Evslin: Out with the cows, in with the trees

By Tom Evslin, Fractals of Change

“There are up to 536,000 acres of opportunity in Vermont to restore forest cover for climate mitigation. Reforesting these areas with approximately 291 million trees could capture 1.65 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to removing 355,000 cars from the road.” [sic. The funny spelling mean that these are metric tons – 1000Kg each]. This quote is from Reforestation Hub, a website run by the Nature Conservancy.

Tom Evslin

At most we have 1.28 million tons to reduce to meet the 2025 goal in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) passed by the Vermont legislature over Gov. Scott’s veto last year. Vermont is required to reduce Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the equivalent of 7.38 metric tons by 2025. The  Greenhouses Gas Emissions Inventory from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation  says that we were at 8.66 metric tons in 2017 (last year with hard data) and declining. In other words, we only must plant 77% of the acres identified by Reforestation Hub to get there.

Vermont dairy farmers own most of this land. 427,000 acres are identified as pasture; but it looks from the maps like this includes hay and cornfields used to grow feed for cattle. Their businesses are suffering from over-capacity and the poor economics of producing liquid milk in Vermont as opposed to the Midwest.

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. Moreover dairy farming is the most significant source of phosphorous runoff damaging our lakes and costing a small fortune to clean up. Farmers point out that they cannot afford the changes in farming practices necessary to prevent the runoff.

Buying land and reforesting it is often the most cost-effective way to reduce GHG emissions when measured on a tons of reduction per dollar basis. The 2018 UN IPCC Report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. We get four times as much annual reduction per dollar spent on trees than per dollar spent on solar panels (details here) even if we assume a high cost of $4000/acre for acquisition, remediation, and planting. Both heat pumps and subsidies for electric cars are much more expensive paths to GHG reduction than reforestation (details here).

What is the legislature likely to do?

The Climate Council, a group created by GWSA, has presented a set of proposals to the legislature.  Almost all the proposals are for reducing emissions in the usual expensive ways: solar panels, subsidies for heat pumps and electric cars (a particularly inequitable way to distribute money), joining a non-existent multi-state compact to impose a carbon tax and various ways of raising the cost of fossil fuel to Vermonters. The report does, to its credit, have a small section on reforestation but only tiptoes, literally, around the edge of the potential of reforestation by recommending more trees around the edge of fields. The Council recognizes that diary cows are a significant source of GHG themselves as well as other pollution and recommends various expensive ways to reduce methane emissions per cow; but doesn’t suggest simply buying-out uneconomic herds.

The legislature will allocate as much money as it can to various emission-reduction subsidies because their focus is on reducing emissions rather than on reducing the GHG in the atmosphere. When they run out of money – that’ll take a while because there is a lot of federal money available, they will shift costs to consumers with various mandates and indirect penalties for fossil fuel use. They will continue to listen to the army of lobbyists from the renewable-industrial complex. Some of what they plan will vetoed by Governor Scott; but his vetoes may be overridden and/or he will be forced to accept some unwise expenditures in order to keep the overall cost to Vermonters down.

There still won’t be enough money to meet the 2025 goal; but the GWSA has an ugly provision which allows anyone to sue the government if goals aren’t met. No telling what mischief and end runs on democracy this will allow unless it’s judged unconstitutional (which it may well be) or repealed.

What should the legislature do?

  1. Recognize that removing a ton of GHG is just as valuable to the environment as avoiding a ton of emissions. Most states recognize that but Vermont doesn’t.
  2. Realize that the decline of dairy farming is an opportunity for reforestation and that buying out failing farms is a farmer-friendly thing to do.
  3. Compare each proposed reduction strategy to the alternative of reforestation purely on the basis of how many tons of GHG will be reduced per dollar spent.
  4. Spend first on the most-effective strategy – which will usually be reforestation in the next five years.
  5. Allocate money that would have gone to ineffectual farm bailouts and less-effective ways to reduce lake pollution to farm buyouts and forestation.

We will best meet our environmental goals by good use of Vermont land. Reforestation Hub shows the size of the opportunity. It’s time to change crops, as Vermont has often done in the past, and turn some farms to forests.

See also:

Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

Trees v. Solar Panels

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

26 replies »

  1. You can’t eat forest. You can drink milk and eat cheese, yoghurt, sour cream, butter, use whey, etc.
    Where will Vermonter get their dairy went the land is all filled in with trees again? Or is the point, to reduce the food supply to nil and drive up prices?

  2. Our poor farmers ! Between run off, cow farts, and now fields that should be turned into forests,(?) is it any wonder that they too are leaving Vermont ? Pretty soon the only things Vermont will be known for will be maple syrup, skiing, and fruitcake flatlanders like Bernie Sanders. Pity

    • This proposal is pro-farmer. It creates an option – not a mandate – to sell land which is probably encumbered by a prior sale of development rights. Those who believe they can succeed by staying in dairy will have a better chance to survive if they don’t have to compete in a shrinking business with those who are perpetually subsidized.

