People & Places

In This State: Love of farming is at the heart of scenic Mettowee Valley

A view of Mettowee Valley fields and surrounding hills from a hillside vantage point in Rupert. Photo by Tom Slayton
A view of Mettowee Valley fields and surrounding hills from a hillside vantage point in Rupert. Photo by Tom Slayton

Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at 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.

Dairy farmer Ken Leach is pleased with the way feed corn is growing this summer in the fertile soil of the Mettowee Valley. Photo by Tom Slayton
Dairy farmer Ken Leach is pleased with the way feed corn is growing this summer in the fertile soil of the Mettowee Valley. Photo by Tom Slayton

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.

Dairy farmer Tim Leach (center) with two of his sons, Brian (left) and Seth, both of whom are 7th generation Vermonters and work on the Leach's Pawlet farm. Photo by Tom Slayton
Dairy farmer Tim Leach (center) with two of his sons, Brian (left) and Seth, both of whom are seventh generation Vermonters and work on the Leach’s Pawlet farm. Photo by Tom Slayton

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.

Mettowee Valley organic dairy farmer Jeremy Russo and his farmhand Chris Phillips take a break from working on a tractor as they prepare to  fertilize a new hayfield. Photo by Tom Slayton
Mettowee Valley organic dairy farmer Jeremy Russo and his farmhand Chris Phillips take a break from working on a tractor as they prepare to fertilize a new hayfield. Photo by Tom Slayton

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.”

Andy Farmer (left) discusses his young wine grape vinestocks with Vermont Land Trust regional representative Donald Campbell. The Land Trust has been instrumental in getting young farmers established in the Mettowee Valley, one of the most scenic and productive farm regions of Vermont. Photo by Tom Slayton
Andy Farmer (left) discusses his young wine grape vinestocks with Vermont Land Trust regional representative Donald Campbell. The Land Trust has been instrumental in getting young farmers established in the Mettowee Valley, one of the most scenic and productive farm regions of Vermont. Photo by Tom Slayton

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  • James Maroney

    The people of the Mettowee Valley are right to try to conserve farming but perhaps it is time for them to reexamine Vermont’s strategy for accomplishing it.

    The justification for land use planning, since Village of Euclid v Ambler Realty, 272 U.S. 365 (1926) has always been stated in extravagant declarations of purpose:

    “To promote the public health, safety…prosperity, comfort, access to adequate light and air, convenience, efficiency, economy and general welfare; to enable the mitigation of the burden of property taxes on agricultural, forest and other open lands…to protect residential, agricultural and other areas from undue concentrations of population and overcrowding….” 24 V.S.A. § 4302(a).

    But the unstated rationalization for it was far plainer: post WWII, urban society, confirmed in the beneficence of yeoman farming—and trusting official assurances that toxic, untested chemical compounds would dissipate harmlessly—needed a response to the appalling disintegration of the family farm that would not interfere with its own acquiescence in modern agriculture’s onrushing (and seemingly inevitable) demolition of the working landscape, which society would cashier in exchange for three-fold cheaper food.

    Vermont enacted land use regulation in 1967. Because the act invoked as its justification the protection of farmland, the legislature exempted agriculture, regulation of which the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets prescribed in the Accepted Agricultural Practices rules. Vermont’s enabling statute for land use states this exemption on its very first page:

    “A bylaw under this chapter shall not regulate accepted agricultural practices…” 24 V.S.A. § 4413(d).

    Title 6, Vermont’s Agricultural Water Quality statute, provides the same broad exemption:

    “Persons engaged in farming, as defined in 10 V.S.A. § 6001 [Act 250], who follow these practices shall be presumed to be in compliance with water quality standards.” 6 V.S.A. § 4810(a)(1).

    Likewise, Vermont’s “Right to Farm Law” (12 VSA § 5753) exempts farms from common law, nuisance liability, which comprises the practice of conventional farming:

    “Agricultural activities shall be entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the activity does not constitute a nuisance if the agricultural activity…is conducted in conformity with federal, state, and local laws and regulations (including accepted agricultural practices); Id. at (a)(1) and (A).

    The legislature provided these exemptions for agriculture to help farmers. But it did so without examining the conventional farm paradigm, which is responsible for 55-60% of the pollution entering Lake Champlain, without analyzing its social, economic or environmental costs and without recognizing that in the decades following WWII, Vermont consumers no longer depended upon Vermont farmers for their food.

    The primary purpose for which the legislature established the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (1987) was to “assist in creating affordable housing for Vermonters” Title 10: Conservation and Development/ Chapter 15, § 302: Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund) § 302(a). The second part of VHCB’s mission was “conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural and forest land[s, which are] of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the state…” Id. To accomplish its mission, the legislature created the VHCB Trust Fund, to which the legislature allocates $23-26M/year. Id.

    For legislators, the conflation of the two purposes must have made sense. However, taxing the public to create housing for lower income families was principally a response to the disintegration of the single-family home ethic and the spread of multi-family housing, i.e., to prevent Vermont from “looking like New Jersey.” Moreover, because agricultural land was the logical place for new development, because it was vulnerable (and because some owners were eager to sell their land for development), Smart Growth regulators constructed a legal and societal armor around farming, to make it resistant to development and nuisance suits.

