Landowner or Farmseeker Who Wants to Know More?

Developing Critical Knowledge on a Working Farm

To affect the working landscape, we know we have to start small – “small” as in the tiny particles and droplets and microbes that make up healthy soil. We start with the microcosm of the soil for a simple reason: if we want a vibrant Vermont with clean water, great food and a robust farm economy, we need to make sure farmers can build the health of their soils.

That seemingly simple premise is at the foundation of much of the work of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.  And it’s the guiding force behind the research that’s being hosted by Philo Ridge Farm, where Pasture Program Technical Coordinator Juan Alvez, Ph.D., is engaged in several long-term applied projects to investigate the practices with the highest promise for productivity and profitability, as well as building and maintaining ecological balance with the land.

Doing this means looking in depth at many of the elements of the farm’s systems, investigating how soil, crops, animals and forest can all thrive.  We seek to understand more about how a healthy farm ecosystem can support a profitable business, and under what conditions.

Among the questions we’re asking are:

  • Can we combine agroforestry practices in ways that contribute to animal health and growth as well as providing benefits to soil, water and wildlife?
  • What forage species can grow well in a partly forested (shaded) area, and serve the multiple purposes of promoting animal weight gain while helping break up compacted soils? (Curious about these?  We’ll share some of Juan’s early observations: “Based on last year, the most productive species was sorghum sudangrass.  And we saw that reed canarygrass will outcompete everything else, so we’re pulling that out to see what kind of species diversity we can encourage.”)
  • How can the practice of bedded pack barns contribute to animal comfort as well as building soil fertility?
  • Can we combine precision irrigation with “cocktail cover crops” to keep land, plants and animals as healthy and productive as possible, ameliorating the “summer slump” and grazing longer into the winter as well?

We look forward to sharing information with farmers, colleagues and other researchers at upcoming pasture walks and in upcoming newsletters and articles.

In the meantime, want to know more?

  • Read more about the research project on the Center’s Research pages.
  • Plan to attend the August 15 Field Day at the farm to learn about the research, have a pasture walk with noted grazing consultant Jim Gerrish, and meet members of the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition.  Register here.
  • Contact Principal Investigator Juan Alvez with questions.
  • And if you’re interested in joining a group of passionate volunteers (representing farmers, gardeners, seed savers, researchers and professionals, including several staff members from the Center for Sustainable Agriculture) in the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition – an online discussion group that one member describes as “volunteers with an interest in shifting the paradigm of how people interface with the land. We operate under the premise that we can restore land water cycles by covering Vermont’s bare soil; nurturing photosynthesis and the biology underground,” please feel free to join the group and let members know how you’d like to participate by taking this short survey.

Originally published in the Center’s Fresh from the Field newsletter, June 2017

The New Normal: Planning for Wetter and Warmer

By Suzy Hodgson.  Originally posted  March 28, 2016 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

Normal temperatures at the end of March in Burlington, Vermont are typically in the mid 40s.  Over Easter weekend, it was 16 degrees warmer than normal. With the warmest winter on record, what does this mean for Vermont farmers?

Revisiting Tamarack Hollow Farm, I checked in with co-owner Amanda Andrews.

SH:  How is your new location working out?

AA:  Our new farm was great last season and held up during the heavy spring rains while our old farm was flooding. That said, heavy rains continue to be a worry, and so we are planning with erosion in mind.

To control erosion, we are planting low-growing cover crops between beds, moving towards a permanent raised bed system. We also installed drainage tile in one field with heavier soils to ensure it dries out quickly, even with heavy storms.

SH:  Spring is coming early this year – did we even have winter?   How has this affected your plans? Any thoughts on pests and diseases?

AA: “With the warm winter, we are expecting heavier pest and disease pressure, so we are planning to use more row covers to control insects – and the diseases they spread.

