The farm fields in Highgate in far northwestern Vermont are wide, rolling, and open. The closer one gets to the Canadian border, the more the land flattens out. Driving north from Highgate Center, you pass a succession of dairy farms, each with its own strategy for economic survival, each dealing with change in its own way.
Choiniere Family Farm is one of around 20 Highgate farms conserved with VLT. Guy Choiniere knows that any farm has to embrace change if it’s going to succeed. Guy’s strategy was to transition his family’s dairy to organic, and most recently, to a grass-fed dairy. He has also added a farm store that sells organic beef, veal, chicken, and eggs. The changes have helped keep the farm profitable.
Conservation has also been an important part of this multi-generational farm’s story. Guy’s grandparents purchased the land in 1945, and his parents, Henry and Raymonde, conserved it with the Vermont Land Trust in 1997. This year, Guy, who lives on the farm with his wife, Beth, and children, Mathieu and Hannah, decided to sell additional conservation restrictions that protect the Rock River, which runs through the farm and onwards to the Goose Bay in northern Lake Champlain.
Stewardship of the land, adapting to changing conditions, embracing innovation, and taking risks are all part of running a farm business. “Every generation on this farm has had to step up their game to remain sustainable,” said Guy.
When Guy was ready to take over the farm in the 1990s, he felt that the conventional milk market was unstable, often not paying farmers enough for their milk to cover the ever-rising costs of production. So he began to explore the possibility of the farm becoming an organic dairy, eventually making the switch in 2005. He said the change was a good one for his cows, his land, and his bottom line.
Guy was fortunate to have made the switch to organic when he did. On top of difficult news about the downward slide of milk prices, His buyer, Organic Valley, announced last year that it was delaying taking on new farms because of over-supply.
Grass-fed milk is still in demand, so Guy’s 2014 switch to grass-fed has also helped his business. His cows graze on fresh grass in the summer and eat hay in the winter. Their milk brings in a further premium over and above the higher price paid for organic milk.
One aspect of the change to grass-fed can be seen in the four large hoop barns that stand behind his farmhouse. Often referred to as coverall barns, they look like huge, white arch-shaped tents, and they provide a roof over a large area. Inside two of them, cattle, chickens, and a couple of ducks congregate on a deep bed of hay. The hay, harvested during the summer, is ground up and fed to the cattle during the winter. Excess hay provides bedding and catches their manure, and it’s all ultimately trod down to become compost.
Many of the changes Guy has made to his farm have benefitted the water quality of the river, and this year Guy took an extra step towards improving the health of the Rock River by establishing a “river corridor” easement. The 51-acre corridor encompasses both sides of the river and ensures that future landowners will keep the banks naturally vegetated as Guy has done.
“Our family has worked very hard in building solid and vegetated river banks on our farm, so it only makes sense to conserve our part of the Rock River with a river corridor easement,” said Guy.
The agreement also prevents any artificial constraints of the river, ensuring it will be allowed to naturally meander and change course. This reduces erosion hazards and flood risks, and improves water quality.
“The Rock River is one of the rivers in the Lake Champlain basin that are a focus of water quality efforts,” said VLT’s Cara Montgomery who works with owners of conserved properties in the northern Champlain Valley, including the Choinieres. “Conservation groups and state agencies have been working with farmers to create vegetated buffers, and to allow the rivers to flow naturally.”
The purchase of Guy’s river corridor easement was funded by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and The Nature Conservancy, through a grant from Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.
The Choiniere farm is one of many along the river, sections of which are classified as “impaired” by the state. “We recognize that water quality improvement is an incremental and long-term project,” said Cara. “There’s still a lot of work to be done along this and other rivers. But seeing farmers like Guy make the decision to permanently protect vegetated buffers through a river corridor easement is a step in the right direction.”
Guy’s 22-year-old son, Mathieu, who studied agriculture at Vermont Technical College, has been working on the farm since he was a boy. He recently moved back and plans to take over when his father retires. Like previous members of his family, he will likely bring new innovations as the fourth generation on this family farm.
This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2018 Spring Newsletter. Story and photos by Tom Slayton.