  3. Forests aren’t crops, Tom. (Unless you want them to produce timber, which I doubt.) Ever seen Vermont from the air? We’re not suffering from a lack of forests.

  4. The balance of nature must be understood first, no amount of carbon manipulation for dollars will ever achieve universal balance when governments and special interests have their collective thumbs on the scale!

  5. Evslin is obviously a very uneducated man. VT forests have been brutalized by the installation of destructive and useless wind turbines and solar panel arrays. Let’s take them down, put the forests back where they belong, and enjoy some crackers, cheese and a glass of milk.

    • As I wrote trees, are a much more effective way to reduce greenhouse gasses than most renewables and subsidies for electric cars. It is absurd that for example, there is a proposed project in Randolph to chop down ten acres of trees in favor of (subsidized) solar.

  6. Mr. Evslin fails to recognize there is a third way, that followed by most Vermont organic dairy farmers who rely on permanent grass/clover pasture and who do not constantly plow the soil and use pesticides. Larson Farm and Creamery in Wells has a 30-cow organic dairy with permanent sod fields since 1985. No erosion, No poisons. Soil tests show we are building carbon in the soil, maintaining clean water, increasing biodiversity in our fields, feeding pollinators, AND feeding our neighbors. We invite Mr. Evslin to visit the farm this summer to see regenerative agriculture in action.

    • I would like to visit. Successful organic and successful non-pollution farms are great.Regeneration of soil is important and also one of the virtues of afforestation. No farm family should be forced to sell their farm for either purpose. The more constructive options farm failies have the better.

  7. Another attack on our farmers from this career bureaucrat. In his last article he clearly doesn’t know the difference between silage and manure. Those who know Vermont history could tell you the state was about 80% fields & pasture 100 years ago. Now Vermont is about 80% forest. We have plenty of forest land. Now have you considered what the loss of those pastures, hay & corn fields would do to the wildlife? I travel Vermont’s roads every day putting on about 50,000 miles per year. I can tell you I see a lot of wildlife feeding on those fields. They especially like those corn fields which will not be there without our dairy farms. Go hug a tree and leave the decisions about farms to someone who can knows the difference between silage and manure!

    • “career bureaucrat”? I spent my life in the private sector with two years off to be VT Secretary of Transportation in the 1980s and two years as volunteer (minimum wage) Chief Recovery Officer after I retired.After that I started a natural gas business so I don’t think I qualify as a tree-hugger.

      But it was dumb of me to think the tires are on manure piles rather than silage.

      I’m not sure farmers think they work their long days so they can feed cow corn to wildlife.

      Most important, offering farmers an exit of they want it is scarcely an attack on them.

      • Mr. Evslin, I grew up on a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – well known as some of the finest, most fertile farmland in the world. I was a member of the 4H Club for years. And while I’ve already addressed a few points in other posts, I can’t begin to count all the misperceptions of farming in your repertoire. So, please add these to the list.

        Re: “I’m not sure farmers think they work their long days so they can feed cow corn to wildlife.”

        While its not intentional, and in fact, a process that is limited by farmers by any measure, that wildlife thrives in farmland is no secret. It’s always a question of balance. How many geese have you seen in the fall farm fields after the harvest as they migrate south? How many wild turkeys do you see traversing hill side pastures? How many deer hang out around those same harvested corn fields in the fall? How many farms include quintessential Sugar Bushes? How many honeybees feast on field clover? It’s no secret that well established farmland habitats are often most wildlife rich.

        Transitional forestlands, especially after being recently overgrown pasture, are often wildlife deserts. Diverse wildlife habitats cycle as a forest matures. Pole-stage forests are generally considered the least productive forest habitats for wildlife and are a transitional stage between brush-stage and mature forests. They generally lack the thick understory cover and browse so abundant in the brush-stage found in hedgerows between open farm fields.

        And I remind you, yet again, 80% of Vermont’s land surface is already forested.

  8. So,
    The founder and chair of a company that trucks Compressed Natural Gas (which is mostly methane) suggests we eliminate dairy farming and plant trees in legacy farm fields.
    Anyone who’s uprooted a tree can imagine how difficult and costly it was for earlier generations to turn forests into field so we would have a place to produce the foods that sustain us. The piles of stones around historic fields attest to the incredible task it was to clear them.
    Farmland once lost may only be regained through similarly difficult means.

    Compressed Nat Gas is a recognized contributor to climate change as well. This fact must be inconvenient for Tom, so he shifts the focus to Dairy. Better yet, he paints with a brush sufficiently broad to make no distinctions between giant agribusiness and family farms with more wholesome practices.

    Keep your carbon credits and your nutmilk to yourself Tom.

    Sure hope everyone listens to you and no one takes your advice.

    • Methane is a very potent GHG IFF released into the atmosphere. When burnt, it provides energy with a third less CO2 than oil products including propane.In all cases we displaced oil products. In most cases very dirty #6 oil. This replacement also eliminates particulates and SO2 (think acid rain) completely. NO2 can be much reduced. There is no more black smoke coming from the stacks of International Paper, Putney Paper, Rutland Regional Hospital, or Dartmouth Hitchcock because they switched from oil to CNG.

