Nestled in the Connecticut River Valley, Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, VT, has become an example for local farms of conservation efforts and sustainable farming. Classified as a “micro dairy,” the farm is home to 20 Jersey cows that produce milk for Cobb Hill Cheese products, in addition to their vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Cedar Mountain Farm was recently named as a finalist for the 2022 New England Leopold Conservation Award for its above-and-beyond efforts in sustainable farming.

Owners Kerry Gewalt and Stephen Leslie have prioritized making their farm a “regenerative farm ecosystem.” Leslie summarized this initiative as “commercial farmers embracing conservation efforts.”

The two owners have acknowledged the fact that human interactions have caused a loss of the amount and quality of farmland, and through creating a regenerative farm ecosystem, landowners can live off the land in a production agriculture setting while also restoring its quality and resources along the way. An emphasis is placed on restoring the carbon cycle and biodiversity within their reach. Their farm has shown that by making conscious efforts surrounding soil inputs and work, the health of the land can be improved and therefore yields and profits can be as well.

Specific conservation efforts on the farm range from the animals to the soil they walk on. Their dairy cattle are housed in a compost bedpack barn to successfully manage manure while optimizing cow comfort. Their gardens, in which they grow 26 different vegetables and herbs, use a no-till method that has increased soil quality and helped to mitigate weeds. In their award application, the farm notes that the five soil health principles have been an area of priority on their operation.

Cedar Mountain Farm, Conservation Award finalist

Stephen Leslie making hay with his draft horses this past summer. Photo courtesy of Cedar Mountain Farm

Conservation farming can take additional time and effort, but Cedar Mountain Farm has several reasons for going above and beyond. Cedar Mountain has been in continuous agricultural production since at least the 1770s, and Gewalt and Leslie took over its stewardship in 1999. When the farm was established, they shifted from the use of fertilizer to cover crops based on their own preferences and backgrounds. Through the years they have found that their sustainable farming methods have saved time and money through their natural systems approach.

A unique aspect of the farm is that the majority of their fieldwork is done with a team of draft horses. While their care takes longer than maintaining a tractor, the horses are more environmentally friendly and size appropriate for the size and scale of the fields. Leslie also noted the horses are driven and enjoy the work. This is part of their initiative to have a “biodynamic” farm.

Life on this farm is similar to other New England dairy farms. Leslie and Gewalt are both full-time employees on the farm, with additional full-time and seasonal help. They also house a dairy grazing apprentice as a full-time employee for a two-year commitment. Their cattle are grazing for five months of the year, which takes additional labor compared to typical daily chores on the farm.

A piece of the Leopold Conservation Award is also community orientation. The couple has extended their help far and wide with several organizations. Gewalt serves as the farmer representative for their local FSA branch, for the DFA cooperative, for the GENEX cooperative and for the New England Dairy Promotion Board. Additionally, she is a 4-H leader for the Hartland Cattle 4-H Club, based out of Cedar Mountain Farm.

Leslie has specifically taken an interest in sharing his knowledge with those around him. He has published articles about sustainable farming methods in Rural Heritage magazine and Small Farmers journal and has published two of his own books about using draft animals while farming. Their farm has an open door and they host several schools and community tour groups to share their story.

While Cedar Mountain Farm were not the winners of this year’s award, their hard work has not gone unnoticed. The true winners of their efforts are the land they work, the animals they care for and the people they feed.

by Hannah Majewski