In This State: Conserving the Johnson Farm’s unique mix of fields, forest, wetlands and riverbank

Johnson Farm map

Former game warden Paul Fink of Canaan (pointing) and Monty Montplaisir of Averill examine the map of the Johnson Farm in Canaan,which has been conserved. Photo by Tom Slayton

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at This article is by Tom Slayton of Montpelier, editor emeritus of Vermont Life Magazine.

You don’t usually think of Canaan, up in the far, far northeastern corner of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, as the site of 1,000-acre farms. And you don’t normally think of such a huge farm being linear – several miles long.

Still less do you think of such a farm being an environmental treasure trove encompassing wetlands, rare clayplain forests, more than 80 species of birds, six miles of riverfront and abundant wildlife.

But the Johnson Farm is, in fact, all of those things. And it’s located in Canaan and Lemington, about five miles south of the Canadian border and just a long stone’s throw across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire.

A few days ago, more than 50 legislators, environmental leaders and representatives of several state and federal agencies gathered on one of the broad hayfields of that farm to celebrate its conservation.

Farmers, the Vermont Land Trust, and agriculture officials were delighted that a big and important farm had been saved. Environmental leaders were pleased that a large and important stretch of riverfront and several types of adjacent wetlands would be preserved. And those who know and love the upper reaches of the Connecticut River saw the agreement as a triumph that will help keep the river clean and free-flowing far into the future.

Johnson Farm
Bill and Ursula Johnson have farmed their 1,000 acres along the Upper Connecticut for three decades, and now that they are retiring they have taken steps to keep from development but in production. Photo by Tom Slayton

The man and woman they all wanted to thank were the retiring owners of the farm, Bill and Ursula Johnson. The Johnsons had farmed the land for more than 30 years, building up both land and cattle herd, to make their farm one of Vermont’s largest and best-run operations. And it was the Johnsons who made possible the huge and complicated agreement that conserved the farm and its associated riverfront, forests and wetlands.

“They’re great stewards of the land,” said Tracy Zschau, Northeast Kingdom coordinator for the Vermont Land Trust.

Nearly every speaker commented on the couple’s hard work and strong commitment to conservation. But Bill Johnson modestly said, “We just wanted to perpetuate some of the values we had.” Later, in an interview, he added that saving the farm and the natural lands that are a part of it “just seemed like the right thing to do.”

The farm begins 3½ miles south of the remote village of Canaan, and continues south along the Connecticut River, encompassing a mosaic of rich bottom lands: gently rolling corn and hay fields, marshes and bogs, clayplain forests, upland forests, riverbank environmental communities and more. In all, more than 800 acres of land and six miles of riverfront will be conserved.

“If you were going to conserve one amazing place on the upper Connecticut River, this is as good as it gets,” said Bob Klein, head of the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It was a sentiment shared by many who cooperated in the agreement.

The complexity of the land involved required a complex partnership of entities. At least 10 organizations, including nonprofit environmental groups, state agencies and private foundations are partners in the project.

The Vermont Land Trust worked to conserve the open farmland and to assure that it would continue as a working dairy farm. The Vermont Nature Conservancy focused on the wetlands, riverbanks and wildlife habitat. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife will be the permanent landholder on the wildlife habitat and will hold management rights on the wetlands and a special riverbank buffer zone. The primary funder of the project is the Upper Connecticut River Mitigation Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. And so on.

Johnson Farm
In a clayplain forest on the Johnson Farm in Canaan, biologist Liz Thompson (in white) discusses native and invasive plants. Photo by Tom Slayton

“It’s not easy to do a project of this size,” said Vermont Secretary of Natural Resources Deborah Markowitz. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

Everyone agreed that the project would not have been possible without the commitment and cooperation of the landowners, Bill and Ursula Johnson, who moved to Canaan in 1978 and bought 300 acres of farmland. Canaan at that time was one of the last places in Vermont where farmland was relatively cheap — $500 an acre. And Bill Johnson, who grew up in the Norwich area and studied agriculture at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, looked at the rich floodplain soil along the Connecticut and decided to found his farm there. Over the next three decades, he added land, until the farm, before being sold, totaled more than 1,000 acres.

“This is the culmination of 38 years of farming this land,” he said at a brief ceremony marking the transfer of the property. “We’re very pleased with the way things have turned out.”

The Vermont Land Trust paid the Johnsons $1.1 million for the land and farm buildings, which is well below fair market value. There are no significant tax implications for the towns of Canaan and Lemington, since the property was already involved in the state’s land-use program.

Johnson, 59, who represents Canaan in the Legislature, noted that his farm has been a significant contributor to the economic health of the area. He employs five local people, some of whom have worked for him for many years. Last year, the Johnson Farm generated $2 million in gross revenues.

He and others noted they were especially pleased with the young farming couple selected to take over the farm, Cy and Andrea Nelson. The Nelsons later led a tour of the farm, while naturalist Elizabeth Thompson and state Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist John Austin led tours of the farm’s natural areas.

Johnson Farm
Jane Lazorchak (center, facing camera) explains wetland ecology to visitors at the Johnson Farm. The wetland is one of several included in the conservation of the farm, which is located in Canaan. Photo by Tom Slayton

Because of the proximity of the Connecticut River, which is a major waterfowl flyway, the farm has long been known as prime duck hunting habitat. “Some of the best duck hunting in the state is right here,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure those opportunities would continue.”

State wildlife officials have plans to enhance both hunting and fishing opportunities along the river. Jane Lazorchak, land acquisition coordinator for the department, said that the state will work cooperatively with The Nature Conservancy on floodplain restoration and maintaining the riparian buffer. Disease resistant elms will be planted along the river to help stabilize the river’s boundaries, and two boat access points will be created to enhance the recreational possibilities for hunting, fishing and canoeing.

Wildlife biologist Austin was enthusiastic about the richness of both the farmland and the wildlife habitat. “There’s just nowhere else in Vermont like this,” he said.

A quarter-mile to the east, the upper Connecticut River flowed, and a little nearer, a wide swath of feed corn stood, deep green, tassled out, and seven feet tall.

“Iowans would be jealous of these cornfields,” said Vermont Agriculture Secretary Charles Ross. “This is the farmland we just have to maintain within this state. And these are the rewards we get when we all work together.”

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