      By my estimate our customers have reduced Co2 emissions by more than the claimed annual savings of all the commercial wind turbines in Vermont,All this sustainable because not subsidized since fuel cost savings paid for the boiler conversions. more at

  9. It’s not possible to alter climate change. We must do what other common sense people are saying. ADAPT TO IT!

    • Tree planting is a way to adapt to climate change. In fact Vermont has become much more flood-resistant in the last 100 years as the hills became reforested. Trees both reduce run off from major rain events and help preserve moisture during droughts. That’s why reforestation ought to be a policy we can agree on no matter how much impact we think humans are having on climate.

      • But Mr. Evslin, Vermont and New Hampshire are already 80% forested. New York is only 63% forested and much larger than Vermont. Massachusetts is 60% forested. Connecticut is 60% forested. Pennsylvania is only 58% forested. Only Maine has a higher percentage of forested land (89%). Are you suggesting that Vermont let its last remaining cleared land grow into forest?

        No dairy? No sheep? No goats? No horses? No animals at all, because we have to import their animal feed?

        How about the ski industry? What about the pastural essence of quintessential Vermont villages?

        Are you suggesting everyone in Burlington and in all of the other Vermont towns and villages live in the woods or move to one of those states with less forest?

        And why are you ignoring ‘The Amazing Ability of Pasture Grass to Sequester Carbon’?

        Or this from Michigan State University? ‘Corn fields help clean up and protect the environment’

        Honestly, Mr. Evslin – you make absolutely no sense.

    • I want to give farmers a choice. From a policy PoV, and especially if public dollars are being spent for GHG reduction, reforestation is usually a much better option than solar panels. Yes, that is not welcome news to the solar-industrial complex.

  10. Boy he has a fight on his hands between himself and the solar panel/wind turbine nuts. They want to use up all that open land for their solar panel farms….

  11. The flippant nature of political extremism cannot be exaggerated. Some characterize it as ‘mass formation psychosis’ – when a large portion of society loses contact with reality. Mr. Evslin is our latest Henny Penny.

    ‘Goodness gracious me’ – One hundred years ago Vermont was 80% deforested – not because of cows but from logging and charcoal production for ironworks. Today Vermont is 80% forested. But Mr. Evslin would have us believe that we have too much pastureland, corn and hayfields, and that ‘cows’ are the problem. This from the fellow who doesn’t know the difference between a manure pile and feed silage.

    Check out this article in VT Digger almost five years ago. The photos alone are enough to discredit Henny Penny. But the final conclusion expressed by writers David Dobbs and Richard Ober note in their 1995 book ‘The Northern Forest’ should enlighten everyone.

    “The soil exposed by the clearcuts was warmer than it had been, which favored the northern hardwoods, including maples, over the conifers. Hardwoods also have lighter seeds, and produce more of them, than conifers.”

    “These advantages helped hardwoods, particularly maple, cover most hillsides in Vermont. The lush, vibrant look of the state today, and the abundance of shimmering deciduous leaves that so pleases tourists in the fall, are partly the product of the clearcuts of two hundred years ago.”

    Go figure. Is it any wonder then that today’s Henny Penny was hit on the head with a contemporary acorn? No. We have more oak trees that at any other time in Vermont’s history.

    “From 1935 to 2014, growth of red oak generally increased across all 11 sites.”

    Hopefully, the rest of the animals in the Vermont ‘animal farm’ can figure this out before Cocky Locky, Goosie Poosie, and Ducky Daddles follow Henny Penny’s lead and go completely bonkers.

  12. I would like to take this opportunity to compliment you, Mr. Evslin, in this regard. You have, for the first time I can recall, engaged we VDC readers and commentors who are both critical and supportive of your perspective. That, in itself, is more refreshing than you may know, and I thank you for expressing your convictions. I’m certain we all can learn from the discourse. And I hope others will be as willing as you have been to engage one another on these issues, even with the well intention ribbing that comes with the territory. Again, thank you.

  13. There was, at one time in this State, small, flourishing diary farms. Agri-mart came in and put most of them out of business or bought them out. There was also the dairy pricing control compact that put NE farms at an unfair disadvantage against big farms in WI and MN. Generally, the small diary farms were the most responsible and honorable stewards of our lands and forests. Small dairy farms produced products such as maple, hay, firewood, lumber, honey, meat, vegatables, and eggs. In my opinion, incentives to restore and refurbish small farming would be a better idea considering the food supply chain issues. Yet, it is likely this idea of restoring forest land is more about producing and investing in bio-fuel rather than restoring nature to it’s original form.

  14. It’s nice to see Evslin has switched to writing comedy and satire.
    Timber stands grown in liberal populated counties such as Chittenden, Washington and Windham
    could not generate enough income to pay the property tax required. Timber grown for lumber takes time- timber grown for pulp or fuel is shorter times to harvest, but burning is evil and paper products are frowned upon by the environmental elites.

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