VISITORS' GUIDE     

I recently worked with a community-focused, regenerative agriculture farm to refresh their informational kiosks and visitors' guide copy. The project involved some light research and original copywriting as well as reorganization and copyediting of existing material for voice consistency, accuracy, and polish. The below is from the visitors’ guide.

Our Environment and Our Practices

The Climate Crisis

 

Understanding our changing climate

Over the course of the last two centuries, human activities have steadily increased the levels of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide and methane, in the earth’s atmosphere. The growing concentration of these gases in our skies has steadily warmed our planet, raising global surface temperatures to levels that now threaten our natural environment and communities. We are already witnessing the effects of this warming: dangerous temperature extremes, stronger hurricanes and blizzards, devastating wildfires, coral reef die-offs, and alarming losses in plant and animal biodiversity.

 

The global scientific community warns we must urgently and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent sea level rise and flooding, desertification of once-fertile lands, mass species extinctions, and overall environmental collapse. In the near future, deteriorated environmental conditions could create severe food insecurity and shrinking access to clean water, the displacement of millions of people, and widespread infectious disease outbreaks. The World Health Organization has declared climate change the greatest threat to global health in our time.

 

How did we get here? Our modern energy consumption levels and industrial practices, which emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases, are certainly to blame. However, they’re not the whole story.

Agriculture’s role in climate change

In many ways, agriculture is both a problem and a solution for climate change. 

 

Modern industrial farming relies on harsh production practices like heavy tilling, synthetic fertilizers, and chemical pest control methods to create high yields. But these practices strip soil both physically and biologically, leaving it unable to retain essential nutrients such as carbon. Modern industrial farming practices and land misuse are responsible for around 30 percent of all carbon emissions and have led to the release of nearly 80 billion tons of carbon from the earth’s soils. And as land is cleared to grow commodity crops and animal feed, the resulting loss of forests and perennial and native plant life further limits the earth’s ability to naturally manage carbon dioxide levels. 

 

Photosynthesis is the process of carbon moving from the atmosphere into plants. Soil carbon sequestration is the process of plant-based carbon becoming stabilized within soil. While all plants photosynthesize and trap carbon in their tissues, not all farming practices help sequester that carbon in soil. Though large industry is the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions, the land management choices farmers make can have a meaningful impact on climate change outcomes.

 

To save our planet from the most devastating consequences of a warming atmosphere, we must responsibly manage our energy use and invest in renewable energy sources. But to fully combat climate change and strengthen the systems upon which we depend, it’s crucial that we restore health to our soils, forests, and grasslands. This requires us to reconsider our landscapes as not just a collection of resources for our benefit but rather a wonderfully productive and complex system of which we are but a single piece. 

 

Animals on land

Livestock have been integral to healthy, sustainable food systems for thousands of years. In the past, massive herds of herbivores (like elephants and bison) moved seasonally and were pursued by predators, shaping every continent’s ecosystem. Grasslands coevolved with these herds as they ate, trampled, and fertilized their surface, creating rhythms and pulses of disturbance and rest. Planned grazing mimics these historic patterns and behaviors.

 

The introduction of confined, exclusively grain-fed livestock production methods and continuous grazing has separated animals from natural agricultural cycles. In order to produce meat, eggs, and milk as quickly and cheaply as possible, industrial farms pack animals densely together, feed them hormones to artificially encourage growth, dose them with antibiotics to combat the diseases that thrive in unhealthy conditions, and fatten them entirely on commodity crops that are unsustainably farmed to maximize yields.

 

These practices are unhealthy for animals and directly contribute to climate change. Toxic runoff from factory farms pollutes water and soil. Clear-cutting to grow feed grains is a leading cause of deforestation around the world. Persistent overgrazing of pasture lands leads to soil erosion and compaction. And energy-intensive production farms and their livestock are a significant source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

 

Regenerative agriculture restores livestock to their place in a reciprocal food production ecosystem. Livestock are rotationally grazed on healthy grasslands, mimicking the movement of wild herds. As they feed, their hooves disturb the soil, packing down healthy plant matter and creating an environment in which water, fungi, and bacteria can gather, forming the basic components of the soil microbial community. As they move, the animals deposit manure and urine, which stimulates the microbiome in the soil and leads to plant growth. This livestock movement pattern allows soil and plant life to thrive– while greenhouse gases are emitted during this process, they are mitigated by soil and plant life capturing more gases than are released.

