Upper Valley farmers use variety of strategies to limit contributions to climate change

  • Kerry Gawalt opens the gates in her barn to move the cows out to their paddock at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. The barn, which is made of a metal structure covered by white fabric, helps to conserve energy by allowing sunlight in throughout the day and letting air circulate through the open sides. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

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    Kerry Gawalt carries a bucket of water for a calf at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. The cows at Cedar Mountain graze on different paddocks every day rather than continuously grazing throughout a pasture. "It's more work for the humans," Gawalt said, but the system allows grass to grow faster and reduces the amount of hay needed to feed the cows. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephen Leslie uses a tractor to carry pine sawdust bedding to the barn at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. The farm uses a bedded pack barn system where fresh bedding is continually added to the pen to create compost, reducing the space needed for waste storage. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Stephen Leslie, left, and Kerry Gawalt take off their rain-soaked jackets as they talk at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vt., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Leslie and Gawalt met on a dairy farm in 1992 and have been running Cedar Mountain together for over 20 years. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/2/2021 8:32:47 PM
Modified: 10/2/2021 8:32:47 PM

HARTLAND — A light, reddish soil covered the pastures that Stephen Leslie and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, found at Cedar Mountain Farm when they arrived in 1999.

Stooping close to the ground, they could smell the same mustiness that gathers with the dust on cellar floors.

Leslie understands soil in the terms of centuries. Cedar Mountain’s soil had lost most of the life-giving nutrients that it once absorbed when it was part of Vermont’s forest ecosystem.

Now, recharging that soil is part of their efforts to reduce the farm’s carbon output, and part of a broader strategy of farmers in the region to move toward net-zero carbon emissions in the fight against climate change.

Managing soil to capture carbon below ground — or simply put, “carbon farming” — and switching to solar power, and eventually to electric tractors, are among the ways farmers are starting to change the way they farm.

Carbon farming

Agriculture accounted for 10% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA calculated that over half of those emissions came from nitrous oxides released when farmers fertilize or irrigate their crops, while approximately one quarter comes from the methane that cows and other livestock naturally release as they digest. That figure excludes the historical emissions from land use changes — the greenhouse gases released as forests gave way to fields. In recent decades, forests have retaken many fields, but farmers are envisioning ways to harmonize the production of food and the sequestration of carbon.

Internationally, the Paris Agreement binds 197 countries, including the United States as of February 2021, to limit greenhouse emissions to well below two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degree Fahrenheit. But U.N. scientists who evaluated the national emissions plans concluded the world is on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius, or almost 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit, even if each of those plans are implemented.

Leslie and Gawalt are part of Cobb Hill CoHousing, a group of 23 households in Hartland that share 270 acres. The couple arrived after the late Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist at Dartmouth and MIT and co-author of The Limits to Growth, invited them. They operate a dairy farm and a market garden on 60 acres of the property, which hosts a medley of enterprises from beekeeping to sugaring.

Leslie, 60, wears his gray hair in two thin braids and protects his eyes with rose-tinted glasses. Before he became a farmer, he went to art school and spent seven years in a Benedictine monastery in Weston, Vt. He met his wife on a diversified farm in New York’s Hudson Valley where they both apprenticed, and they have been farming together ever since.

“Given how much of our environment we’ve degraded, sustainability isn’t even enough of a goal — we really need to focus on regeneration,” said Leslie, remembering advice Meadows gave him.

Their soil’s health is the cornerstone of their farm’s ethos.

Before Colonial settlers arrived in Vermont, the Abenaki rotated crops, never farming the same land for too long. Then, the early 19th century brought soaring prices for merino wool, offering Vermont farmers the opportunity to leap from subsistence agriculture to attractive profits.

Global demand for wool flattened Vermont’s forests. As they grow, plants pack away carbon, and clearing trees for fields disrupted the cycles that kept the soil fertile and carbon in the soil.

“From an ecological point of view, it was like an apocalypse,” Leslie said.

Improving the soil will be good both for the climate and their crops.

“If our focus is on how do we maximize healthy photosynthesis in the garden, in the pastures, in the forest, then the yields will come,” Leslie said. Whereas focusing on each year’s yields may undermine the farm’s ability to remain productive in a changing climate.

Leslie and Gawalt micromanage their pastures, rearranging electric fencing each day so that their cows graze on a new paddock of about a quarter acre. He and Gawalt were able to afford fencing for their paddocks because of grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Their pasture management is labor-intensive, but it ensures that the cows consume grass and distribute manure — and with it fertility — evenly.

They only cut their hayfields once each year before incorporating it into their rotation of paddocks. This way, they limit how much they have to use fossil-fuel intensive equipment. Harvesting hay removes biomass from the soil, whereas manure recharges it with organic matter. Leslie said that they draw out more forage this way than they would from additional cuts of hay.

They have been able to integrate their soil management into a successful small dairy of 70 head of cattle. About 65% of their milk becomes the cheese they make at the farm, while the rest is sold either as raw milk or to a milk cooperative that stocks Cabot Creamery.

In their market garden, four Fjord horses with scruffy blonde manes once were used to cultivate the land instead of the fossil-fuel powered tractors that organic farmers often use in lieu of herbicides. More recently, they have used the horses for seasonal tasks like spreading compost and making hay because Leslie and Gawalt no longer till their garden.

Instead, they are replicating the forest ecosystem that first made Vermont’s soil fertile. They condensed their four-acre garden to 1.25 acres. They never leave their soil bare, adding compost and wood chips to compensate for the organic matter they remove when they harvest vegetables and herbs.