“Certain vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers), we are only growing in tunnels. I am growing additional varieties of greens this season, especially looking for heat and disease tolerance as the three month forecast looks like a warm spring and summer.”

Seasoned farmer Andy Jones talks about the Intervale Community Farm and how he stays ahead of the weather

By Suzy Hodgson.  Originally posted  March 15, 2016 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

Andy Jones manages the Intervale Community Farm, all of which lies within the 100-year floodplain of the Winooski River. Last week, Suzy Hodgson sat down with Andy in his farm office to hear his perspective on the farm and his strategy for adapting to the extreme weather of climate change.


Intervale Community Farm Manager Andy Jones in the farm’s office.

AJ:  We are subject to the whims of the river. When I started in 1993, the typical pattern was spring flooding, snowmelt flowing, all related to how much snow pack was in the hills. And when the weather warmed, rain hit the snow pack and came rushing down to lake and inundated some fields. The flood plain looks very flat but it is actually sloping and there are a lot of minor surface undulations, a foot here and foot there make a great deal of difference in terms of actual flooding.

Every speck of ground and building is located within the 100-year of floodplain including where we are right now (in the farm office). The main reason it’s remained in agriculture within the city limits of Burlington is because it’s within the 100-year floodplain. If that were not the case, it would have been housing or something else long ago.”

Andy stands in a long tradition of farming at the Intervale. As he acknowledges, “long ago, the land was recognized as quality productive farmland; native peoples farmed here for hundreds of years. Ethan Allen was granted all of it in the 18th century; it’s been farmed entirely throughout the centuries. It’s productive farmland, albeit subject to flooding.

SH:  Was Tropical Storm Irene a game changer?

AJ:  Water management and flooding have always been our major challenges; the biggest risk factors are not insects, diseases, or market disruptions, but the omnipresent risk and the potential catastrophic outcome of the big flood.

In 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene dumped on us, we were heavily impacted; the entire farm, save 2 acres, was underwater. All of our high land that usually does not flood was flooded and we lost about 12 – 13 acres of crops, which were in the ground.

Unlike a lot of other people, we’d been preparing because we were accustomed to being in a floodplain and having to salvage crops and to move equipment out of harm’s way.In hindsight we should have started earlier. We certainly didn’t have any idea about the scale and the magnitude; we were expecting a bad flood – we weren’t expecting an epic flood.

SH:  After Irene, Andy explains, there were some things he really had to look at hard.

AJ: We expected to have a rough spring the following year and while we didn’t make our spring numbers, we were pretty close, 94-95% of our target. By the following year we were back on track in spades.

SH:  Did the cooperative structure make a difference in customer and membership support?

AJ:  I think the cooperative structure in the broad sense of the word ‘cooperative’, not necessarily in the legal sense of the word. For some people, the legal cooperative is important and the fact that they own it and have a stake in it is a motivating factor for their commitment. More people joined the co-op as members, providing $200 to the farm through their co-op equity membership. For the larger percentage, it’s  more about their relationship, they know the farm, they know the people who are the growers, and they understand that we are all in this together.  We came up with an arrangement which works for everybody and that was really powerful.

A number of farmers who were direct market growers were dependent on farmers markets where everything just evaporated. But for us, we had this on-going business because we had people who we were talking to us, to whom we were sending our newsletter, and we were holding events.From marketing standpoint, I was impressed with the commitment of CSA membership and the model did help us through the overall catastrophe. In order for it to be successful, you need to have a relationship with the CSA members and a good track record.

SH:  How does the floodplain make a difference in farm management?

AJ:  Even though the trend has been toward crazy precipitation episodes, we don’t suffer as much because we have a lot of very sandy well-drained soil.  The irony is the floodplain is dangerous and forgiving at the same time.

We do have about 1/3 of our land that is fairly silty, considerably lower, and more flood prone, so with that land, since Irene, we’ve made some adjustments. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to count on the wetter land to be able to plant early crops and always have to wait and plant crops.

