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By Glenn Scherer and Karen Johnston
Around the Moffatt family’s kitchen table sit three generations who are deeply connected to a tradition of stewardship on their land—a tradition founded when Jim Moffatt’s father, Robert, left the stone sheds of Montpelier in the 1930s to settle in Craftsbury. “He stayed in the sheds until he had a thousand dollars,” recalls Jim. “That was the price of a farm just up the road, which he soon decided wasn’t large enough.”
Jim, now a spry 76, took over a larger farm from his father in the 1960s. He’s a calm, get-it-done farmer with a ready smile and willingness to talk about the evolution of the family business. “Born right in this house,” Jim says. First Jim worked the land as a dairy when “a pound of milk wouldn’t buy a pound of feed.” Eventually he decided to sell the herd. His son, Steve, reminds him: “You said you went to the woods to support the cows, and finally sold them and just went to the woods.”
These days, Jim and Steve annually rotate plantings of conifers for the Moffatt’s booming Christmas tree farm. The operation ships more than 8,000 trees every holiday season to the greater New York City area. Moffatt’s Tree Farm also has a choose-and-cut operation, popular with locals, that is run by Jim with help from Steve’s wife, Sharon, and their teenage sons, Aidan and Gibson.
In 2007, Jim and his late wife, Joan, decided to sell a conservation easement to VLT on 174 acres of their home farm (the family has more than 750 acres). The easement sale provided the Moffatts with a nest egg, granting both security and the freedom to respond quickly to changing economic and agricultural conditions without pressure of development. Additionally, it ensures that the land will remain anchored in Vermont’s agricultural tradition, while staying affordable for another generation of Moffatts.
“The idea of the land trust? We all agreed. What’s not to like about it?” Jim recounts. “We never wanted to see any development on the land. We wanted it to remain in agriculture and forestry forever.” Partnering with VLT was a unanimous agreement between Jim, Joan, Steve, and Sharon. At the time, “we were a little heavy in real estate and looking to retirement,” says Jim. “Since I didn’t die when I was supposed to, I’m still working. Unfortunately, Joan didn’t live to see this come to be, but I’m sure she’s very comfortable that it’s working.”
The family’s attunement to their land and its changes has been key to keeping the business vibrant. Flexibility in a changing climate has been essential to keeping the farm productive. A regional decline of sugaring and outbreaks of a fungus due to constant wet weather have required Steve—a University of Vermont graduate with a degree in plant and soil science—to adapt quickly, using rotational planting and integrated pest management methods, and replacing failing balsams with Canaan firs from the Southeast. The new firs bud later than balsams so are less susceptible to the late frosts of recent springs.
November is the busiest segment of a never-ending Christmas tree growing cycle. After a hard day at work, exhaustion fails to dampen Steve’s exuberance, as he leans against the kitchen wall playing with the family dog, Seamus. It’s a rare, stolen moment right in the middle of what they term “hell month.” Harvesting for over a week now, the two men and the hired men spent the previous day “driving on a goat path with a baler that didn’t want to run in mud and pouring rain.”
This story offers insight into why the next generation, Aidan and Gibson, haven’t decided their farming future just yet. There’s barely a break in the Christmas tree business. “January is quiet,” says Steve. “But in February, we start up again, shearing.” Shearing requires painstaking shaping of acres of conifers to pretty them up for Christmas, a task made worse by prickly needles and, adds Aidan, “a hornet nest in every other tree.” The boys do their share and take pride in it.
Sharon, Aidan and Gibson’s mother, is a clinical counselor working in local schools. She also works on the choose-and-cut operation, bookkeeping, payroll, and the website. Steve’s mother, Joan, was a dental hygienist and the farm’s “driving force” in good times and bad. Everyone has a role on the farm, says Jim: “When you’re all tired out you’re only half done!” This tight, enterprising family heads into the 21st century with a clear stewardship vision and a deep love of the land that nurtures them, their community, and— by conserving the land with VLT—the rich heritage of Vermont farming.
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