Stewards of Change

The health of the environment and climate affects few industries as directly as agriculture. From soil health to major weather events, the livelihood of farmers depends on mother nature. While we can’t control the weather, there are many things farmers are doing to address the issue of sustainability. We sat down with two VT farms who work with Agricultural Consulting Services (ACS) to discuss the role environmental stewardship plays on their farms.

Conant’s Riverside Farms milks about 400 cows and farms 700 acres in Richmond, VT. Tom Eaton, ACS Service Manager and Agronomy Consultant, has worked with the Conants since 2006. Aside from his agronomy and regulatory expertise, Ransom Conant explains that Tom is also a valuable sounding board for progress. “Tom sees a lot of farms and scenarios and he brings a lot of ideas to the farm for us. He helps us keep up with technology and lets us know what other farms are trying and having success with.”

According to Tom, there is no true standard way of doing things though. “I don’t do the same thing for any of my clients, and I have about 50. There is no normal.” Tom’s insight is what has given the Conants and others the confidence to step outside their comfort zone and do things differently, especially when it comes to the environment. Dave and Ransom Conant believe in the importance of the dairy industry demonstrating an effort to be a part of the sustainability solution. “You may or may not be a big contributor, but we all have an impact.”

“There was a time when people appreciated seeing a perfectly plowed field. There was nothing more beautiful. Now there’s beauty in something different.”

Dave Conant, Conant’s Riverside Farm

When asked how the way they farm has changed in the last 10 years, many of the changes the Conants reflected on were directly related to environmental stewardship. No-till, cover cropping, and nutrient targeting through draglines and injection have all become common practices on the farm. The Conants began using a dragline to spread manure after a trip to some farms in NY. This has allowed them to apply manure more efficiently and has significantly decreased the amount of fuel needed to do so. Conant’s Riverside Farm was also the first farm in Vermont with an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) contract. EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that helps farms to farm in a way that promotes production and environmental quality as compatible goals.

Fairmont Farm is another of Tom’s 50 or so clients. The Hall and Purchase families milk 1,420 cows in two facilities in East Montpelier, VT where they also farm about 3,600 acres. One of Richard Hall’s biggest messages is that you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money to improve your sustainability. They’ve considered no-till to be a low input transition that has significantly decreased runoff and helped with the retention of nutrients on the farm. Cover cropping, another pretty low investment change for the farm, has also had a positive impact on their crop program. “It’s a tough time in the dairy industry to be making big investments, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be done to be good stewards,” Richard explains.

If we want to be here for the long haul, we have to be responsible for what we’re doing. I don’t think anyone wants to have a negative impact. It can be a really fine line between profitability challenges and environmental challenges but the two can’t be exclusive of each other.

Richard Hall, Fairmont Farm

For a farm trying to make an impactful change without a huge investment, Tom has a few pieces of advice to offer. The first is to keep good records. “If you want to get better without a large financial investment, keep track of what you’re doing.” Another simple step you can take is to take soil samples. “There are still a lot of farms that don’t sample their soil. They don’t know what’s in it or what it needs, and they’re spending money where they may not need to be.” These are great first steps you can’t take in the right direction without making a large financial investment.

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