    The preservation and conservation of Vermont farmland was a popular objective, so the legislature added it as justification for the creation of affordable housing, which was not.

    But VHCB’s purchases of conservation easements were not—nor are they today—contingent upon sellers’ who remain in possession or upon prospective purchasers’ agreements to farm their land sustainably, i.e., in compliance with the Clean Water Act, (33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972), or with Vermont’s water quality statutes (6 V.S.A. § 4810 or 10 V.S.A § 1259(i)). VHCB’s purchase, with taxpayer dollars, of conservation easements from farmers who are generally in extremis, not willing sellers under no compulsion to sell was, by any other name, social engineering.

    VHCB’s description of “Stewardship” provides that “If an activity funded by the board involves acquisition by the state of an interest in real property for the purpose of conserving and protecting agricultural land or forestland, important natural areas, or recreation lands, the board, in its discretion, may make a one-time grant to the appropriate state agency or municipality. The grant shall not exceed ten percent of the current appraised value of that property interest and shall be used to support its proper management or maintenance or both. (Added 1987, No. 88, § 1, eff. June 11, 1987; amended 2011, No. 142 (Adj. Sess.), § 3, eff. May 15, 2012.) Id. at § 324.

    It is impossible to know what this tortured passage really means but to me, the implication is either: VHCB has never questioned the probity of conventional farming; VHCB does not wish to question the probity of conventional farming; or VHCB is interested principally in land and does not interpret its enabling legislation as a mandate for making the purchase of conservation easements contingent upon agricultural practices.

    The legislature’s failure to include such a requirement, as a condition of VHCB’s purchase of conservation easements—or even as a condition of accepting them as gifts—has been to egregiously frustrate (or belie) the “preservation and conservation” of Vermont farmland. This legislative, or administrative lacuna has empirically not arrested or even attenuated the steady attrition of Vermont family farms and persistently rising pollution in Lake Champlain. All of which, since conventional farming is empirically ruinous to its practitioners and to the lake, begs the question of what are VHCB and the taxpayers conserving farmland for?

    By the late 1970s, state officials were well aware that the conventional farm paradigm was polluting the environment. That awareness belies the environmental purposes claimed by the Lake Champlain Special Designation Art of 1990, by 24 V.S.A. § 4413, by 6 V.S.A. § 4810, by 10 V.S.A. § 6001, by the Accepted Agricultural Practices rules (1996) and by Act 138 (2012).

    Had anyone in Vermont thought that there might be a nexus between land use planning, saving agricultural land from development and water quality, the prevailing conceit was that “Smart Growth” land use planning would fix everything. It was collective wishful thinking: policy makers knew the adoption of modern farm technologies was eviscerating the “Working Landscape” and polluting the lake but wanted equally to themselves take full advantage of cheap food.

    Here are the empirical results of this Faustian bargain:

    1. Vermont’s dairy farms have steadily shrunk in number from approximately 4,729 in 1967, the year Land Use Regulation was enacted, to approximately 3,000 in 1987, the year the legislature created VHCB, to fewer than 900 today.

    2. As to protecting Vermont’s water, the Lake Champlain Basin Program reports: “Over the last 20 years, phosphorus concentrations across most of the lake segments …remain well above their established, annual targets.”

    No one could look objectively at these data and claim that Vermont’s policies and programs to save its farms and protect its water have succeeded.

  • Interesting that my book, A Lifetime of Vermont People, has six pages devoted to the Mettowee Valley and how the farmers of the valley and the Vermont Land Trust have conserved this valley so it stays an agricultural community.

  • Jocob Miller

    AMEN, James, Amen. Well stated and thank you for posting your comments.

  • Craig Powers

    I love driving my young children (and my beloved flat-lander wife) through the Mettowee Valley just as the the Spring thaw is making the cow manure and silage smell its strongest. The pungent, but sweet smell, invades the car no matter how tightly the windows are closed. They all squeal and howl how badly it smells…and I lovingly scold them that nothing smells more like real Vermont. They howl some more and I open the window wide to let some more of it in!


    Although the numbers of dairy farmers has reduced significantly, their positive importance to the economic viability of the rural community has not, roughly $800 million to $1.3 billion, far more than any other sector of agriculture. Those other sectors of agriculture would have a difficult time surviving without the support for infrastructure that dairy farming provides, including the very important support of the Vt Land Trust and VHCB.
    Farmers are well aware of the impact they have on water quality and are working hard and responsibly with their partners in the UVM Extension service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Conservation Districts to make improvements and reduce water quality impairments. There is still a long way to go but, despite James’ misuse of statistics, slow progress in Lake Champlain improvement is being made. No expert thinks that getting the lake back in balance will be easy or done in anything less than decades. Particularly because of the more recent devastating impact of storm events like Hurricane Irene, and the number of heavy rain events that have increased the amount of stream bank erosion and run-off from gravel roads and farm fields.