SH:  How are you predicting the odds of the weather and evening out production?

AJ:  When we expect to plant varies year to year, not before the 2nd week of May, sometimes early June. Silty soils hold moisture better so have less moisture stress compared to sandy soils. We’ve been planting later for 20 years but we have lost significant crops in lower fields in the past 5 years, so we plant crops which we can more afford to lose, and which turn over quickly such as lettuce, spinach, and salad greens. With a quick maturation rate, if they’re lost, we can still replant. With the winter share, we’re dependent on growing a lot of root crops, which we need to store. We can’t lose these, as we’re reliant on them for the long sweep of the seasons.

SH:  How are you managing different soil types in flood prone areas?

AJ:  For our silty soils, we bought a raised bed builder a few years ago. We’re not using this on sandy soils as the water drains away. While raised beds don’t help us in the flooding situation, they help in intense precipitation events (2-3 inches or when we have consecutive wet weeks) by preventing saturated soils and root death.

On the sandy side of the farm, we rely a lot on irrigation and we have for 20 years so we have invested in irrigation equipment. And we expect that every year we will irrigate.   Last year, August was dry and we were irrigating our vegetables twice a week.

For us, irrigation has been essential; otherwise, we would have lost so many crops as irrigation allows us not only to keep things growing and bulking up, but other crops we can’t even germinate without irrigation. For us, irrigation is the difference between a crop and no crop.

One of the things we’re blessed with in the Northeast is plenty of water and in this location in particular we have great water resources.  We have a big river going by and the ground water is relatively shallow so when we had a well put in to feed our greenhouses, the well drillers we’re so excited that we could get 800 gallons a minute for nothing.

SH:  In managing flood prone soils, what benefits have you seen?

AJ:  Coming back full circle, where we started is to really trying to concentrate resources on the more secure parts of the farm, so that’s the sandy fields. Although we have issues with low organic matter and water management, they are more secure and resilient to weather extremes. We push the yields in a concentrated area, make sure we’re really on top of our game with weed control, irrigation, really optimizing the growth of everything in those areas. When we’re spread out over wider area, we don’t really pay attention to any one thing.

SH:  Since Irene, have you suffered more losses due to too much water?

AJ:  Nothing major. Last year, we lost in late May and early June; we lost ¼ acre – 1/3 acre of spinach and lettuce and 20% of our potato crop. In the whole scheme of things in terms of overall farm output, it was less than 5%.

SH:  How are you using cover for erratic weather?

AJ:  Tunnels are major element of overall planned resiliency and an example of concentrating production. We’ve moved all our tomatoes and almost all our peppers inside which contributed to better yields and profitability for both those crops. And it allowed us to grow throughout the year. Since tomatoes are 10% of our overall value and baby salad greens are about the same, if we can take 20-25% of the farm revenue and shelter that from a lot of the weather extremes, that’s been really good.


Lettuces and Greens in an Intervale Hoop House

SH:  Have you diversified your market to response to climate change effects?

AJ:  We haven’t done a lot to diversify our markets and I don’t think that would really help us be more resilient because our market is not our chief constraint.  Having that close relationship with our CSA members is as strong and as favorable a market as we could possibly have for weathering climate disruptions.

In general, I don’t think our market has shifted in response to climate change. But I think the fundamental premise of security and diversity in our crops has proven itself in response to upheavals in the weather and climate.  Years that it’s cold and wet we have super greens, brassicas, and onion crops which people enjoy, and years when it’s hot and dry, we have excellent melons, tomatoes, and peppers. Almost no matter the weather, we have some things that are really thriving.

SH:  If a new farmer came in here today, what advice would you give to her or him?

AJ:  If they were in a floodplain, I would say, try and get the land that’s the highest land you can, as there are lots of floodplains I’d not recommend people to start a farm or grow vegetables on. It’s pretty hard to build your business without having at least some significant % of your land that is not very flood prone.