 

Are cows bad?

Yes and no. Cows themselves are not bad, of course, but modern industrial farming leads directly to environmental degradation and climate change. Industrial production methods also compromise animals’ performance and health, which in turn affects the nutritional value of their meat. But cows raised as part of a thriving, regenerative pasture system can help reduce greenhouse gases. Their manure and herd-like movements increase soil fertility and plant growth, resulting in carbon sequestration.

 

Regenerative Agriculture

 

Current practices

We take an entire ecosystem into account when choosing our growing practices to ensure we will have a net positive impact on the environment. Our fruit and vegetable growing and pasture management practices reflect the Farm’s desire to produce all food within a regenerative agricultural system. The core pillars of our system are building healthy soils, increasing water retention and purity, enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, and reducing carbon emissions through significant carbon sequestration. We practice rotational livestock grazing, use cover crops as part of our crop rotation, apply compost annually, plant native perennials, and continually explore more regenerative practices to foster the health of our land and our climate.

 

Soil management

Soil is complex: it requires proper mineral, microbial, and structural properties to grow things well and sequester carbon. The Farm is located on the Vergennes and Covington Soil series. This series consists of soils that are generally deep, moderately well drained, and typically clay to silty-clay throughout their profile. Prior to 2012, most of our fields were used for conventional corn and hay production, which required annual plowing. This conventional plowing practice compacted the soil and resulted in reduced organic matter and fertility. 

 

By stewarding this land with rotational grazing instead of conventional, equipment-reliant practices, we are using animals to enrich the soil’s organic matter and nutrient content, which subsequently improves the vitality, resilience, and biodiversity of this landscape. Over the past few years, through our research, we’ve been able to track and show that these practices have increased our soil organic matter. We also practice a low-till style of agriculture. By tilling infrequently (or not at all, depending on the state of the soil and the crops we are tending), we improve our soil’s structure. This encourages a more robust and diverse soil biology to develop over time, providing habitat for beneficial microbes, fungi, and insects.

 

Handling compost

Composting is a method of recycling and reusing organic materials like plant matter, food scraps, and animal waste to increase soil health. As these materials interact and decompose, they create a rich mixture of nutrients, minerals, and microorganisms that can be added to soil to support its structure and fertility. We make and apply compost to our pastures and gardens annually.

 

We also use a “pack barn” to efficiently turn our animals’ waste products into rich, fertile compost. Our livestock overwinter in the barn, which is lined with a deep layer of comfy, carbon-rich pack material made of hay and woodchips. The animals eat, sleep, and deposit manure and urine directly onto the pack bedding. The pack barn provides the animals a warm winter home while turning their bedding and waste products into reusable, nutrient-rich material for the farm.

 

Grass-fed livestock

We manage over three hundred acres of hay and rotationally grazed pastures on which we raise Belted Galloway cattle; Berkshire, Tamworth, and Saddleback pigs; Cornish Cross and Royal Gray broiler chickens; hens for pastured eggs; Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys; and a mixed breed of Romney and Border Leicester sheep. At our heart we are grass farmers, tending healthy fields of diverse grasses, forbs, and legumes in a perennial pasture system. Our livestock are an integral part of this healthy pasture system; their manure adds nutrients that increase soil fertility and plant growth.

 

We practice management-intensive rotational grazing, which provides our livestock with new areas of high-quality pasture daily while giving our fields long periods of rest to allow for plant regrowth. This requires staff to move temporary fences every day to ensure the livestock always get the best pasture available. We take many variables into account when building our grazing plan: animal behavior, wildlife needs, haying needs, weather, plant growth rates, and more. The result is a pasture-based system that builds soil health and sequesters carbon.

 

Animal performance, meat quality, and taste

Our pastures are incredibly diverse and experience daily and seasonal variations in growth and forage species composition. A number of environmental factors, including soil type, weather, and plant species variety affect the overall yield and quality of the pastures our animals graze on. Because every season of every year is different in the pasture, our pasture-raised meat varies subtly in flavor from year to year. Similar to the concept of terroir in wine, grass-fed meat provides a direct connection to the time and place in which it was grown. Our grass farmers work within this connection to produce the most delicious meat possible. Each season, they carefully test and review plant growth in our fields and strive to plant the healthiest, tastiest blend of legumes and grasses for the animals, which in turn produces the healthiest, tastiest meat.

