FAIRLEE, VT — With the rollout of Lake Champlain’s mandated pollution diet, interest in soil health initiatives, capitalizing on burgeoning grass-fed markets and seeking to improve financial strategies for farmers, Vermont continues to showcase the importance of managed grasslands for a resilient future.
The tradition of sharing opportunities and solutions drew over 300 farmers to the 21st annual two day Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference sponsored by the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, Vermont Beef Producers Association, UVM Extension Service and Vermont USDA-NRCS, held at Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, VT. “The work of farmers is noble. We use this event to inspire the audience and aspire to build a community of common-sense practitioners sharing knowledge,” said Jenn Colby, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Pasture Program Coordinator and Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference Coordinator.
“The challenge for us is to maintain that delicate balance between farms that merely survive and those that thrive. We need to plan for the next 20 years and evaluate new ideas, sort through them, and embrace the ones that work for our particular situations. We need to invest in ourselves as businesses and professionals. We need to create places where beginning and experienced farmers can find each other, be successful, and keep working farmland open,” said Colby.
The first day had intensive all-day workshops featuring grazing planning tools and farm business building. The grazing track, intended for pasture managers, featured using mobile phone apps in the field to improve monitoring, recordkeeping and decision-making. Lindsey Ruhl from UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils Program rolled out the features and functions of GoGraze, a web-based tool and phone app that is being developed to work in unison with Vermont’s established GoCrop nutrient management planning software tool. The day also focused on using a paper grazing chart and the season-long thinking process to managing long and short term grazing decisions for the benefit of the animals, plants, finances and the elusive vacation.
The business track delved into the elements of a successful business plan, measuring financial health, finding the right lender and ended with a farmer panel discussing their farm business startups. A robust team of UVM Extension educators, Intervale Center advisors and seasoned financial professionals led young and established farmers on a path in reality. “Your farm is a business and you need to embrace the financials even if you hate them,” said Intervale Center’s Business Advisor, Sam Smith. “Farming is not fun if it’s not financially viable.”
The evening premiered a documentary screening of “Seed: The Untold Story” and featured a glimpse into the Maasai Indigenous Project of Kenya and how the cultures of the nomadic, livestock-based people are coping with the challenges of managing water and climate change.
The second day’s program was jammed packed with 21 workshops led by international, regional and local grazing aficionados with topics ranging from dealing with drought to creative watering solutions. Sessions also included grazing fundamentals, picking the best bulls, alternative barnyards using woodchips, vertical forage systems for goats, seeing root development under different grazing regimes and hay management for increasing bobolink habitat. The workshops were flanked by a busy trade show and local food.
The conference’s featured keynote guest, Brittany Cole Bush, known worldwide as the modern-day urban shepherdess, engaged the packed house with her new brand of pastoralism and getting paid to graze around the bay area of California. “The new pastoralist (or new tribe) manages land and animals but doesn’t have to own them. We thrive on strategies that build new collaborations and embrace access of diverse people into agriculture,” said the contract grazier.
Her enterprise started with the owner of Star Creek Ranch in Santa Cruz who enlisted her to document his use of sheep and goats in reclaiming grasslands on the 1,200-acre property. With three summers under her belt, she applied for a contract in 2012 with Oakland’s parks district to graze hundreds of acres for fire prevention and land stewardship. Star Creek Ranch and Bush won a three-year contract worth over $1 million. “Because we won the contract, a business was built called Star Creek Land Stewards. It went from a home ranch thing to a public ecosystem-service enterprise. We are literally putting out fires with grazing animals,” she said.
The business uses a “high impact, high density, low duration” model by fencing many animals in small paddocks for brief periods with electric netting. Generally the shepherdess and her team of Peruvian herdsmen and 500 wether goats perform ecosystem services around landfills, marinas, neighborhoods, municipal structures, powerlines, orchards, golf courses and biodynamic wineries at the cost of $300 to $600 per acre. “Our holistic management mimics the impact of ancient animals on the environment. In dense herds, livestock consume a greater variety of plants and weeds, while their hooves help activate the seed bank to spark the growth of native grasses that improve soil health.”
Because the work is seasonal, Bush spent winters developing her leatherworking skills and she now crafts wallets, clutches and bags. In her newest collaboration with designer and maker, Laura Schoorl of Oakland, CA, they became partners in purveying sheep and goat hides for their Shepherdess Holistic Hides brand.
Sourced from regionally raised animals, the ladies work to close the gap in a whole system approach in valuing the livestock that are used to steward the local California landscapes for their “fibershed”. In small batch lots, they bring high quality hides with a story that feels good while selling them online and at craft fairs. Ms. Bush also finds value-added opportunities within the culinary arts for her forage based meat products. “My opportunity is to educate the public about the attributes of holistic land care with animals. My message is it has to be alluring — it has to be good, honest, healthy and viable for it to succeed.”
“In thinking about this conference’s influence as a national model, we created connections across all genres of farming and strived for excellence in supporting everyone’s point of view. We were overwhelmed by the optimism and sharing of ideas and critical thinking on issues that affect communities. We look forward to the next 20 years,” said Colby.
For more information visit www.uvm.edu/~pasture .