Evslin: changing crops will solve VT farming woes

brown shovel

By Tom Evslin Fractals of Change

The history of land use in Vermont is a history of change. Indigenous Vermonters cleared small fields in the most fertile areas and used fire to keep down underbrush to make the hunt easier. The first European settlers hacked down the woods as fast as they could to make room for subsidence farming. Early Vermont cash crops included not just maple syrup, wood, apples, and corn but also potatoes and wheat. The first industrial product from the Green Mountain State was potash obtained by burning lots of wood in iron pots. Cleared land was taken as a sign of progress; the forest was a forbidding place just waiting to be tamed.

Tom Evslin

By the early 1800s the thin soil on the hillsides had already become too depleted for most crops; in the fertile valleys, successful farmers expanded their land by buying out less successful neighbors, who then headed for greener pastures further west. In 1811 the Merino sheep came and transformed the landscape once again. Sheep can graze anywhere, even in rocky soil; remaining hillside trees were cleared to make room. According to Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape by Jan Albers (from which all the facts in this brief history are taken), “by 1840… there were 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont six times the human population”.

By 1850 the sheep boom was over. The railroads, instead of expanding the market for Vermont wool, opened it to competition from the west where it cost half as much to raise sheep. The few remaining Merino farms survived by raising breeding stock and selling it to the rest of the country. The hill farms, however, turned to dairy as did many in the valleys. The milk trains expanded the market for milk and milk products to the rest of the northeast.

In the last hundred years the hillsides have regrown – not before years of terrible flooding due to lack of trees to slow runoff. Vermont began to look like Vermont looks now, a vista of mountains seen over cultivated fields. It’s very pretty. It’s what we’re used to. And it’s not sustainable!

What we’re doing now isn’t working

According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business.

IMO the state programs are counter-productive and have actually hurt the industry they are meant to help. The underlying problem is that there is not enough demand to support a price for milk greater than the cost of production. Keeping money-losing farms in business makes it harder for those with better economics to succeed. The more milk that is taken off the market by farms going out of business, the better the chance of the most efficient farms being able to flourish. At best, the state programs are postponing the inevitable. At worst, they’re exacerbating the problem of over supply.

The dairy industry is also subsidized in other not so obvious ways. It doesn’t pay nearly the full cost of cleaning up the damage agricultural runoff has done to the lakes of Vermont nor can it afford to take the measures necessary to prevent current pollution. It is an open secret that the industry depends on the state and the feds turning a blind eye to the illegal and exploitable immigrants who are the only people willing to do the hard work of dairy farming for the low wages the industry can afford.

Milk sales are only 1.3% of Vermont’s domestic product according to Hoffer; it is not clear how much of that would be lost if unprofitable farms closed even faster than they are. There would still be plenty of milk for Cabot to make cheese and Ben and Jerry to make ice cream. There is an argument that, if the farms were to turn into shopping centers and condos, the tourist industry would suffer and those of us whom love the Vermont “look” would be disappointed and perhaps move away.

The answer is what it has always been: Change Crops

We can keep most Vermont farmland productively in agriculture if we do what has been done so many times before: change to a profitable crop. Failing dairy farms should be converted to a combination of forest land and housing. Vermont will look different with more trees and less open pasture, cornfields, and hay fields along its highways; but adaptation is necessary.

Most farms consist of a central area near a road where the house, barn, and other outbuildings are – not to mention the manure pile with the old tires on top. The rest of the farm is fields used to raise hay or corn or for grazing (not so much anymore). The central areas are very suitable to developing housing which will be at least as scenic as a tumbledown barn. Depending on the location, it could be medium density naturally affordable housing or more expensive housing for those who want to live surrounded by a woods full of recreational opportunity. The fields become forest.

Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground where it improves the soil. Dairy farms are a major source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Forests are resilient to climate change because they reduce runoff in extreme weather events and provide local cooling.  Wood buildings are making a comeback because the wood used for construction keeps carbon locked up while concrete production is a huge emitter of greenhouse gasses.  Forest land is used more and more often for recreation including biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. That use will more than compensate for the loss of some open vistas both to those of us who live here and potential visitors.

If the combination of revenue from some development, wood harvesting, carbon credits for the carbon sequestered by the trees is large enough, the land can be sold for enough to allow selling farm families a happy retirement – or a chance to go into the forestry business. My hope is that with some change of regulations and permitting reform, private capital and the opportunity for profit can make this conversion to a wood crop a sustainable program without the need for constant subsidy. That’s yet to be proven and I’ll write more about the opportunities and the challenges.