“It’s just the same way that leaves and branches and needles are continually falling down and creating (that) duff layer that protects and armors the soil,” Leslie said. Tilling disturbs the delicate symbiotic relationships between roots and mycorrhizal fungi that lock carbon underground as nutrient-dense humus and keep soil healthy.

The garden’s gross profits did not fall after they converted to no-till.

Strategies for large farms

Experimental programs striving towards net-zero on larger farms resemble the strategies at Cedar Mountain Farm.

Joshua Faulkner at the University of Vermont Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture is one of the scientists experimenting with how best to manage carbon on large dairy farms. Their work is a $23 million nationwide initiative to bring the dairy industry to net-zero by 2050. They are working on Blue Spruce Farm, a 4,000-acre dairy farm in Bridport, Vt.

Like Leslie, Faulkner is enthusiastic about the roots, creatures, and biological processes that live below the soil and pump carbon out of the atmosphere if they are left undisturbed.

“We’re going to try to understand (if) they can offset all of the emissions from the farm through management practices that sequester carbon in the soil,” Faulkner said. The researchers are focusing on the crops that Blue Spruce Farm grows to feed its 1,500 cows.

New technologies — like a machine to inject manure into the soil to limit soil disturbance — may help farmers integrate no-till into their business plans. No-till might not help with yields every year, Faulkner said. But the benefits of no-till extend beyond carbon sequestration: Soil heavy with organic matter holds water, preventing nutrient depletion. It also sustains crops through droughts and mitigates the erosion that can harm water quality.

Electrifying and Renewables

Achieving net-zero emissions on a farm requires a mosaic of approaches, and some farmers have focused on their dependence on fossil fuels.

Norah Lake, 38, grew up on a homestead in southern Vermont where her family produced much of their own food. She has been farming on 200 acres in Norwich since 2012. A vegetable CSA is the backbone of Sweetland Farm’s business, but Lake also raises pigs and chickens and sells hay. She recently committed to cutting the farm’s emissions by 90% by 2028. Her husband, Chris Polashenski, is an engineer at Dartmouth and helped her with the emissions accounting.

“It was exciting to look around the farm, think about all of the infrastructure that is currently emitting carbon, and actually see that it’s not going to be that hard to make this a carbon-neutral place,” she said. “It really is doable.”

Their strategy: Maximize efficiency, electrify equipment, and put solar panels on as many rooftops as possible. Lake has already installed an efficient new walk-in cooler, swapped in LED bulbs, and installed photovoltaic solar panels. She has strung together federal and state-level grants to meet her energy-saving goals. Next steps include swapping the propane that heats the greenhouses for wood sustainably gathered from Sweetland’s 100 acres of forests and electrifying their farm equipment.

“When we were creating the timeline of how we were going to implement our plan, a lot of it was based on what technology is available,” Lake said.

As much as she would like to buy a fleet of electric tractors, the technology is not there yet. There are retrofit kits available for some small tractors, but not for the tractors needed for the farm’s heftiest tasks, like loading equipment. While she sees draft horses as a viable choice for some farms, she appreciates the comparatively low maintenance of a tractor. Leslie also depends on tractors for larger tasks, like dealing with the 6 tons of manure each cow produces in a winter.

The handful of electric tractors on the market cost more than twice what Lake would pay to replace her largest tractor. Electric tractors have yet to hit the mainstream market, as calls to Upper Valley suppliers confirmed. Some Silicon Valley start-ups have brought high-tech, autonomous, battery-powered tractors to market for about $75,000 apiece, and John Deere announced a cord-powered version in 2019. None would affordably fit the needs of a small farmer.

Lake deals exclusively in used equipment, so she would still have to wait for a “trickle down” period to buy an electric tractor, she said.

Olivia Saunders, a field specialist at University of New Hampshire Extension, said that most research for electric farm equipment has the large, industrial agriculture of other regions in mind, not the small farms of the Northeast. However, she has seen the “large expansion and adoption of small-scale tools, like walk-behind tractors.”

Saunders recently researched farmers’ options for solar power in New Hampshire. Several had been disappointed with their investment; they were not seeing economic returns. Navigating municipal regulatory and rebate options is “tricky:” Without an exact accounting of energy demands it can be difficult to recoup the cost of the initial investment, Saunders said. Farmers need outside expertise for their transition to renewable power, but she found that it was hard for farmers to find that outside support in New Hampshire.

Done right, though, renewable energy has the potential to transform the economics of a farm with a high energy load. Community power offered farmers a way to install solar economically, she said.

“For some farms, adding solar made that business go from the red into the black (because) they were able to lower their energy costs,” she said.

Getting agriculture to net-zero, though, is a larger endeavor than any one farmer’s choices.

“Adopting and integrating climate-friendly practices on a farm is going to cost money, and the burden should not just fall to the farm,” Saunders said. “They’re already barely surviving.” Both Leslie and Lake used federal aid and incentives to reach their sustainability goals.

While sustainability can be compatible with profit, Leslie hopes that policymakers may come to compensate farmers as “ecosystem service providers.” He is part of a network of advocates who argue soil is an essential piece of infrastructure in the age of climate change.

In the meantime, Leslie and Gawalt have been steadily restoring their soil, recharging it with the organic matter that both sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and nourishes their pastures and crops.

They have transformed Cedar Mountain Farm’s soil over the last 20 years. The percentage of organic soil matter has increased from 3% to 6%, and the cake-like black topsoil smells like the duff that lies thick in an evergreen grove.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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