by Sand County Foundation

The Choiniere Family Farm of Highgate Center, VT, has been selected as the recipient of the 2021 New England Leopold Conservation Award. Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award recognizes those who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife resources in their care. Dairy farmers Guy and Beth Choiniere receive $10,000 and a crystal award for being selected.

The Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 23 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.

“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the New England recipient,” said John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”

Choiniere Family Farm receives New England Leopold Conservation Award

Choiniere Family Farm is the first farm from Vermont to win the Leopold Conservation Award. Photo courtesy of Sand County Foundation

“Recipients of this award are real life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and CEO. “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”

“The Choinieres embody so much of the ethos and practice that Aldo Leopold taught and modeled, for generations,” said Spencer Meyer, senior conservationist at the Highstead Foundation. “I cannot think of a more fitting way to celebrate two inspiring legacies than by recognizing the Choiniere Family Farm with the 2021 Leopold Conservation Award.”

“We are pleased to present this award to Guy Choiniere and the Choiniere Family Farm. I am thrilled that a dairy farm so devoted to conservation agriculture and improving water quality has been chosen as the first New England Leopold Conservation Award recipient from Vermont,” said Nathan L’Etoile, New England Director of AFT. “Not only does Choiniere Family Farm hold itself to a high standard, but Guy devotes his own time to teach tomorrow’s watershed stewards, elementary school students around Lake Champlain, the importance of conservation practices to keeping our lakes and rivers clean.”

The New England Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of AFT; New England Forestry Foundation; Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities; Sand County Foundation; Farm Credit East; David and Ann Ingram; Yale School of the Environment; and Whole Foods.

About Choiniere Family Farm

Guy Choiniere believes the health of the soil is the health of the farm. This land ethic drives his actions on a dairy farm that’s been in the Choiniere family since 1945.

While navigating changes in the farm economy, climate and farming practices, Choiniere Family Farm has become a model of innovation and adaptability for other New England dairies. Soil health and erosion control practices have kept the farm productive and resilient despite an increase in severe storms, rainfall and periods of drought in northwest VT.

Prompted by an unstable market for conventional milk in the 1990s, Guy studied and then transitioned to organic production. It’s a move he said was good for his cows, land and bottom line. A few years later he seeded 25 acres of corn to permanent hay and pasture in order to convert his herd to 100% grass-fed. That move fetched an even better price for their organic milk.

After taking over the farm, Guy also began addressing environmental issues with assistance from USDA-NRCS. The conservation plan he developed remains a work in progress today.

To prevent soil erosion and improve water quality, the Choinieres planted 5,000 trees along banks of the impaired Rock River. They also conveyed a 51-acre river corridor easement that designates an area where the river can meander naturally. The land can still be farmed, but the river will not be dredged. There is also a permanent 50-foot naturally vegetated buffer along 12,000 feet of the river’s bank.

Keeping nutrients on the farm and out of the river was also aided when Guy switched from conventional liquid manure storage to an innovative compost bedded pack system. During the winter the cows are fed hay in large hoop barns designed to mimic the comfort and atmosphere of being on pasture. Excess hay provides bedding and catches manure before being trod down into compost. When the cows resume rotational grazing in May, pigs are let into the barns to root around and expedite the composting process before it is spread on fields as nutrient-rich fertilizer. Guy is an ambassador to help other dairies manage bedded pack systems.

Choiniere Family Farm participates in VT’s roadside sign program that identifies conservation practices like rotational grazing, cover crops, no-till and streamside plantings. The Choinieres, who were VT’s Conservation Farmers of the Year in 2009, are now the first New England Leopold Conservation Award recipients from the Green Mountain State.