By Nadine Berrini
From our 2014-15 Annual Report
When VLT published an article about young Vermonters interested in farming and forestry in our spring 2006 newsletter, Paul Lisai was pictured on the cover with two young cows. The caption read: “Paul Lisai, originally from Grafton, hopes to own his own farm someday.”
That day happened in April, when Paul purchased and conserved 99 acres in Albany after working with VLT’s Farmland Access Program. Paul had been renting land nearby to support his cows since 2011. Owning a farm was more than the realization of a lifelong dream—in the land lay the long-term sustainability of his dairy business, Sweet Rowen Farmstead.
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Paul first got a taste of agriculture growing up on an orchard run by his father in Grafton, but he didn’t milk cows until college, when he worked on a Craftsbury dairy. That year the price of milk dropped dramatically. “I saw how hard it was,” he remembers. “How impossible it would be for someone to start out and buy land.”
Yet, he saw farms in the Hardwick area experiencing success with new farming models. Paul sought hands-on training and a variety of perspectives. After a season milking cows in New Zealand, Paul found himself drawn to grass-based farming. He then returned to work on another
Craftsbury dairy, learning more about farm operations each year. “I started to like cows and the culture around cows,” he says.
When the Craftsbury farmer retired, Paul bought his calves—a mix of Vermont heritage linebacks and Holsteins. Linebacks, recognizable by a white splash running the length of their backs, have lived in the Northeast Kingdom for generations and are naturally adapted to this location. “The idea of trying to get ahold of something special to this area appealed to me,” Paul reflects.
When the calves grew up, Paul had to decide whether to strike out on his own or sell the cows as replacement heifers. He rented 25 acres and a barn in Albany and started a grass-based dairy. “There are so many benefits to this approach,” says Paul. It saves on fuel since the cows get their own grass and fertilize the fields at the same time. The cows spend a lot of time outside, so the barn doesn’t have to be cleaned as often, saving time and labor.
Paul expresses gratitude to the farmers he’s worked with and learned from—for him, a supportive farming community is indispensable. One of those farmers taught him the basics of cheesemaking. Paul now sells 10 varieties of cheese along with his gently pasteurized cream-top milk. “Once you know the basics [of cheese making] you can play and develop your own products,” he explains. Keeping his business diverse, Paul also sells milk to AgriMark every other day.
For all of the success Paul was having, he knew that operating on rented land put his farm in a precarious position. This hit home when the owners of the property he was leasing decided to sell and he had to move his herd. VLT’s 2006 newsletter hadn’t been Paul’s only connection with the land trust. “When I was at Sterling College 10 years ago, I was pestering VLT about buying land,” he remembers.
Paul eventually signed up with VLT’s Farmland Access Program in hopes of finding a farm he could afford. He also worked on a business plan with the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board’s Farm and Forest Viability Program. “Because I spent a lot of time on my business plan, I was able to prove that I knew what I was doing.”
VLT worked with Paul to find land, and the Viability program helped him run the numbers on different scenarios. He approached an Albany landowner, who was living out of state, to see if she was interested in selling her property, which was well suited for a grass-based farm. Fortunately, she was. In the fall of 2014, Paul bought the land. VLT found funding for conservation and worked with Paul to protect the property.
“Buying land is one of the most difficult hurdles for new farmers,” says Paul. “We were fortunate to work with VLT to secure a farm to own and grow our business. With land of our own it will be easier to plan for the future.”