So I’d say make sure you have some high land, try to concentrate your production as much as you can on that land, have tunnels, grow a lot of different crops, make sure you either have a highly diverse market or you have a highly committed market – in our case we have a highly committed market.  

As Andy advises and concludes our talk,  Pay attention to establishing a strong track record of growing good produce in the years that you’re not hampered. Then any goodwill you’ve engendered during that time will be needed and you’ll  have it banked against disruptions down the road.

How managing for increased biodiversity can help farmers

By Juan P. Alvez, Ph.D., Pasture Technical Coordinator.  Originally posted  December 11, 2015 on the Vermont Pasture Network Blog

Root depth and structure of forage species

Pasture diversity increases farm resiliency

In 2013, our research team* embarked on a collaborative, long-term study focused on understanding how ecologic habitat disruption is associated with livestock wellbeing and health, and how that can affect society.

This is far from a local or unique issue. With human population growing above 7 billion people, a demand for higher living standards, including dairy products as more people seek access to all forms of animal protein as part of a more affluent lifestyle, is ever increasing.

Meeting this demand requires both advancing the agricultural frontier and an intensification of the production process, burdening already-degraded ecosystems, and impacting habitats, forests, biodiversity, soils, water and rural livelihoods. There is strong evidence that agriculture receives (and may provide), a diverse array of benefits from healthy ecosystems, and it also worsens problems when it disrupts them.

Cows grazing diverse pastures at Choiniere Farm

Cows grazing diverse pastures at Choiniere Farm

We suggest that managing for increased biological diversity in pasture-based dairy production systems positively contributes to improved livestock well-being, health and productivity, and creates a positive feedback ecological service loop. It has been demonstrated that minimally disturbed soils, adequate access to a diverse, high quality forage mix, and clean water are associated with bovine wellbeing and milk quality. Dairy cows support numerous microbial communities, including mutually beneficial relationships with their microbial

symbionts (rumen microbiota). These cellulolytic bacteria break down plant materials, providing cows with a source of energy and nutrients. An understanding of the response of ruminant and environmental microbial communities to specific management practices will provide an opportunity to both optimize farm productivity and enhance ecosystem-based management.

Well-balanced cool season pastures at Choiniere Farm

Well-balanced cool season pastures at Choiniere Farm

We had an integral approach to soils, forage and diet, rumen microbiology, grazing activity and milk quality, to evaluate how cows were affected.  We hypothesize that biodiversity affects livestock well-being, health, and productivity, and that it may also affect cows’ grazing behaviors.  To explore this, we studied how the relationship between grazing time and diet alters rumination activity, rumen pH and health, milk composition and productivity.

Cows that grazed on diverse pastures presented higher concentrations of poly unsaturated fatty acids than when grazing a monoculture; they were able to transfer conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids from these pastures into the milk. We did not find any effects between pasture diet type and lying time but, there were differences among cows in laying time where higher producing cows had longer lying times.

Cows wearing electronic loggers (wrapped in low-hind left leg) for grazing activity

Cows wearing electronic loggers (wrapped in low-hind left leg) for grazing activity

Overall we determined that pasture-based livestock who graze on pastures managed for increased biodiversity can help to improve soil health, optimize forage utilization, rumen activity, milk composition and quality reduce costs, and increase net farm income.

By optimizing these production parameters, pasture-based dairy farmers can simultaneously advance cattle health and well-being, reduce operational costs and environmental impacts and produce the healthy dairy products society is demanding. We hope that our work can explain the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem for Vermont farms. Full results will be published on a scientific article.


*Research Team (alphabetical order): Juan Alvez, John Barlow, Melissa Bainbridge, Emily Golf, Jana Kraft, Robert Mugabe and Joe Roman

Sponsors: UVM Reach Grant & NE-SARE Grant

Farming like nature: healthy soils hold the key for productive farms and clean water

By Michelle Graziosi, ECO AmeriCorps Water Quality Research Technician with the Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Farming & Climate Change program.  Originally posted on November 12, 2015 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog.