 

Ecology

Water quality, runoff, and manure

Soil’s ability to retain water during dry times and drain excess water during wet times determines what and how well things can grow. At the farm, we have heavy clay soil that was compacted by years of plowing. This means our soil has trouble draining excess water, which can make it difficult for the soil to absorb water and difficult for plant roots to penetrate and grow. We use plant roots to help break up the compacted soil, don’t till or plow our fields, and installed a tile drainage system throughout our gardens and pastures to help with water flow. Our practices promote proper drainage and aeration and have helped increase our water holding capacity by over two million gallons in five years.

 

In addition to supporting proper water drainage and holding capacity, we’re committed to both limiting and monitoring agricultural runoff. Traditional livestock farming can leach harmful substances, including phosphorus, from compromised soil and animal waste and transmit them to local lakes and rivers—which has been a serious problem in the Lake Champlain watershed. Regenerative agriculture focuses on healthy, holistic systems that depend on unpolluted, well-managed water resources. Recycling manure as compost and monitoring the health of our soil allows us to minimize water runoff and ensure that the runoff that does occur is environmentally safe. 

 

Plant diversity and biodiversity

Our gardens and pastures are designed to be innovative growing environments that include a diversity of habitats. Many of our garden production blocks contain native species, medicinal herbs, plants attractive to pollinators and beneficial insects, and multiple varieties of berry bushes. We grow perennial trees, shrubs, and grasses as part of our pasture system. These perennial systems build soil health, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, and support beneficial microorganisms and fungi.

 

Planting trees

Trees are important to the history of this land. Vermont was once covered in forests, nearly 70 percent of which were cleared for sheep grazing in the 1800s. We’ve planted over 1,500 trees in the last few years to help restore the area’s natural habitat and to harness their environmental benefits. Trees are powerful water and carbon management tools, and the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems has been practiced around the world for centuries. Trees and shade have additional benefits for animal health and performance, which is core to the mission of our farm.

 

Human health

Regenerative agriculture focuses on supporting nature’s interrelated systems. Humans are intimately connected to these systems; our health is a direct result and indicator of the health of our environment and the food it grows. Functioning, sustainable food production methods benefit us, not only through the food we eat but also through their ability to bring our land, water, and climate into balance. 

 

Research Initiatives

 

Farmer-led research / practice-based research 

At the Farm, we are always working to better understand how soils, plants, animals, and people interact. As a former commodity dairy, the Farm is an ideal candidate for on-farm research. By adopting regenerative agriculture practices, we’ve created an opportunity to evaluate the evolving health of the farm’s ecosystem. 

 

Our farmers regularly monitor the condition of our soil. To assess soil fertility, we measure the physical (soil structure), chemical (minerals and nutrients), and biological (the presence of healthy plants, bugs, bacteria, and fungi) components of the soil. We also carefully track the farm’s pasture yield and quality, water runoff, animal performance, and overall productivity.

 

Partnership with University of Vermont

About 80 percent of Vermont’s farmland is currently dedicated to commodity dairy and conventional hay and crop production. But high production costs and falling milk prices, as well as negative environmental outcomes, are forcing farmers to look for alternative, more sustainable models. We have partnered with the University of Vermont (UVM) to establish a research and evaluation protocol that farms around the state can use to produce healthy soils. Consistently gathering and measuring data in the field is essential to understanding which farming practices lead to optimal soil health, water quality, carbon sequestration, and other environmental benefits. The data we collect with the scientists and researchers at UVM helps us to understand the effects of our practices and continually improve the health and productivity of our land.

 

NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant

In 2020, UVM, the Vermont Land Trust, and Bio-Logical Capital, our operating partner, were awarded an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant to conduct statewide on-farm trials. The Farm is the pilot farm for the project: project team members have used our farm to design data-driven trials that, with the support of the grant, will be implemented on farms throughout Vermont. Combining on-the-ground measurements with satellite imagery, the project partners aim to assess the ecological, economic, and social impacts of adopting a four-part soil management system that includes practices such as planting cover crops, reducing tillage, modifying nutrient management, and the intensive, rotational grazing of livestock.