by Troy Bishopp
LAKE MOREY, VT – While hockey players and ice-fisherman celebrated victories on the frozen playground, farmers and inspiring speakers were inside reveling about soil biology, marketing techniques and building relationships with friends. Such is life on the lake for the 23rd installment of the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference. “As we step forward into 2019, our heart of the matter moment is growing deep roots and building healthy farms,” said Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association.
Over 250 guests came to the two-day event which featured intensive Friday sessions on marketing, livestock liability, risk management and ecosystem services; Saturday highlighted a diverse mix of 14 livestock topics and two keynote presentations on the power of soil health. The meeting tradition included a robust trade show, delectable Vermont menu items, the popular ice cream social and something new – an evening farmer storytelling hour followed by a jam session of grazing musicians.
Charlotte Smith of St. Paul, OR, founder of 3CowMarketing.com, an online marketing training company for farmers (and who runs Champoeg Creamery, a raw milk micro-dairy), taught Friday on the three steps to a profitable farm. She spoke about her successful experiences and guided farmers in identifying their ideal customer, growing their email marketing presence and building relationships and trust.
“The USDA cites we have 200 farmers going out of business every day so it’s my passion to provide the practical tools to thwart this local issue,” said Smith. “You’ll never compete on price and convenience with the likes of Amazon and Walmart; however, we have a relationship and people trust us.”
The other Friday intensive workshop led discussions on legal issues surrounding livestock, transport, animal identification and liability, understanding the types of development that trigger Vermont’s Act 250, what actually falls under “agricultural use” and how to streamline the Act 250 process. Panel conversations included managing insurance and utilizing risk management tools and understanding easement opportunities and limitations, finishing with how research on climate resilience and ecosystem services can be most useful to farmers.
Friday evening brought an ad hoc group of start-up comedian farmers waxing poetic, telling funny, true stories ranging from catching cows with a helicopter and dart gun to capturing an ornery ram, finding lost calves to dealing with a loud rooster and working with a “revealing” customer. The laughter and kind family atmosphere was a tribute to the late Vermont Grass Farmers Association president and “Organic Mechanic” Eric Noel, who passed away a month before the event.
A special treat followed with live music featuring keynote speaker, author, musician and longtime leader of the band Big Dirt, David Montgomery. His accompanying Vermont pick-up band, aptly named The Grateful Climate, featured the talents of VGFA board member Seth Itzkan, local rock legend Chris Sargent, folk musician Cat Buxton and Boston’s own Kevin O’Connor.
Saturday brought a hustle and bustle because of the impending snowstorm but came off without a hitch, as farmers are a resilient bunch. The workmanlike sessions illuminated topics on fence, water and infrastructure topics, grazing basics, creating healthy pastures, pastured poultry, farm website management, grazing research outcomes, practical soil evaluations, extending the grazing season, wood chips as a winter barnyard solution and the concept of hiring Vermont farmers to grow topsoil and provide watershed-wide ecosystem services.
The Terrace Ballroom was the rallying point for the crowd as the humble soil that nourishes our planet was honored by the keynote presenters. Soil4Climate co-founders Seth Itzkan and Karl Thidemann put out a rousing call to action for Vermont to invest in more grazing management that would capture 200,000 tons of soil carbon and hold an additional billion gallons of rainfall on the land.
The husband and wife team of David Montgomery and Anne Biklé then took the stage and chronicled their journey of soil health discoveries and optimism in their “Soil Trilogy” presentations.
Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and a MacArthur Fellow, is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He has published more than 200 papers in the scientific literature. Among his popular books are “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” and “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.”
Biklé is a science writer, biologist and author. She draws on over two decades of professional background in field biology, natural history and environmental planning to investigate and write about connections between people, plants, food, health and the environment. She co-authored “The Hidden Half of Nature” with Montgomery. They maintain a web presence at www.dig2grow.com .
Throughout history societies that degraded their soil did not last. Today, widespread soil degradation presents the least known global environmental crisis that humanity faces. Montgomery laid out the historical roots of soil degradation and related his experiences visiting farmers around the world who reversed this ancient pattern.
“They have restored fertility to their land and increased soil organic matter through adopting conservation agriculture practices. By cultivating beneficial soil life through ditching the plow, growing cover crops and adopting complex rotations, farmers in both the developed and developing worlds were able to maintain or increase their yields while using far less diesel and agrochemicals, resulting in a better bottom line,” Montgomery stated.
Biklé shared her insights and discoveries about microbiomes, the communities of bacteria and other microbes that are part of the green bodies of plants as well as our own and our animals. “The soils in which we grow our crops and the mammalian gut have more in common than meets the eye,” she said.
As the guests left to brave the weather, the conference coordinator, Jenn Colby, reflected on all the work everyone had done and was grateful. “We’re all just a really big family. We have worked hard to create this atmosphere. You know, it’s not all about grazing. It’s about family and making lasting relationships.”
Director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Linda Berlin commented, “I’m proud of my colleagues. The center’s staff do research and outreach throughout the year that is focused on investigating best practices related to grass farming. This conference provides a great opportunity for them to share what they’ve learned, and encourage farmers to testify about their experiences with the new practices. For example, I attended a session on wood chip pads that make winter feeding easier for farmers, more economical, more environmentally friendly and appear to result in happier animals. You can’t beat that set of positive outcomes!”
For more information on grazing programs in Vermont and surrounding states visit www.uvm.edu/pasture.