More than just dirt, our soils are alive. Healthy soil ecosystems, like ones found in nature, are dynamic and complex. Plants, microbes and fungi work together to cycle nutrients, filter water, and regulate the climate. When treated correctly and allowed to function properly, soils can do wonders for the productivity of a farm and the quality of food it produces, and Vermont farmers are starting to take notice.

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system.

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system.

At the 5th annual Vermont Farm to Plate Gathering, farmers, community members and scientists came together to discuss the inseparable link between healthy soils, clean water, and good food. Success stories of higher yields from no-till fields and saving money from using less pesticides and herbicides were shared, showing that paying attention to soil health pays off. Though some soil conservation practices may go against conventional techniques, one thing is clear: the healthiest and most successful farms are taking care of their soils by farming like nature.

Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly.

Nature’s time-tested processes have allowed organisms to survive on this planet for billions of years. It’s time for us to use these processes to our advantage, an idea known as  “biomimicry”. In the natural world, forests and prairies flourish without pesticides or plows. Trees and plants remain year-round, their leaves nourish the soil in the fall and their roots hold water and soil in place when it rains. Come springtime, these ecosystems are teeming with growth and life. Nature knows how to farm.

Keynote speaker Ray “The Soils Guy” Archuleta spoke passionately and urgently about farming like nature. (Watch Ray on this short video from UVM Extension’s Across the Fence.) According to Ray, “healthy soil is covered all year round,” just like in nature. Cover crops are the most essential component of restoring and maintaining soil health. Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly. Plants keep the soil cool and moist, and retain soil structure with their roots. Plants take energy from the sun and feed the microbes, which in exchange pull more nutrients from the soil to the plant.  Allowing these natural processes to occur significantly decreases the need to purchase and apply additional chemicals and fertilizers that may runoff and damage local waterways during heavy precipitation events.

Healthy soil is covered all year round – just like in nature.

When soil is kept in place and macropores are allowed to form, water quality impacts from agricultural runoff and sedimentation are greatly reduced. Soils also play a large role in regulating carbon. Tilling breaks apart the link between plant and soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and depriving microorganisms of their food. Soils become starved, and fail to function properly. But when covered with detritus and plants, soils sequester that carbon and use it for growth instead.

When Ray Archuleta visits a farm, the first thing he looks for is how the soil in the field compares to soil in the forest. If the soils are healthy, a shovel-full from each should look the same, with a layer of detritus, or organic matter, on top, and soil aggregates clinging to the roots of plants on the bottom.

Is your soil bare or covered? Learn more about the secrets in the soil by watching the videos on Ray’s Soil Health Page.

Contributor: Michelle Graziosi, the ECO AmeriCorps Water Quality Research Technician at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, attended her first Vermont Farm to Plate gathering.   Michelle graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences.

Cover Crops Keep Carbon and Cash Where They Belong

Originally posted on October 21, 2015 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

On-farm and field trials in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont show that cover cropping produces a number of financial benefits for farmers and wider environmental benefits for the community. Cover cropping increases soil organic matter (a.k.a. carbon) and microbial diversity while suppressing weeds and stabilizing soils, which can help farmers transition to organic methods as well as improve their agricultural practices cost-effectively. Fields with a cover crop have less erosion and less runoff, meaning nutrients stay in the soils, better not only for soil quality and crop yields, but also for preserving water quality and ecosystem health.

While the benefits of cover crops researched by Northeast Extension teams in crop, field, and soils are clear, the prescribed planting methods, timing, and seeding rates need careful consideration for successful seed establishment and sufficient cover growth depending on a number of factors including the site conditions, harvesting schedules, and farmer circumstances.

