Raising high quality grass-fed beef, being leaders in the community and their land ethics have earned John and Carolyn Wheeler the honor of being one of three finalists for this year’s New England Leopold Conservation Award.
Given by the Sand County Foundation in honor of famous conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac,” the award honors those practicing ecological land management and land ethics.
The Sand County Foundation, in partnership with American Farmland Trust and regional partners New England Forestry Foundation and Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities, announced Wheel-View Farm in Shelburne, MA, was one of the finalists in mid-September. The winner receives $10,000, a farm sign noting the achievement and a crystal award.
Sand County Foundation presents the award to private landowners dedicated to leaving their land in better condition than how they found it, exemplifying the spirit of Leopold’s land ethic.
One thing the Wheelers are achieving at their farm is sequestering carbon. Striving to keep their pastureland open sequesters the element. “A lot of people think only trees sequester carbon. Grass also sequesters carbon. In the pastures, the cattle eat the brush and help keep the land open. We’re keeping open spaces. People enjoy seeing the spectacular views,” said Carolyn, who earned a master’s in plant pathology at UMass. John attended night school while farming and earned an MBA. John taught at Mohawk High School and Carolyn taught at Keene State College while maintaining the farm. Though both finished with teaching, they are far from retired.
They pasture their cattle on their farm’s 350 acres, 100 acres of which is pasture on open land. All of their land is under 61A with 110 acres in APR; the rest is in a Farm Viability Enhancement Program. They used to raise cattle birthed at their farm, but as they are getting older, this is the fourth year they will buy feeder calves in autumn from nearby farms in Ashfield and Charlemont, providing those farms with a steady income. The cattle – an assortment of Belted Galloways, Murray Grays, Angus and Herefords – are rotationally grazed. They currently have 60 head, but sometimes as many as 90.
They rent a further 80 acres of hay fields where they bale their own hay. This year has been particularly challenging due to the drought.
“It’s never been so dry. I’ve never seen it like this before. The hay we wanted to harvest just didn’t grow,” Carolyn said. “We did get some, but not even half of what we should have gotten. We’ve had to buy hay to feed to the cattle beginning in July. The pasture is crunchy. Feeding hay in July is unheard of. Sometimes we start feeding hay in September or the end of August – never July.”
The Wheelers bought their farm from Carolyn’s parents Hank and Betty Gowdy in 1979. They ran it as a dairy until 1988. Then they focused on raising grass-fed beef and selling maple syrup, and later, flowers and cider.
In the farm store/museum that the couple opened at their farm six years ago, one can find unique items from both sides of their families, which have storied pasts in the community. “They are all things that our ancestors had; quite literally, they never threw anything out,” said Carolyn.
One such item is a letter from 1905 written to her great-grandmother Mary Wilson Reynolds who came to the farm in 1896, thanking her for her gift of trailing arbutus (the Massachusetts state flower, more commonly known as mayflower). The letter states, “As arbutus never comes to me except from your house, I am sure the lovely box I received the other day was from yourself. It was just as sweet and fragrant as when you gathered it.”
Over a century later, trailing arbutus still grows on their farm. Carolyn credits this continuum to their concerted efforts to keep pastures open. Their farmlands also sustain and conserve purple fringed gentian, a flower that sports a cup of deep purple petals ending with a fringe.
When they applied for the award, “we pointed out that we have these small flowers, showing we have a land ethic where even small flowers are important to us,” Carolyn said, emulating Leopold’s directives.
She noted that Leopold asks in his book what value economists would put on flowers. “Economists don’t figure that value,” she said. “Those particular species are important, just as well as trees, stressing the ‘interdependence of one species to another.’”
Over the years the Wheelers have raised dairy cattle, sold flowers commercially, grown apples and peaches and made hard cider. In recent years, however, John removed trees from their six-acre orchard, returning it to pastureland.
Streamlining production to honor their own limitations and work within their own capacity has the added benefit of cutting down on their carbon footprint. They no longer deliver beef to local stores and restaurants. Instead, three or four animals per month are trucked to Adams Farm in Athol for processing, cut into primal cuts and trucked to River Valley Market Co-ops in Easthampton and Northampton. There, meat cutters cut them into steaks and hamburger. The Wheelers sell the beef from their other animals as frozen meat at their farm store.
They recently purchased a further 59 acres in Shelburne. The property contains a big beaver pond and is home to the American bittern, which nests in the cattails, and the sora, a small water rail bird, both listed as endangered by Mass. Fish and Wildlife. The Wheelers want to preserve the wildlife habitat, manage invasive plants and allow access.
The winner of the New England Leopold Conservation Award will be announced Nov. 17.
by Laura Rodley