by Lila Bennett
Sustainable farming is a hot term right now, and there are a lot of ideas about what it means. In Vermont, we are trying to use and reuse everything our farms produce, reaching out to other farms and sharing our resources to benefit one other. Sustainable in Vermont means taking care of our grasses and soils and working together to ensure we are able to keep producing foods for generations to come. This is exciting as a farmer. Not only do we want to keep producing food, but we want to work together as farmers to produce the most healthful, wholesome and humanely raised foods.
Until this year, Tangletown Farm did not own any farmland and so leased fields all over the place to farm. Nothing was connected. The chicken manure stayed on the chicken fields, the cow manure stayed on the cow fields, the pigs pooped in the woods. We bought our hay. It was fine because it got us into farming, but it wasn’t sustainable from the closed-loop idea of everything contributing to the health of all. The chicken manure will return more to us by being spread on hay or vegetable fields. We knew we had to find a farm and consolidate our efforts toward sustainability.
We looked at many farms and finally found a beautiful farm in West Glover, Vermont. Now our chickens and pigs poop a lot, and we collect and compost it. This spring we will spread it on our hayfields. Then the hay will grow to be lush and nutritious to feed our cows, pigs, rabbits and hens. The cows and pigs also roam along and poop on the pastures and make the grass the chickens eat lush and nutritious. Everything feeds everything, including, and especially, our family and many Vermont families. It is a beautiful picture. Happy animals, happy fields and healthy children.
There was another loop we hadn’t considered until we moved here. Our farm is surrounded by dairy farms. Dairy cows must calve every year to keep making more milk. The little heifer (female) calves are kept at the dairy, so they always have new cows to keep making more milk. The bulls are the gap in the loop. It is a burden to find something to do with these calves, let alone the income lost from having a bull not a heifer.
Right after we moved, the phone started ringing. The dairy farms wanted to know if we wanted to take the bulls and raise them for beef. It gave us an idea. We could take these male calves and raise them for hamburger and sell the meat at an affordable price to Vermont schools. The enterprise Smart Burgers was born.
Schools, with their limited budgets, have difficulty providing quality food. Our schoolchildren, with their developing brains and high-energy needs, are expected to eat antibiotic-ridden, factory-farmed meats from miserable animals alongside canned vegetables and then are expected to thrive. This needs to be combated somehow. Lots of schools and communities are working hard for change. Smart Burgers is our effort. This year, we at Tangletown Farm are raising the dairy bulls for the program. The first Smart Burgers will be on the Green Mountain Farm-to-School truck in the fall.
We set up Smart Burgers as a low-profit limited liability company separate from Tangletown Farm. It can thereby accept donations and apply for grants, with the mission of keeping the cost of burger to schools low while still making it worthwhile for farmers to raise the cattle. It is our hope that this will eventually allow dairies to raise their own bull calves up to market weight and then sell them to the Smart Burgers program, which will take care of the marketing and distribution, another tricky loop to close. This way, schools across Vermont can have wholesome beef for the kids and the dairy farms can have something to do with the bulls.
We farm because we want to raise animals for meat with care. We want to know that there is healthy food in the world without antibiotics in it. We want people to trust that the meat they are eating came from animals that lived the way they were supposed to. It feels great to be working with the dairy farms and closing one more gap. You can learn more about our farm, farming practices, what we offer and where to purchase at tangletownfarm.com. We are taking orders now for our year-round CSA, and we will be at the Montpelier farmers’ market each and every Saturday.
Also coming soon is the Smart Burgers website, smartburgers.org, where you can learn about the program or donate. We hope to see you this summer at the farmers’ market, where there is every kind of food from every kind of farm. Sustainable means Vermonters feeding Vermonters, from chicken to carrot. Come support and enjoy the many healthy and sustainable choices produced so close to home.
Lila Bennett, David Robb and their three children work together on Tangletown Farm in West Glover. Dave and Lila are both native Vermonters and have been farming for 10 years years together. Lila serves as president of the Capital City Farmers’ Market and is very committed to providing food to schools and low-income Vermonters. Check out their website, tangletownfarm.com, and the Smart Burgers site, tangletownfarm.com/smart-burgers.