In Westford, Vermont, a cover crop of radish, rye, turnip, and white clover was successfully seeded after corn was harvested at Tony Pouliot’s farm under the guidance of UVM Extension agronomy expert Heather Darby.

Pouliot was pleased to see his soil, the most valuable asset of his farm, protected – as you can see in this Across the Fence video.  Heather Darby and her team at UVM Northwest Soils and Crops provide invaluable advice to Vermont farmers in choosing appropriate cover crop seed mix, deciding on the methods and timing of planting whether before or after harvesting the cash crop, and many specifics related to the farm’s cropping systems, equipment available, location, topography and soil types.

A 2014 Cornell cover crop experiment with soybeans no-till planted into mulch from a winter cover crop at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub showed that a farm’s net profit was highest when seeding rates were double the recommended seeding rates of conventional soybean production. Five planting densities were compared and the crop population, weed suppression, and crop yields were measured.  Matthew Ryan’s report on cover cropping strategies and his research projects are part of Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab.

Soybean Yields Comparison

UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils program produces guidance and tips on interseeding cover crops for Vermont farmers growing feedstock such as corn and soybeans. Advice concerns the timing of seeding, the level and depth of seeding, available labor and proper equipment, and altering other management practice (e.g. pesticide applications and tillage), which would harm cover crops.  Importantly, research has found that cover cropping may have no negative impact on corn yields and can sometimes have a positive yield effect.

Additionally, when over-wintered cover crops are “terminated” with a roller crimper in the spring, the mulch mat which is formed suppresses weeds during the growing season for cash crops. In addition to increased profits to the farmer, the energy savings (resulting from less diesel fuel used, less fertilizers and a reduction in pesticide use) result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the farm.

A roller-crimper in the field

And taken all together, that’s how the benefits of cover cropping reach beyond the farmer to the community and the climate.


Dealing with Weather at High Ledge Farm

Originally posted on September 30, 2015 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

The Betz family started High Ledge Farm in 1999. Paul and Kate Betz grow certified organic vegetables on a small parcel of 2.5 acres and manage a 4100 sq. ft. of greenhouses for plant and tomato production. They have a CSA program and sell their produce at the Montpelier Farmers Market.

The High Ledge Farm Booth at the Montpelier Market

Impact of Rain

The climate change effects that worry the Betz family are heavy rain events. These have resulted in soil fines (the smallest particles within the soil) rising to the surface and sealing it so that in seedlings have difficulty emerging. The Betz’ have experimented with the timing of their plantings and tried multiple plantings to increase the opportunities for seeds to germinate in these potentially adverse conditions.

This past year the farmers planted their carrots twice because of the risk of soils sealing and preventing sufficient germination. Planting twice meant two opportunities for seeds to germinate.

The problem is that any time bare soils are exposed directly to rain with minimal cover to protect them from the impact of raindrops, erosion can occur and soil structure can deteriorate with the possibility of fines rising with the excess water. By minimizing the time that bare soils are exposed directly to rain and keeping soil covered with a crop as much as possible will in turn reduce the possibility of fines and soil surface sealing.  The UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture has a fact sheet about controlling drainage and increasing the water holding capacity of soils. Rather than take a gamble with weather forecasts to anticpate the possilbity of soil crusting, improving soil composition with organic matter, and using winter cover crops to lessen impact of rain, will help soils retains more water.

Protecting soils from rain

Improving soil composition with organic matter and using winter cover crops to lessen the impact of rain will help soils retains more water. The Natural Resource Council provide a useful guide on the factors affecting soil crusting and measures which can be taken to improve soil quality

UVM Extension agronomist Dan Hudson explains that healthy soils not only hold water but can also help stabilize the movement of water and soil particles. Cover crops are a critical part of the soil system as they help support microbial activity which further enhances soil structure and organic matter in the soils. The key to healthy soils are:

  • organic matter in soils
  • debris and plant cover on soil surface
  • living roots in soils

Reducing risks with greenhouses

While the effects of climate change include heavy rains with impacts on soils and a longer growing season in Vermont, the temperature variations within the growing season are widening. This risk of a cold snap or heat wave can undermine any perceived benefit of a longer growing season.

