Cliffords have been farming in Starksboro since the family first arrived from Scotland in 1790.
“What history has told us,” says eighth-generation farmer Eric Clifford, pointing east from his kitchen window, “is because Mr. John Deere hadn’t invented the steel plow yet, farming took place in the foothills of his mountain, up here on the lighter soils. Then, after the plow was invented, they moved down closer to the river and the heavier soils.”
As a young man, Eric traveled and considered other careers, but he says he always knew he wanted to be a dairy farmer: “There are new challenges every day, whether it’s equipment breaking, or cattle being sick, or whatever. And yet you pretty much know what you’re going to be doing two weeks from now because the third cut’s going to be here, or this year the corn’s going to ripen a little later. The calendar is everything, but every day’s a new day.”
Eric and his wife, Jane, have long been leaders in water quality. In the early 2000s, they began working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore sensitive riverbank areas, fencing out cows and restoring native plants. Eric was appointed to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Lake Champlain in the late 1990s. Just over six years ago, he helped found the Lake Champlain Farmer Coalition, which focuses on water quality.
This year the Cliffords worked with VLT and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to permanently protect nearly a mile of land along both sides of Lewis Creek, where it winds through their 498-acre dairy. VLT and DEC work with landowners to establish native trees and shrubs along rivers and to let rivers take their natural course. This work can reduce the intensity of floods, prevent erosion, and support clean water.
“The effort—resources, financial, whatever—that farmers have put into improving soil health and water quality is amazing to me,” says Eric. “It’s all about trying to do it right… If you’re doing it right, you can sleep better at night. You know you’re doing your share to make Lake Champlain a better place.”
Story by Gaen Murphree. Photos by David Middleton.