In between the heat and raindrops this summer, Norah Lake of Sweetland Farm and her husband Chris have managed to harvest bushels of weekly vegetables for their CSA and farm stand, four batches of pasture-raised chickens and several fields of feed hay.

In a year when farming has been supremely difficult due to extreme weather conditions, “our square bales have been in high demand. We snuck it in whenever we could, but the haying weather windows have been few and far between,” said Norah, speaking in between meetings and field work at her Norwich, VT, farm. “Every growing season is challenging, but this year we really had to hustle any time the sun came out, to make the most of the good weather.”

In addition to hustling to grow food for their two- and four-legged neighbors, they also filled out the application that they received for the 2023 New England Leopold Conservation Award. They were chosen as one of four finalists in late August. The award is given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold and recognizes landowners who inspire others with their dedication to voluntarily conserve and protect land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

Norah and Chris purchased their conserved farm in 2012 from the Vermont Land Trust. “It was a livestock farm of sorts,” Norah said. “We have diversified quite a bit from there.”

Half of their 200-acre farm is forested, and half is open land. Fifteen acres is planted in vegetables, three acres comprises the orchard they planted, 10 acres is pasture and the rest is hayland and managed forest.

They raise pigs, chickens and turkeys. All of the animals on pasture benefit from the extra nutrients they leave behind. The meat is sold either by pre-orders that enable customers to make special butchering requests or in cuts available at their farm store.

The pigs eat Vermont-made Poulin grain, surplus milk from local dairy operations and extra vegetables from their garden.

They raise 800 Cornish Roasters in four batches of 200 each. The chickens are moved daily under portable chicken tractor roofs. Besides eating insects, “as soon as they get on fresh grass they are hunting for all the choice green tidbits they can find,” said Norah. They also enjoy grain. They also raise 80 Broad Breasted White turkeys.

The livestock are instrumental in keeping insect populations down and aerating and improving the soil.

They sell their own products as well as products from other regional farmers in their farm store. “We started it really as an option for customers to pick up online orders of local goods during the early days of the pandemic,” Norah explained. It is now a walk-in store open daily year-round.

Norah noted that she was a vegetarian for three years before she started farming. “I am now a proud eater of locally raised meat. Including pasture-raised animals as part of our diversified farm is an important piece of cycling nutrients and utilizing each part of the farm sustainably.”

It could be argued that Norah has been working in tandem with Leopold’s view of responsible conservation ethics her whole life. She studied sustainability through Dartmouth College’s Environmental Studies Department and helped start the college’s Dartmouth Farm CSA.

Sweetland Farm: Finalist for the New England Leopold Conservation Award

Norah Lake and her daughter Fern in one of the farm’s conserved orchards. Photo courtesy of Sweetland Farm

When she graduated in 2006, she became a partner at Sunrise Farm in Hartford, VT, gaining valuable farm management skills. Since she and her husband bought their farm a decade ago, they have established wildlife corridors along their farm fields, been battling invasives and preserving their wetlands, which is all in keeping with Leopold’s view of responsible conservation.

They have been removing honeysuckle, glossy buckthorn and autumn olive and replacing them with native and forage-producing plants. They’ve planted hybrid chestnuts, oaks and hazelnuts to supply wildlife with food. They’ve also planted forage apple trees to benefit wildlife.

This spring saw them methodically working their way around field edges and forest patch cuts with a bucket of tree saplings under one arm and their one-year-old daughter Fern under the other.

To tie their mission of conservation and sustainability together, they made a “90 in 10” carbon emissions pledge to reduce their carbon emissions by 90% within 10 years.

Beginning in 2018, with a completion date set for 2028, they have a detailed list of changes they need to make to accomplish this goal. So far, they have insulated and put solar panels on their farm crew house. There are solar panels on their farm stand roof, their orchard barn roof and soon-to-be their largest barn roof, with current production at 55 kW.

As they increase their solar production, they aim to replace all fossil fuel-burning equipment, including tractors, with electric-powered implements. They’ll replace leaky doors, replace old lightbulbs with LED lights, convert greenhouse and farm crew house heating from propane to wood, weatherstrip their farmhouse and more.

They have transitioned their irrigation pumps from gas to electric power, insulated their farm crew house and replaced oil burning heat sources with air-source heat pumps. They have upgraded their farm stand coolers and freezers to super insulated, highly efficient units.

“We’ve been really excited to work with Vital Communities’ First Cohort of Climate Farmers. They have done a really nice job helping us tell our story about our growing practices and what we are doing as a farm to combat climate change,” said Norah.

“I am proud of what we’re doing. One of the points that comes through from our work with Vital Communities is that how farmers farm really matters when it comes to climate change. Their mantra – ‘How farmers farm and how eaters eat (impacts the climate)’ – is almost like a call to arms. It is so important to us to be a model business in our community. When it comes to sustainability, and seeing the increased changes in the weather patterns, we know we need to be part of the solution.”

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by Laura Rodley