If government money is needed, we have some available if we stop subsidizing failing dairy farms. We have more available in federal reforestation funds in the infrastructure bill which already passed. The Vermont legislature should be looking at support for reforestation as a much more effective way of reducing Vermont greenhouse gas emissions than subsidizing electric cars for rich people or increasing the cost of energy for everyone.

Preserving the status quo – even a scenic status quo – is not an option. Changing crops as the world changes has always been the Vermont tradition.

The author, an author, entrepreneur, former Vermont state cabinet officer, lives in Stowe. He founded NG Advantage, a natural gas truck delivery company. This commentary is republished with permission from his blog, Fractals of Change.

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8 replies »

  1. Curiously enough, I agree with Mr. Evslin, but only in the point that change is good… economic change, that is. But we diverge on how to accommodate that change.

    Mr. Evslin is free to show the way – with his own investments. But the legislature should butt out. For one thing, the legislature is not accountable, primarily because it doesn’t invest its own money, as Mr. Evslin is free to do. If legislators followed Mr. Evslin’s lead, for example, and invested their own money, they wouldn’t be as inefficient and dysfunctional as they are now.

    Case in point: Vermont’s government, healthcare and education sectors, where the legislature asserts most of its control, accounts for more than 40% of Vermont’s workforce – not to mention the money these people spend inefficiently.

    It’s time to tighten our ship of state. Put the ownness for economic decisions on the people who choose to make them in the free market. People like Mr. Evslin.

    I look forward to seeing him set an example we can all follow.

    • I get around Vermont a lot but I’ve yet to see a manure pile with tires piled on top. Another inaccurate, irresponsible statement by a nut job!

      • Excellent point: Evslin’s characterization was somewhat inaccurate. I think his inexperience with farming is showing through… begging the question as to why anyone would take is recommendation seriously in the first place. Clearly, he’s referring to the typical silage bunkers of chopped corn used to feed dairy cattle.

        And I should clarify too – my comment above was somewhat facetious. I would likely not be inclined to invest in Mr. Evslin’s endeavors in this regard for the very reason that he continues to be ‘all hat and no cattle’. But that doesn’t preclude his right to express his opinion or invest his own money.

        If anything, Evslin would likely demonstrate how not to invest one’s resources. But as long as its his money, not ours, his failure would be a benefit to others in that we would learn what not to do.

        This is why government should butt out of the investment business too. Collective mistakes are far reaching and virtually impossible to correct. Individual mistakes are lessons learned.

  2. Instead of turning the fields into forest or worse yet solar farms, wouldn’t it be wiser to get out of the milk business and turn to other sources of food production. Raise beef and pork fed by grain grown locally, Vegetables raised locally processed locally a stored locally. V.t. is at it’s capacity for people what with infrastructure not being expanded for decades lets Just hang the no vacancy sign up and not build more housing

  3. I agree that changing crops can be more profitable and save some family farms. Dairy farms can easily be converted to beef farms. Dairy farmers already know how to raise cattle or hogs and have the barns, equipment and land to do so. The problem is lack of meat processing capacity. This is where the state needs to provide the incentives and cut the red tape.

    As for vegetables, green houses can allow year round vegetable production but, it is labor intensive. Vermont’s taxes, labor laws and welfare state make it extremely difficult to find farm workers to be competitive with other states.

    In regards to forestry, it’s been a declining market also. More building materials are made from vinyl or steel every year. The internet has cut into the pulp/paper market. To help the forestry market we would need to expand the production and use of wood pellets and chips for heating and/or power production.

  4. None of the foregoing comments are taking into consideration the fact that the worlds’ population is being drastically reduced. This will have an overwhelming effect on any plan to revitalize Vermont. There will be a lot of real estate available in Vermont, which is what 80% vaccinated !

  5. One crop to look at now would be the new construction of McMansions in Stowe, lakefront Burlington, and other areas. These “eco-friendly” mansions consist of geothermal systems drilled several feet into the ground, using Ipe wood harvested from the rain forests, thousands of square feet of raw materials, and several thousand gallons of fossil fuels (including diesel) to construct, and this is just the exteriors. The interiors consist of even more extraordinary usage of resources we can’t afford to waste according to them. The globalists are building their temples in the woods, posting it off limits, and using up everything they can before the whole system collapses. The new crop in Vermont is already established – globalist McMansions.