Recognizing the variability and extremes of Vermont weather, farmers have turned to greenhouses and hoop houses in growing numbers.   Their strategies for coping with variable weather start from the ground up.  Maintaining and improving soil quality is essential with additions of organic matter, cover cropping, and minimizing tillage. Soils which have more plant matter including living roots in the soil and leaves on the soil have increased microbes which help retain more moisture during dry spells and can cope with absorbing more rainfall during wet periods.

While soils with higher organic matter content can help mitigate wider ranges in precipitation, greenhouses help mitigate wider ranges in temperature. Using a greenhouse to control the environment, the Betz family benefits at both the start and the end of the growing season so that the swings in temperatures during Vermont’s shoulder seasons of spring and fall don’t result in swings in income.

Contributions from Catherine Lowther, Goddard College, Faculty in the BA in Sustainability Program, Chair of the Sustainability Committee and UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Flexibility is Daily Theme at the Pine Island Goat Farm in Colchester, VT

Originally posted on September 9, 2015 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

“Flexibility is absolutely the key!” declares Karen Freudenberger, as she looks below where farmers Chuda Mahoro and Theogene Dhaurali are struggling to free one of the farm’s trucks stuck in the mud in a waterlogged pasture. Karen is the Pine Island Community Farm Project Manager, guiding it into existence as a working farm from a conceptual idea formed a few years ago. The majority of the pasture land on this farm is located in the floodplain of the Winooski River, in an oxbow and surrounded on three sides by the river. While extremely fertile, with abundant forage for the 200 or more goats that graze here, the chances of flooded conditions are often present.

While springtime has always been a time of expected flooding, in recent years it has become painfully apparent that flooding can and will happen just about any time of year.

Stuck truck in wet pasture, June 2015

A truck stuck in wet pasture, June 2015

So what does flexibility look like? For the crew at Pine Island, it means the crops and gardens are not necessarily on the best agricultural soil.  Flexibility means a grazing plan that includes a “reserve” or “contingency” pasture on the higher ground at the farm that can be utilized at any time to accommodate animals for grazing, should the weather dictate the need to do so.

Pine Island Community Farm represents a partnership between the Vermont Land Trust and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.  It supports New American farmers who wish to raise goats, chickens, or garden crops at the farm and sells pasture grown animals to families who wish to slaughter their own goats and chickens for meat.

It is a collaborative farm where each individual farm enterprise (e.g. Chuda’s goats) is run by the owner as his own small business.  Together, the business operations share the land, the barns, and the equipment.

Flood Plain Pasture, Summer 2015

Flood Plain Pasture, Summer 2015

Planning for the Unpredictable

Now in its second year of operation, and finding a rhythm with the land, livestock, and crops – the wild card remains the unpredictable weather fluctuations and learning how to work with that reality. The community gardens were placed on the upper plateau, even though the better agricultural soils are on the river plain below. But the risk of flooding and crop loss is too great on the lower level, and the financial impact could be devastating, so the decision was made to place them up above, requiring substantial amounts of soil amendments to increase the land’s fertility.

The goat enterprise is even more complicated. Since most of them arrive in late winter/early spring as very young animals, it is particularly important that their pasture not be wet or even very damp as those are the conditions most favorable for the internal parasites that can take a young animal down very quickly. Planning for this means reserving a section of the upper plateau for the initial forays onto pasture at the beginning of the grazing season. The chances of this higher elevation land being drier are much better, and lowers the probability the young animals will pick up parasites.

Once the goats have grown in size, become good grazers, learned the process of following a shepherd, and the pasture below has dried up enough – they are taken down each day to fresh forage on the river plain. However, if there is a heavy rain event, the animals are often returned to the barn, and put on hay.

