The Future of Farming

by John O’Brien

Last Thursday, at lunchtime, there was a tractor and a very large manure spreader, fully loaded, parked at the Tunbridge Elementary School. Gary Mullen, an organic dairy farmer, had timed it just right; he was hauling manure from his farm to a field 2.5 miles away, a trip that led him down Monarch Hill and up Vermont Route 110. Mid-voyage, he stopped at the school to mentor his nephew, third grader Ellis Bogardus, as part of the reading program “Everybody Wins!” Any discussion about the future of farming in Vermont could begin here: Once the possibility of a shitspreader being parked at a school is gone, it’s probable that agriculture is gone too. Where would you see such a scene these days? Not in Connecticut, not in Massachusetts, not in South Burlington. Yes in upstate New York or Quebec. Yes in much of Vermont, too.

Tunbridge is an average Vermont town, historically a farming town. According to Gary Mullen, in 1960, Tunbridge had 60 operating dairy farms. In 1983, the number had dropped to 23. Today, it’s got six. What it didn’t have in 1960, but has now: one big vegetable farm and one beef-pork-vegetable farm that both do booming business with farmers’ markets. Also, equines are ascendant: Tunbridge now has five horse farms with indoor riding arenas.

The Internal Revenue Service defines a farmer as someone who makes “at least two-thirds of his or her gross income … from farming.” What is apparent about agriculture in Vermont is that the farmer who makes a living from farming is becoming a rare breed. What isn’t so obvious, obscured by the shrinking number of dairy farms, is how rooted the culture of agriculture is in our state. If I drive up the Justin Smith Morrill Highway (named after Vermont’s famous Senator/farmer) from the village of Tunbridge, headed for Strafford, a survey of my neighbors will give one an indication of our enduring and evolving relationship with agriculture.

Deb Tuttle and Sean Tangney own the Joe and Fred Tuttle farm. Sean investigated the possibility of using some of the open land for solar arrays, but for now the fields are hayed by Ted and Linda Hoyt. Ted and Linda milk a herd of mostly Ayrshires. They’re organic. As the last dairy farmers on the hill, they hay most of the fields on all the former dairy farms. Next door we find Thomas and Becky Hoyt. Thomas works on the road crew (he’s Michelangelo with a grader) and Becky is the treasurer for the town. They raise beef and hogs, Thomas makes hay for himself and other farmers, Becky trains horses and teaches riding. The Hoyts also make maple syrup. This year: 2,900 taps, 920 gallons of syrup.

Bill Chester, ninetysomething, a widower, still driving, retired from a family business in Milwaukee, owns the former Camp William James, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was an experimental farm in the 1940s. Bill’s farm is conserved. Bill has horses, llamas and goats. Next to Chester’s is Danforth’s sugarhouse. Bill and Marie Danforth and Bill’s son, Ken, make maple syrup. This year: approximately 6,500 taps, 3,000 gallons of syrup.

Up Moody Road you’ll find Jim and Lindsay Sweeney. Jim is a farrier, Lindsay ran the former Braley’s Feed Store in South Royalton. They have Norwegian Fjord ponies and chickens. Up Baptist Hill Road, if you follow the braying, live Sheila Metcalf and Francis Miller and their donkeys and histrionic miniature horse, Studley. Dr. Mike Sporn, eightysomething, a widower, still drives, still works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, lives across Morrill Highway. Mike once had bison on his farm, but now it is hayed and grazed by the Larocques. Bucky and Sonia Larocque raise Red Devon cattle and Tunis sheep. Bucky, a lineman for Green Mountain Power, also sugars. This year: 3,100 taps, 1,700 gallons of maple syrup.

Across from Larocque’s is the former Kermit Glines farm, now owned by Jim and Carrie Juergens. At the foot of the driveway, there’s always a cooler with a sign, “Eggs for sale.” Jim’s relative, Steve Thomas, sells eggs on the honor system. Someone stole the money and eggs one day, but mostly the exchange works. Jim and Cary have Oreo cattle — I’m not sure if they’re Dutch Belted or Belted Galloway.

If we shoot to the top of the hill, where you’ll find one of the best views in all of Vermont, you can’t miss Solheimar Farm, populated with Icelandic horses and Icelandic chickens, owned by Sigrun Brynjarsdottir.

I see I’ve missed one place. Turning back towards Tunbridge, we end our tour at Jena Trombly and Shane Young’s. They raise pigs, work draft horses and Shane recently completed a new sugarhouse that’s a work of art. Inside the sugarhouse, you’ll find Loren’s Maple Museum.  Loren Young, age 9, is the Museum Director. Loren has amassed a collection of maple sugaring paraphernalia and equipage that would be the envy of the Smithsonian. Admission is free. By appointment or chance.

This casual census represents one hill in one town — and I didn’t even mention everyone on the hill or catalog every garden. Farming, as the Internal Revenue Service defines it, may be dying in Vermont, but it might be easier to uproot Japanese knotweed than eradicate our connection to agriculture.

John O’Brien and his wife, Emily Howe, raise Romney sheep and board Icelandic horses.

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