Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com. Tom Slayton is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine.
Mach’s General Store in Pawlet is nerve central for the Mettowee Valley. From early morning on, cars and trucks and the occasional tractor — all the rolling infrastructure of a working farm community — pull in to the white-painted brick store, seeking coffee, a sandwich, groceries or hardware.
There are bicyclists, too, and a few tourists, because the Mettowee Valley is one of the most alluring places in Vermont. But it’s evident, as you drive the valley, that this is a farming community, first and foremost. Tourism mostly happens about 15 miles southeast down Vermont 30, at Manchester.
The Mettowee Valley still feels genuinely rural. Broad fields of tasseled-out feed corn line the winding, two-lane roads connecting Pawlet, Rupert, Wells, and their satellite hamlets. As you navigate any of those roads, you are likely to wind up following a tractor or manure spreader, and it’s not uncommon to stop and wait for a stray heifer on the road.
However, this little valley is under intense development pressure. Keeping a single dairy farm in operation is not easy these days, and conserving an entire farming community is even harder.
“If you preserve one farm in every town, it’s pretty, but it won’t maintain the farming community,” says Donald Campbell, regional representative for the Vermont Land Trust (VLT). “This valley is filled with Vermonters who are doing some really creative thinking about how they farm and what they do.”
The valley proper lies northwest-southeast along some 15 miles of Vermont 30. Steep, forested hills define its sides, with rock-faced Haystack Mountain at its northern end. The Mettowee River, a rippling, gravelly trout stream, splashes through the valley, its winding course marked by rows of trees that stand out against the big cornfields and broad, golden meadows.
It’s pretty, but farming requires as much hard work here as anywhere, and it’s just as financially insecure. Farmers in the valley will tell you that dairy farming, which dominates, has lately been “a pretty tough sled.”
Nevertheless, an important transition is occurring: a new generation is taking over the farms. And when you ask that younger generation why they want to farm in this particular place, they almost always give the same answer: the soil.
“If you’re going to farm anywhere, you’ve got to have good land,” says Ken Leach, 35, as he looks at a field of 10-foot-tall corn. “And this is good land.”
The valley’s deep soils are naturally fertile because of the underlying limestone and marble of the Taconic Mountain Range; as a result, the topsoil is naturally sweet, favoring grasses, corn and other crops. And the valley is flat, sheltered, and a bit warmer than northern Vermont or the mountain lands just to the east.
Two other factors have helped keep the Mettowee Valley in farming, one being the deeply personal commitment of local people to agriculture and the other the Vermont Land Trust and allied organizations, which have helped stabilize the land base.
Leach milks some 65 cows. Every farm in the valley has a different economic strategy, and his is to cut costs, juggle various assets, and do as much of his own farm work as possible. He leases land to a neighboring farmer to grow corn, then buys back the corn as silage – that way he doesn’t have to invest thousands of dollars in corn-processing machinery. He’s also growing sweet corn to sell to nearby farmstands.
Leach is committed to dairying for good reasons.
“Where else do you get five-figure cash-flow, once or twice a month?” he asks.
There are many other types of farming done in this area – sweet potatoes, market vegetables, maple syrup, even a wine-grape rootstock growing operation. But dairying dominates the valley, both in dollars earned and amount of land used. To save the Mettowee Valley for farming, Campbell, the VLT’s regional representative, says, they had to save dairying.
And virtually every dairy farm has one niche or another, from selling silage to other farms across Vermont to producing organic milk.
Just up Vermont 30 to the north, Tim and Dot Leach and their family specialize in high-end bovine genetics — using in vitro fertilization and other scientific techniques to raise superior red-and-white Holstein cattle, which they can then sell or lease out for breeding purposes for tens of thousands of dollars. (Ken Leach is not closely related to Tim and Dot. The Leaches are a widespread, loosely related family of several branches, whose ancestors have been farming this land since Revolutionary War times.)
All these economic strategies are in addition to milking 60 to 150 cows daily, and managing many more cattle in the bargain. There’s no shortage of hard but rewarding work on this flat valley land.
One problem, though: the land is valuable for more than farming. It’s also highly desirable as real estate. Now that this area is easily accessible to Boston and New York – and is located just up the road from the popular tourist centers of Manchester and Dorset – the Mettowee Valley is under intense economic pressure. Two years ago a 35-acre field just off the highway sold for $1.2 million.
You don’t have to be an economist to see that the twin economic threats of development and gentrification could have transformed the valley and ended its days as a real farm community. “When out-of-state people have so much money that the price of land is almost inconsequential, there’s no way local farmers can bid against them,” Campbell says.
That’s why VLT, the Merck Family Foundations, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund, and others have invested millions of dollars in keeping working farmers on the good farmland here.
By purchasing development rights, assisting farmers in securing low-interest loans, and in some cases actually purchasing farms and matching them with farmers seeking land, VLT has tried to ensure that farmland will remain available to farmers at a reasonable cost.
Many farms in the valley felt a pressure to sell in 2009 and 2010, as the economy was tanking and as milk prices plummeted while the cost of feed and fuel went sky-high. One of those young farmers, Jeremy Russo, was concerned he might lose the family farm. And so VLT helped construct a plan that helped Russo transition to becoming an organic dairy. That allowed him to obtain a higher price for his milk, and put his farm on the road to financial recovery.
Since 1990, VLT has conserved 31 farms and farmland parcels in the Mettowee Valley, totaling 4,844 acres. The community is worth saving, Campbell says, and many of those young farmers heartily agree.
At Tim and Dot Leach’s Woodlawn Farm, 38-year-old Seth Leach oversees the high-tech Holstein breeding program. He’s one of four Leach children who work on different aspects of the 1,100-acre farm. On his right wrist, he wears a yellow bracelet that declares: “Proud to Farm.”
“I don’t know that dairy farming is going to be my life,” he says. “But I do know this land will grow things.”
He pauses, then adds: “I just know that I love doing this.”