Moving animals prevents parasite intake and is seen as practice for general goat health. Goats traditionally come from dry environments, and have prominent back bones, so when conditions are extremely wet, they can sometimes get a deep chill, particularly young animals. So they are returned to the barn for cover until the weather eases up enough for them to be outside again. The frequency of this procedure has increased in direct correlation with the heavy precipitation events – again an increase in cost due to the extra time and labor involved.

Barnyard and fencing at Pine Island Farm, Summer 2015

Barnyard and fencing at Pine Island Farm, Summer 2015

This June and July have proven to be exceptionally wet, and circumstances have pushed the farmers to start utilizing any areas they can find with reasonably dry pasture. Chuda explains how it affects his day and makes for inefficient labor.

“We must spend a long time scouting around for any new dry area, mowing a strip to accommodate fence set-up, putting the fence in place, and bringing the animals there. Normally, long strips would be mowed where several days or even a couple of weeks’ worth of fence line can be set up and a new paddock made each day using the section from the previous day’s paddock as the animals are rotated onto new forage each day”. The labor invested is much less when the paddocks can be made in consecutive blocks, or even close by instead of wandering all over the river plain.

This season has pushed everything to the limits. Because of the record breaking rain and wet conditions, pastures have been slow to dry up and many still have standing water in places, prohibiting their use. Livestock have been restricted to sacrificial paddocks or barnyards and fed any reserved hay from the previous season.

But for many, even the reserve stash is gone. For the same reasons, haying has been delayed and many farmers have not been able harvest any, so without any new crop and reserve supplies depleted, the only choice is to import feed from far away – a costly solution – or eke out any small opportunities close by. This means resorting to a “hunt and pick” type of operation, seeking any bit of dry pasture land that can be found to set up a grazing paddock. The inefficiency brings a greater cost to all – time spent looking and setting each area up takes a good portion of the day, and a watchful eye kept on it all should there be a need to quickly get the animals back to high ground.

Compromise with the Dog River

A guest post by Catherine Lowther, PhD of Goddard College, originally posted on August 26, 2015 on the Farming & Climate Change Adaptation Blog

Nate and Jessie Rogers grow grains and keep a small herd of Jersey cows at their farm on the Dog River in Berlin, Vermont. They grow, harvest, and mill their own grain, and they sell their whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and milk on Saturdays at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market and at their farm stand.

Working with the river…


The Rogers Family

The main climate change issue the Rogers have experienced is river flooding caused by heavy rains. They bought their farm four years ago after the property was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. The farm has one mile of river frontage and the fields were completely flooded, the house was damaged, and the previous owners had to go out of business.  A foot of sand had to be removed to restore the fields and a two-acre chunk of land washed away.  When Nate and Jessie first moved to the farm, they wondered if they should fill the horseshoe-shaped area back in, but decided against it after consulting with scientists from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

This loss of land also eventually led to work with The Vermont Land Trust, who offered to purchase a river corridor easement from them, in effect paying them to take some of their cropland out of use. With the erosive nature of their soil and the susceptibility of their fields to flood damage, they decided to accept the easement. The easement is fifty feet wide and centered on the middle of the river channel. They can’t farm the land that is within the easement, but they can plant trees in this corridor to stabilize the riverbanks.

Outside of the easement, the Rogers have planted all their river fields in grasses and perennial crops to keep the soil covered and keep it from washing away. This means they have 20 acres of river fields that they can’t use as part of their rotation for grains, but is still in some sort of agricultural production and also addresses their bigger concern of soil loss and downstream water quality.  They see the importance of water quality, and work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the ANR to make sure they have a healthy river that can function properly, while they still farm the land.

Catherine Lowther, PhD

Catherine is faculty in the Sustainability Program, and Chair of the Sustainability Committee at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.  We will be collaborating with her and her students on several blog posts during this project.  Many thanks for their contributions!   

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